Abu Jifan Fort came on to my radar earlier last year, in March to be exact, via a random conversation with a random person – there are a lot of random people in Saudi, so such conversations are not that surprising really. He mentioned there was a fort down near Al Kharj, though he had no idea where. So I turned to Google to see if, maybe, it was a known landmark, though not too hopeful of a result as Saudi was still largely under-mapped. But to my surprise, there it was in the middle of the desert, literally, with no access to it at all.
A closer inspection of Google maps identified a road part way and a run of power lines passing nearby. Where there are power lines there must be a track, of sorts. So Hubster was advised to load the hired 4WD and some firewood while I stocked the chilly bin with food and the back seat with our sleeping bags because we intended to camp the night.
We drove down toward Al Kharj and turned eastwards after refuelling with gas. Having earlier identified two possible options for reaching our destination it was time to figure out which route would work best for us. Waiting till we got closer to the desert to make this decision was done for two reasons.
One, given the amount of development that is taking place in this country, Google cannot always be completely relied on for route planning. Sometimes you turn up and there’s a road where the written instuctions say there shouldn’t be. Other times where there should be a road you actually find yourself at the edge of the desert with car tracks angling off in all directions into the distance. It can be a bit freaky leaving the saftey of solid tarmac for the unkown desert. Some days you turn up and find someone has built an apartment block. Laying eyes is always best when heading off exploring in Saudi, especially when you don’t really know where you’re going.
And Two, the man I married had, yet again, been paying absolutely no attention to any route suggestions I had been passing on to him previous to leaving home. This fact was borne out when, as we passed through our compound gate he said, ‘Which way?’ I sighed, somewhat exasperated, knowing it was going to be one of those days when he wasn’t really looking forward to this trip, he was simply humouring me. I also knew that if this fort visit turned out to be worthwhile, he’d be singng it’s praises for weeks. My fingers were crossed for praise singing and my exasperation was put on the back burner as he was pointed in the right direction, but honestly, there are times when I think that if I didn’t need him to drive, I wouldn’t take him at all!
We decided sticking to the ashphalt for as long as possible was the best idea so headed off to the road with the power lines. We followed that till it came to the end, then we were on our own. The wadi that greeted us was a little rocky, and we set about finding a way through it in the general direction of the Fort. This was definitely a four wheel drive expedition as the route became rougher the further we went and did not always follow an obviously marked trail – at least we couldn’t find it. Hubster had to get out of the vehicle a couple of times to assess whether we would make it over a rocky incline or two. I was grateful he had come along after all because when it comes to navigating through rough terrain he has more balls than me, (figuratively that is…OK, and literally).
We eventually came across a graded track of sorts that seemed to start in the middle of nowhere for no particular reason. Although it was graded, it was also steep, narrow – the vehicle just fit through – and rock-strewn, so a bit of care was required as we wormed our way up it.
Once through this escarpment the land leveled out and was much easier to drive. We checked our bearings and set off, once again, in the general direction of the fort. Finding a relatively well used track we followed it and found ourselves at the base of some low lying hillocks with the depressions of old wells. The faded track split in two and we decided to take the one that disappeared into a nearby wadi. As we rounded the bend we were greeted by the sight of the fort sitting solitary above the wadi bed.
As we drove nearer we were quiet with our own thoughts – mostly questions on my part. Why had the fort been abandoned? Who uses it now? Who used it then? What was it like to live here?
The afternoon was late and Hubster was hankering for food so we decided to set up a permanent camp in the wadi near the wells and get a fire started with tea on the boil. There was plenty of greenery (I prefer a bit of foliage for toileting purposes – we might be married but there are some things you just don’t want to know, right?) and we could fossick for extra firewood. Tomorrow we would get an early start to explore the fort.
Our camps are very basic setups. Chairs to sit on, carpets to rest on and, later in the night, to spread our sleeping bags on and a fire to cook our steak over. What more do you need? As we don’t own a tent, there is not much option for any other kind of set up. We did try sleeping in the back of a vehicle once, but really, hailing from the ‘a bit large’ brigade, there is only room for one of us comfortably.
To make the ground more comfortable we also have an extra sleeping blanket that we lay on top of the carpets, under our sleeping bags. To date we have not been hassled by dust storms, wildlife or rabid dogs, although we did find a scorpion nestled under our sleeping blanket once. Hubster got such a shock he shooed it off quick smart into nearby desert grasses….I was like, ‘What did you do that for? I wanted to take a photo of it’. He realized that maybe he had over-reacted. ‘We could go look for it’, he says. ‘Yeah right, lets search for a scared critter in long grass. Away you go. Mug!’ (Kiwi word for blockhead). Mr Scorpion did not become photographic famous that day.
Word is that the name Abu Jifan refers to this very wadi, above which the fort sits, and the wells dug into it that have offered travellers a respite from the long days of traversing the desert in both Islamic and pre-Islamic periods. The wells still have water in them today.
