Al-Ahsa: A Magical Oasis Rich in Natural and Cultural Heritage

Saudi Arabia is located on the Arabian Peninsula in southwest Asia. It shares land borders with Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen; and maritime borders with Bahrain, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, and Sudan. Its geography is dominated by Rub’ al Khali (also known as the Empty Quarter), the world’s largest continuous sand desert.

Location of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a globe

Saudi Arabia is the 13th largest nation in terms of land area. The Kingdom is four times the size of France, western Europe’s largest country.

On a geological timescale, the Arabian Peninsula is young. It separated from the main African continent approximately 25 million years ago, creating the Red Sea. It is no surprise that Saudi Arabia’s desert has much in common with the Sahara. Indeed, the sands have the same orange coloration due to the presence of iron oxides.

I explored the Kingdom for three months last year with the purpose of writing about and photographing its natural beauty, history, and splendor. It was a rich and beguiling experience. Saudi Arabia is complicated, but fascinating and intriguing with its unique and special architecture, traditions, landscapes, and people. It is at once everything you have heard it to be and absolutely nothing like you have heard it to be.

map of saudi arabia with the eastern province highlighted in red

Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

I spent some of my time staying on the beach in Al Aziziya in the Gulf.

sky turning orange over water with palm tree silhouettes in the foreground

Early morning is my favorite time. Watching the sun rise over the waters of the Gulf was never disappointing.

My friend Ahmed Almubarak and I went on a road trip to visit his family and explore Al-Ahsa.

Ahmed Almubarak and I en route to Al-Ahsa.

map of the Arabian Peninsula highlighting the location of Al-Ahsa

limestone cliffs on the roadside seen through a car window

Al-Ahsa is known for its natural limestone. Limestone is used to make cement.

Al-Ahsa is the largest self-contained oasis in the world. It includes many national heritage sites and some of the oldest known human settlements dating back thousands of years. Its date-palm oasis is the largest palm oasis surrounded by sand in the world.

For millennia, this region’s fertile land made it a hub for traders and caravans traversing ancient trade routes, forging links across the Arabian Peninsula and beyond, and providing a stopping place for early pilgrims on route to Makkah.

an Arab man with a large bag surrounded by children and adults

A water vendor in Hofuf. Photo: Joseph D. Mountain, 1935.

viewed from above, many palm trees cover the ground in front of rocky cliffs

Located in southeast Saudi Arabia, the Al-Ahsa Oasis has more than 2.5 million date palm and palm trees that produce over 100 thousand tons of dates every year. The trees are fed from a huge underground aquifer, which allows year-round agriculture in a region that is otherwise sand desert.

The Al-Ahsa Oasis contains a mix of shady palm groves and crystal-clear springs among urban areas and archaeological sites. It stands as a welcoming haven against the harsh and untamed plains of the Rub’ al Khali. The Empty Quarter is the largest area of continuous sand in the world. It is a sand sea or “erg.” The sand desert encompasses most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula.

The oasis is named after the Al-Ahsa region in which it lies. It occupies approximately 33 square miles (85 square kilometers) irrigated by more than 280 artesian springs. The Al-Ahsa Oasis was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List under the Cultural Heritage category. Its palms, their fruits, and the reservoirs of crystalline fresh water beneath the oasis are the reasons that Al-Ahsa housed civilizations that pre-dated Islam, with archaeological evidence of some of the oldest settlements in the Arabian Peninsula dating as far back as 5,000 BC.

I was especially curious about the ancient town of Hofuf in the oasis. It is mentioned in the Bible.

Al-Qaisariya Souq is one of the most famous historical markets in the Kingdom. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

looking down on a busy market with men and women in Arabian Peninsula dress in a black and white photo

Al-Qaisariya Souq pictured in the 1910s/early-1920s.

a woman in a colorful abaya stands in front of an ornamentally-decorated stone gate

Al-Qaisariya Souq is a historical market located in the Al-Rafa neighborhood in the city of Hofuf.

The market is one of the tourist attractions in Hofuf, where visitors from various Arab and foreign countries, including the Arab Gulf states, flock to. It consists of rows of shops located in closed and roofed corridors with construction resembling an Ottoman style.

In 2001, a fire broke out in the market and caused significant damage. It fully re-opened in 2013.

an archway at the end of a roofed corridor with buildings visible beyond the opening

The arch beautifully frames the urban landscape beyond.

multi-colored beaded chains hanging on a store wall

Prayer beads.

various cloth goods line walls in the corridor of a market

Open for business.

an empty corridor of shops with their doors closed

During prayer time shops close for 20 minutes. These gentlemen are taking a break from washing the floors.

a shop in a market with bishts on display

A shop selling bishts, beautiful black cloaks worn over men’s thobes. Al Ahsa is historically known for its skillful tailoring.

various spices and other goods on display for purchase at a shop on the outer corridor of a market

Shops along the outside of the market.

a woman in a golden abaya looking at shop goods

Turkish rose buds.

an old photo of several men in Arab dress in front of a mosque's dome and minerat

Ibrahim Palace, date unknown.

Ibrahim Palace, also referred to as Qasr Ibrahim, is a distinctive fortified area in central Hofuf in the Al-Ahsa Oasis. It was probably founded before the Ottoman conquest of the region in 1549. The area was developed over various periods to include a domed mosque, a diwan building, a Turkish bath, and defensive walls.

white stone buildings with domed roofs

Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

Ibrahim Palace covers an area of almost 18,000 square feet (16,500 square meters) and combines both Islamic and military architecture.

a white stone mosque with a domed roof and a minerat

Ibrahim Palace is also sometimes referred to as the Dome Palace or Alqoat Palace, being located in the Alqoat neighborhood of Hofuf. It has architectural heritage reflecting periods of Ottoman rule of the region. Al-Ahsa was retaken by King Abdul Aziz Al Saud in 1913.

