Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea


Article by Jane Knight
Let’s be clear: this is not your average cruise destination. Saudi Arabia has never been on the mainstream tourist map, largely because it never wanted to be. Now that attitude has changed and the kingdom is embracing tourism, issuing e-visas and becoming much more liberal in its attitudes in a bid to attract 100 million tourists by 2030. The welcome is genuine, women no longer need to cover their heads nor wear the full-length abaya, and it feels both safe and relaxed. 

Saudi is still very much a dry country — both in terms of its desert climate, and alcohol — but seeing it from a ship means that once afloat, you can enjoy a tipple or two following your forays on land. 

The highlight of any Saudi cruise has to be Hegra, the 2,000 year-old desert city with ornate tombs built by the Nabateans, the same folk who created Petra in Jordan. But don’t just settle for one Nabatean necropolis: on Emerald Azzurra and Emerald Sakara’s Red Sea voyages in 2022 and 2023, you can tick off both Hegra and Petra on the same trip. Better still, cruises between Saudi Arabia and Europe also make stops in Egypt and Greece, allowing you to see masterpieces from two more ancient civilisations: the pyramids and the Parthenon.

 

Explore Jeddah’s past and present

 Scratch the surface of this buzzy cosmopolitan city of nearly five million people to find a beguiling mix of past and present. Said to be the resting place of Eve, and at the historic crossroads of traders and pilgrims en route to Mecca, the Saudi Arabian port city’s most recent addition is a new F1 Grand Prix circuit, the Jeddah Corniche. This seafront stretch is also the place where you can watch King Fahd’s Fountain spurt water at 350 kph to a height of 312 metres, admire the Al Rahma mosque, which appears to float on the Red Sea, and see works by Jóan Miro and Henry Moore in the open-air sculpture museum. 

It feels like a world away from Jeddah’s historic heart of Al-Balad, a jumble of imposing tower houses built from coral stones by 19th century merchants enriched by the Asia-to-Europe trade route after the opening of the Suez Canal. In a warren of alleys and small squares haunted by an army of scrawny cats, the houses are being slowly restored, although many are still quite dilapidated. 

Each building has its own story behind the large, intricately carved wooden windows known as mashrabiya protruding from the walls for better ventilation and privacy. One, with peeling green shutters, was formerly the US Embassy, another was the first official school in Jeddah. The house owned by the wealthy Baeshen family has three doorways — one for men, one for women, one for the office — leading to a flagstone-floored interior filled with memorabilia handed down through the ages. Just over the way, you can explore the interior of another home, with its four-poster bed and intricate trousseau trunk in the bedroom, as well as a separate living room for women upstairs, while men congregated downstairs.

Wander into art galleries to see paintings of what the area looked like in its heyday, pick up a mutabaq, a thin pastry with sweet or savoury fillings, and marvel at the 15th century mosque. Be sure, though, to stop in front of the restored Nasseef family house, marked by a neem tree outside, and gaze up at the well-ventilated wooden kitchen on the top floor. It might look like a long way to carry your groceries, but inside is a specially designed staircase, allowing camels to carry the shopping upstairs. 

As the locals like to say: Jeddah is different.

 

See the secrets of the sands in AlUla

 Talk about an architectural contrast. Deep in the desert, where sandstone outcrops have been shaped by the winds of time, are two architectural masterpieces, one ancient, the other modern. Just 20 minutes from the Unesco World Heritage-listed city of Hegra, where nomadic Nabateans carved ornate tombs from the rock in the first century BC, lies the Maraya Concert Hall, an enormous, strikingly modern reflective cube. 

It was AlUla’s desert oasis on the incense trading route that prompted the Nabateans to build Hegra, with its 111 rock tombs. While that’s not on the same scale as Jordan’s Nabatean necropolis of Petra, Hegra’s tombs are in better condition and are much less visited, so you don’t have hordes of other visitors ruining your holiday snaps. And you’re going to want to take a lot of pictures; Hegra has serious wow factor in the form of massive monoliths rising starkly from the desert floor. 