In 1864, foreign explorers wrote about two routes that passed by Abu Jifan – one that connected Riyadh to Hofuf, a major east-west thoroughfare to the gulf apparently, and one that linked Wadi Dawasir and Sulayal to Hofuf. It is possible locals used more routes from this spot, but they were not confirmed by early European visitors. This sounds reasonable given it is thought that the wells date back to the Bronze Age, as judged, so I read, by the masonry lining them – which means the wells are quite old.
Rumour has it that when the modern Saudi Arabian road network was initially being drawn up there were plans to maintain this historic route as a main highway, so the narrow cutting we came up was one of the first pieces of road construction in Saudi Arabia. But a change of plans meant that the road went nowhere near the fort, hence it sitting all alone in the middle of the desert.
From the main entrance the fort looked a little forlorn and worse for wear. The gate was broken, the old trespass sign was almost unreadable, though on the otherside of the driveway was what looked to be a perfectly new sign declaring Abu Jifan to be a palace.
|An old guard post and in the distance on the hill, a lookout|
|View to the fort from a lookout, with a guard post visible in front of the fort.|
The fort is not as old as the wells that serve it. Apparently the official purpose of the fort was to protect the travel route, and remnants of old guard outposts can be found at each end of the track that runs in front of the fort, while further out are what appear to be lookout posts. Before the discovery of oil, the only money coming in for the country was through charges to pilgrims and traveling caravans and, as this was a main route and watering hole to and from Mecca and the Gulf, it seems reasonable to build a collection point along it, though how long ago, and whether or not this fort was erected specifically for that purpose, I can’t say.
I read somewhere that the fort was used in the 1950’s by the National Guard, though I can’t confirm that either. About the only thing I do know is that the sign out front claims the fort was protected as an archeological site by which ever King was on the throne in 1972. Abu Jifan became famous in the history of modern Saudi because the original King, Abdulaziz, stopped at the wells on his way to Riyadh in 1902 to claim back his heritage.
Abu Jifan is apparently admininstered by the Ministry of Antiquities and Museums who rebuilt it around 2007, presumably to be used as a tourist spot. It has subsequently been abandoned for reasons unknown, which I have to say actually makes it look kind of cool for we romantics or highly imaginative types. You know what I mean, imagine telling camp fire stories around a lonely, hard to reach abandoned fort next to ancient wells – the tales you could tell and the visions you could conjure up in the minds of the impressionable of camels and dust weary travelers, the sounds and the smells of pulling up water and setting up camp and preparing for battle – that kind of thing.
The visions that met us as we walked beneath the entry arch to the fort proper spoke of glorious plans that had come to a halt. Tagging decorated the walls and the doorways were dark, almost pleading to be lit up again with life and love. We went from room to room wondering what it would have been like to be posted here. The recent refurbhisment meant that along with the traditional fire hearth in each room, there were also power points. The central courtyard is dominated by a concrete base that was obviously some unfinished designer vision.
The mosque with it’s traditionally built ceiling was lit only by the sunlight as it half heartedly crossed the threshold through the door we had opened, preferring to shine its full brilliance outside. Other people had obviously found the place quite intriguing and had stayed for a lengthy period judging by the cold ash of a fire in the middle of the mosque.
The silence at the fort was deafening as we looked out between the rooftop parapets to the wadi beyond. I did wonder who will maintain this fort into the future. Apart from the fact it doesn’t seem to be a tourist stop, the skills required to upkeep an adobe structure are fast disappearing in this country as ongoing construction favours concrete. Historic adobe buildings deteriorate – that is their nature. The only blessing Saudi has is that it doesn’t rain here much. But even slow decay will eventually lead to collapse for this abandoned palace unless there is a maintainence plan in place.
We left the fort to take a look at the surrounding hills and didn’t have to go far to find what looked to be the remnants of an old village forged out of desert rocks. The stones were piled into squares that could only be dwellings – in some it was easy to identify what appeared to be entry ways and fireplaces (to my non-archeologically trained, possibly imaginative eye that’s what they were). We spent a bit of time pcituring how harsh it would have been camping or living here. Makes me glad of my brick and mortared home. Oh the quandries of balancing the love of modern life with the desire to not forget history.
We spent a bit of time exploring the area and then it was time to figure out how to get home. It is not necessary to retrace our steps driving out the way we came in. This took a bit of explaining to The One Wth No Ears for reasons mentioned at the beginning of this post. We headed toward the row of power lines and simply followed them all the way out to Khurais Road. It was easy peesy. I have to say, I’m glad we chose the exciting way in to Abu Jifan and, because it was getting late, I was just as grateful there was an easy way out. And by the way, praise singing is long and loud when our trip to Abu Jifan is mentioned.
Location of Abu Jifan
For a little more detail:
|Red is the way we went in, Blue is the way we came out.|
I hope you enjoy your trek to Abu Jifan Fort if you choose to take it.