Easy accessibility means visitors can marvel at ancient wonders

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 September, 2010, 12:00am

Saudi Arabia is more accessible than many local travellers might think, with regular flights on Cathay Pacific and the kingdom's national carrier, Saudi Arabian Airlines, linking Chek Lap Kok to Riyadh and Jeddah, the country's two major cities.

Familiar hotel brands, such as Four Seasons and Novotel, have a presence in Saudi Arabia, although they can be pricey, with some rooms costing between HK$1,500 and HK$3,200 a night.

While Saudi Arabia's wealth has ensured that its major cities are ultramodern in many respects, Jeddah and Riyadh are home to some fascinating ancient monuments.

One of the main attractions is the Masmak fortress in Riyadh, which was built in the mid-19th century, renovated in the 1980s and later converted into a museum. Its quartet of watchtowers are 18 metres high, while the walls are more than one metre thick and dotted with gun ports.

Inside the fort, a maze of rooms and courtyards seem laid out as much to improve defences against attackers as to provide privacy.

As with many public attractions in Saudi Arabia, certain times are reserved specifically for women and families to visit Masmak, so it is best to check ahead first.

Jeddah, gateway to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, is also Saudi Arabia's commercial capital.

Its most attractive area is the Al-Balad district, with its fascinating array of buildings made from coral and decorated with wooden latticework balconies. The way of life here has changed little over centuries, as traders and pilgrims from all over the Muslim world pack the narrow alleyways and crowded souks.

Naseef House is the first port of call for many visitors. It used to belong to one of Jeddah's most powerful mercantile dynasties and has since been restored.

The house has ramps instead of staircases, which made it easier for camels to be brought to the upper storeys.

Jeddah is hot for much of the year, so many people turn out in the evenings to promenade on the cornice, a 35-kilometre-long seaside strip that is dotted with sculptures ranging from anchors to dhows.

North of Jeddah, Madain Saleh is one of the best kept secrets of the Middle East.

It is home to a series of rock tombs carved out by the Nabataeans, who were also responsible for the city of Petra in Jordan.

Madain Saleh has been well preserved, and its location in the middle of the desert is dramatic. The tombs show a clear indication of Greek and Roman influences. Griffins and animal figures with human heads suggest Mediterranean origins, while falcons and urns reflect local design preferences. No royalty or notables were buried here, so the tombs belonged to indigenous families, and the amount of decoration was dependent upon their wealth.

Finally, there is the Hanging Village of Habalah, a deserted settlement hacked out of solid rock at the base of a 300-metre cliff. Built some time in the 17th century to guard against marauding Ottomans, originally the only access was via rope ladders. The last villagers left in the 1980s, and a cable car has since been built for visitors. The views are magnificent, and it's fascinating to stroll through the village.

The iron hooks that used to support the rope ladders are still visible, while many intricately carved doors are a reminder of this incredible outpost of civilisation in one of the remotest parts of Saudi Arabia.