The biggest of these is a sandstone outcrop 21 metres high that holds a single unfinished tomb, that of Lihyan son of Kuza. Nearby, Jabal Al Banat, or Girls’ Mountain, has 29 tombs, most for women. Here, the carvings above the entrances show what a cosmopolitan lot the trading Nabateans were: the five steps above the doorway symbolising the way to heaven show influences from Mesopotamia; the shelf cornicing is from Egypt; and the head of Medusa warning against destroying the tomb from Greece.

A short drive brings you slap bang into the 21st century, this time gazing at the Maraya Concert Hall, shimmering in the desert sun. Built in 2019, with 3,000 panes of tempered glass covering 9,740 square metres, it is the world’s largest reflective building according to the Guinness Book of Records. It rises, mirage-like in the desert, its sides beautifully mirroring the surrounding red rock formations.

AlUla’s wonders don’t stop here though. Stroll through the labyrinthine streets of AlUla Old Town, with 900 medieval mudbrick houses enclosed within the city walls and enjoy lunch in a desert oasis amid amazing rock formations. Or take a 30-minute helicopter tour to see it all from the air, as well as Elephant Rock, a sandstone monolith climbing three storeys into the Saudi Arabian sky, and the Lion Tombs of Dadan, the old capital of the Dadan and Lihyan kingdoms. 

It may be a long drive from the Red Sea to AlUla, but my goodness, it’s worth the journey.

 

Discover the lost city of Petra

Nothing quite prepares you for the first view of the Treasury’s beautiful façade as you emerge from the narrow 1.2km cleft of rock leading to the hidden city of Petra. Your anticipation mounts as you walk down the Siq canyon’s narrow opening, its walls in places just 3m wide and 80m high, the sound of horse hoofs ricocheting off the walls as horse-drawn carriages whizz by. And then you reach the spot where everyone seems to let out a collective gasp.

Before you lies Petra’s most photographed monument, all rose-hued stone, with its Greek-style pillars and plinths. It was never used to stash cash, jewels or gold — the rock-hewn building only gained its name because a jar on its façade was believed to hold an Egyptian pharaoh’s riches — but it is a treasure nonetheless, star of countless TV travelogues as well as an Indiana Jones movie. 

This bustling city of 30,000 Nabateans which flourished in the first century BC slipped into obscurity after the 6th century. It then became a secret of local Bedouin tribespeople until the young Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt heard of the fantastic ruins hidden in the mountains and brought it to the world’s attention 200 years ago.

Today, the metropolis turned necropolis still has plenty of life going on around its caves and crumbling sandstone buildings, with stands selling Coca Cola and trinkets on the site of former Roman shops, camels parading up and down, and donkeys sheltering in the tombs. 

A number of hiking routes branch out from the Street of Facades, with its 40 rock tombs, or you can hitch a ride on a donkey (be sure to fix a price first). If you’re okay with a 30-minute climb, follow the steps near the 4,000-seat Theatre to reach the High Place of Sacrifice, once used for offerings to the Nabatean god Dushara. Or climb the 800 steps up to the impressive Monastery, with its columned portico.

There is so much to see here you could spend days exploring the 800 registered sites, wandering in and out of the many caves, from the Royal Tombs to those recently inhabited by the Bedouins. (Find out more by reading I married a Bedouin by New Zealander Marguerite van Geldermalsen, who met a local in Petra in 1978 and moved into his cave there.)

If your mind isn’t blown already by such an amazing place, consider this statistic: archaeologists estimate that some 85 per cent of Petra is still uncovered. 

 

Be awestruck by Egypt’s pyramids

Endlessly fascinating, ancient Egypt gains extra allure in 2022 with two historic milestones. First, 2022 marks the 200th anniversary since Jean-François Champollion announced his breakthrough in deciphering the Rosetta Stone, giving us the key to understand ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. It is also the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. 

