March 31, 2022. 95°F/35°C
We’ve been reminded lately during onboard lectures that the Arab world has been home to two distinct and advanced civilizations: the Nabateans back in the 6th century BC until around the time of the fall of Rome, and the more modern civilization around 1400 years ago concurrent with the birth of Islam. Lecturer David Burgess yesterday reminded us that while the “western” world was mired in the Dark Ages, Arabia was the repository of ancient Greek and Ottoman knowledge. Without the Arab culture, even more knowledge would have been lost.
The pace and scale of recent infrastructure development here has been phenomenal, especially when putting into the perspective the fact that oil money has only been a factor since 1938. Interesting, too, was the reminder that the current process of ambitious royalty-led initiatives is founded in centuries of tradition.
What I’m learning in the talks and lectures is absolutely affecting the way I view what we see on our excursions. Plus, attending those sessions is much more interesting than reading Wikipedia entries.
Our excursion today was the included “Cultural Yanbu & Souk”. Yanbu is currently the second largest Saudi Arabian city on the Red Sea, after Jeddah, and has been a port and staging point for the spice trade for over 2500 years… back to that Nabatean civilization.
Yanbu – which means “city of springs” – is divided into 3 areas: the mostly residential Yanbu Al-Bahr/Al-Balad which is also the site of the Old Town and the port, the mostly rural Yanbu Al-Nakhal, and Yanbu Al-Sina’iya which is divided between industry and the residences of wealthier Saudis and expats involved in the oil industry.
Our ship was docked adjacent to the old town, but before walking its streets we had a bus tour of Yanbu Al- Sina’iya.
The waterfront is a study in contrasts: mile after mile of brand new beautiful waterfront developments made up of parks, playing fields, fitness centres, and playground, followed by the largest petrochemical refinery on the Red Sea, which itself stretches for miles along the coast. We’re learning that nothing in Saudi Arabia is done on a small scale; even if some individual buildings are small, they make up for that by building a lot of them.
There are gated communities to house the employees of foreign companies, allowing them to have non-Muslim compounds within the city, and they looked quite comfortable, but we preferred the homes of the upper middle class Saudis and rich expat industrialists, who live in modern developments in an area known as “the Royal Commission”. We drove past some truly magnificent homes.
We stopped at Yanbu Lake, a spring-fed lake with pathways, fountains and tons of green space – really a serene oasis in the desert. Here we were surprised by several great blue herons, and pure white cranes. Although the area was devoid of people at 11 a.m., our guide assured us that once the school and work day is done, and the evening starts to cool slightly, the park is full of picnicking families and playing children.
What was it Noel Coward wrote? “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” Noel Coward Lyrics
From the park, we returned to the Old Town, only a short walk from our ship. While much smaller than Jeddah’s historic district, we found it more charming. A lot of that had to do with the fact that the buildings nearest the waterfront have been restored, and now house tea houses and cafés with welcoming outdoor patio areas – only open later in the day though, after the worst of the heat dissipates. Saudis sensibly stay indoors – at home, work, or school – during the day, which also explains why most shops are closed from just after noon until four.
The older buildings here are Hejazi style, like what we saw in Jeddah, although with wooden elements left natural, not painted or stained with the vibrant colours we saw there.
We strolled through the small souk, revelling in its cool air and exotic aromas of perfumes and spices. Yes, I bought something: another abaya, more traditionally cut and in a lighter colour to wear in the expected 90°F heat in both Petra Jordan and in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. It was tagged at 150 Saudi Riyal, which converts to 37.5 Euros, but after doing a quick calculation on her phone she charged me 25 Euros, complete with silky head scarf, and no haggling.
At the end of a lovely tour, we offered our guide a gratuity, which he graciously declined, saying to Ted “Now that you have visited my country we are brothers. There is no price for sharing.” We have never experienced that reaction before, and were truly touched.
We headed back into the old town just before 6 p.m., as the day was cooling off and a lovely breeze blowing. Families were beginning to fill the park, with small kids tearing around the square in little electric cars rentable from a kiosk.
The cafés were open and starting to attract customers. After walking around for a while, we joined Aleem and Cindy, Raji and Jay for Arabian coffee (which tastes very similar to Indian Chai tea) and dates. Jay sneakily paid for everyone’s coffees. Thank you very much !!
Just as we were walking out of the park area, a car driven by a young woman, with three others as passengers, crossed our path going into the park. All wore abayas and hijabs, and all but the driver (paying attention to where she was going) turned and smiled broadly at us. Shortly afterward, a young man called out “welcome to Yanbu!” from his parked car, asked us where we were from, reacted with “Canada? Wow” and said he hoped we would come back soon. We felt very comfortable, very safe, and very welcome.
Back on board we were lucky enough to be able to join Karin and Al for dinner, capping off a truly lovely day.