A noteworthy example of Ottoman-era building in Al-Ahsa, Ibrahim Palace was one among the 12 components highlighted when Al-Ahsa Oasis became the fifth Saudi Arabian site to be granted inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

a white stone building with a domed roof and archways protecting an outside corridor

We were fortunate to be able to visit while the site was under renovation.

a modest chandelier hangs above red carpet with lines for prayer rows inside a white walled mosque

The mosque.

a woman in a blue abaya standing with a younger man in a white thobe

Ahmad with his mother, Hind, exiting the mosque. Her abaya is blue. So many women are wearing colorful abayas.

The palace reflects two architecture styles:

  • Islamic style: This style can be seen in semi-circular arches, Islamic domes, and the mihrab (a niche in the wall of a mosque, at the point nearest to Makkah, toward which the congregation faces to pray) of the mosque. The minaret is made of stone and influenced from Turkish designs. It is a tall minaret and has a spiral staircase.
  • Military style: This is represented by the towers that surround the palace as well as the residential soldier’s barracks, which are located in the east of the palace area near the horse stables.

The palace was constructed with local materials. While its walls were made of mud mixed with straw, the ceilings are palm trunks. The doors are sandalwood. The floors are stone.

yellow flowers

Cassia fistula: This species is native to the Indian subcontinent.

Iconic shapes.

The Al Koot Hotel and Restaurant in Hofuf.

The Al-Koot Hotel and Restaurant’s building was originally a 200-year old palace. The restaurant has local women in the kitchen preparing family recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation.

A shopping trip to the Craftsman Market in Hofuf.

The local Craftsmen Market in central Hofuf features some of Al-Ahsa’s heritage products. It celebrates popular traditions that have developed over generations.

The market showcases traditional regional crafts and provides financial support for the craftsmen.

Women waiting for their bus after a day of shopping.

One of the most famous traditional bakeries in the city of Hofuf is Al-Khudood Bakery. It operates out of a restored heritage building.

Waiting for the red bread to bake.

Red bread is a notable dish from the Eastern Province. It is not only known for its great taste but also its high nutritional value. Dates from Al-Ahsa’s farms are what provide this bread its distinctive red color. The bread can typically be found in traditional bakeries across Al-Ahsa, especially during Ramadan when demand is high.

The recipe for red bread has been passed down over generations; dates are soaked with water and left to ferment before being kneaded together with typical ingredients that include wheat, dates, water, cardamom, saffron, Hasawiya halwah, sesame and black seed.

The red bread dough is placed onto the sides of the oven where it bakes.

The red bread is ready!

Lunch at the Almubarak family farm.

Oud is burned in an elegant, ancient ritual that continues today as a symbol of warm hospitality. Scent can be a powerful way to access spirituality. Over the centuries and around the globe, there is one scent that is considered supreme. Potent, mystical, and sweet. Inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula have been burning oud wood chips in their homes for thousands of years as an expression of hospitality. And even more: they believe it removes negative energies and enhances awareness.

Oud is known as “the wood of gods” and as agarwood. It comes from the core of Aquilaria trees. Today, the wood primarily sourced from trees in Thailand, Laos, Burma, and India. The smoke is offered to guests so they can scent their hair, clothing and hands. It’s a tradition as integral to hospitality as serving coffee and dates. Oud’s fragrance is sweet, woody, seductive, and a bit smoky. It’s rich with nuances, ranging from musky, leathery tobacco to beet-like sweetness to spicy fragrances. The aroma is often described as the feeling of a warm blanket.

There are many types of oud, often named after the regions in which they were produced. The scent will vary slightly depending on where it was harvested, how it was aged after harvesting, and if any additives were used. Its strong fragrance stays on clothes for long periods and fills the air with a lovely smell that dispels all kinds of odors. It is said that oud oil mixed with raw ambergris and musk can be used in the treatment of certain diseases.

Al Qarah Mountain. Photo: Permanent Delegation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to UNESCO.

Al Qarah Mountain contains evidence of ancient settlements dating back to 5,000 BC. It is located at the eastern edge of the Shadqam plateau, which links to Kuwait and Iraq in the north and the Rub’ al Khali in the south. Its network of curves and caves are a result of a phenomenon known as sub-aerial weathering, where the limestone rock has been crafted from rain and rivers rather than ground water. This has led to the mountain’s remarkable mushroom-like shapes, narrow canyons, and tall interior passages.

There is a popular belief that rocks in the mountain were formed being underwater millions of years ago. The caves were created due to the tide.

Al Qarah Mountain, also known as Jabal al Qarah and Al Shaban Mountain, is among the components included in the Al-Ahsa Oasis UNESCO World Heritage Listing.

Al Qarah Mountain is known for exotic caves that were formed by the disolution of water-soluble rocks, collapse of upper rock layers as a result of abrasion, and earthquake fissures.

The Al Nashab cave has moderate temperatures throughout the year.

Three views looking up to see the sky.


There is an openness between women that includes wonderful physical affection. Hinds’ warmth with me was genuine and filled with support and a sense of fun. This is something very beautiful that radiates throughout the Kingdom.

Lamia, Hind, and Ahmed Almubarak escorting me through the Land of Civilizations.

On our return to the beach we passed this beautiful mosque.

We arrived back to the beach in time for some night fishing.

a long silver fish laying on top of green fishing nets

I brought a bag of the red bread from the bakery back to my fishing pals.

Good night Al Aziziya.