You should soon be able to see the boy-king’s bling among thousands of items unearthed from his tomb in Luxor by British archaeologist Howard Carter in Cairo’s new Grand Egyptian Museum, which is due to open in 2022. Gawp at the pharaoh’s death mask and 110kg solid-gold sarcophagus, which fits Russian-doll like into two other coffins and several gilded wooden boxes, then gawp some more at his three golden funerary tables to feast in the afterlife, and pharaoh-shaped canopic jars. 

Even if the museum opening is delayed again, Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, is an open-air museum in its own right. Here, three main pyramids were built from about 2550-2490BC for the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. The largest, the Great Pyramid, lives up to its name: with sides 230 metres long, and built from 2.3 million blocks of stone, it covers an area of eight soccer pitches, a glaring beacon to tomb raiders. Little wonder then that it was stripped of both the goods in its burial chambers and of much of its limestone outer casing, knocking 9 metres from its original 147 metre height. 

They may be big but crouching through the second-largest pyramid’s sloping corridors feels like they were made for Hobbits. Double-bent visitors are led to a simple chamber within; Khafre’s pyramid is definitely external ostentation than internal decoration, in marked contrast to later pharaohs’ tombs in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings. Outside, the Great Sphinx stands sentinel to the elaborate complex, with subsidiary pyramids for members of the royal family, and associated buildings. 

Grab a selfie by the sphinx or take a camel ride round the Toblerone-shaped necropolis, on the west bank of the Nile. Don’t miss a river trip in a felucca, the traditional wooden boats with cloth sails that still ply the mighty waterway, which was essential for the rise of ancient Egyptian civilisation. The river, too, gets another moment of glory in 2022, with the release of the Kenneth Branagh film Death on the Nile, based on the Agatha Christie mystery. 

 

 

Dive into the underwater world of Sharm El Sheikh

 To find the real charm in Sharm, a purpose-built tourist resort at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, you need to leave the soft sands on the beach and explore the pristine underwater world. Here, amid colourful coral reefs lapped by clear waters, a huge variety of exotic fish can be found. Schools of moray, shark or barracuda frequent the Ras Muhammad National Park and Tiran Island reefs, which offer some of the world’s best diving. This part of the Red Sea is also home to a top dive wreck site, the SS Thistlegorm. 

Not a diver? No problem. You can see parts of this submarine world on a glass-bottom boat tour without getting wet, or plunge right into the Red Sea with a snorkel to swim among an array of marine life, from clownfish to sea eels.

Then return to relax on a private beach on the self-styled Egyptian Riviera. With temperatures hovering between 20C and 25C between November and March, it’s an ideal place for sun worshippers, one of the reasons why Sharm is so popular among Europeans in their winter months. What’s more, because of the many modern hotels there, there is a plethora of places offering top-notch food, as well as some good shopping opportunities.

 
Still got questions about a Saudi cruise? Read our Q and A:
Q. When is the best time to cruise in Saudi Arabia?
A.

Saudi in summertime sizzles at more than 40C. The best time to cruise is between November and March, when temperatures are cooler, hovering at about 30C on the Red Sea coast.

Q. Where do cruises go in Saudi Arabia?
A.

The amazing AlUla region in the desert is the highlight of any cruise and certainly a must see. In Jeddah, the historic old town of Al-Balad is being restored, and makes a good contrast to the modern waterfront attractions. The little town of Duba, known as the Pearl of the Red Sea, is where you will find the King Abdulaziz Fort, built in 1933 with mud-brick walls, as well as some lovely local beaches.

Q. How easy is it to get into the country?
A.

New e-visas make it much easier to book a trip. The visa cost of SAR480 includes medical insurance for Covid-19. See visa.visitsaudi.com for details.

Q. What etiquette do I need to consider when visiting Saudi Arabia?
A.

While women don’t need to cover their heads or wear the full-length abaya, all tourists should cover their shoulders and knees. Public decency laws ban displays of affection between men and women, and alcohol is banned. Homosexuality and extra-marital affairs are illegal. However, when out of Saudi waters, these laws do not apply.

Q. Where can I find out more?
A.

For prices and more details, see www.emeraldcruises.co.uk