Saudi Arabia Travel Log: Dhee Ein or Thee Ain or The Ayn

Last weekend's trip took us several hours’ drive south of Jeddah, to some hot springs near Al Leeth, on to Dhee Ayn and Al Baha, and then back through Ta’if on the return trip. Dhee Ayn was the star of the trip. Set in the mountains, this village is about 400 years old, was built on a marble escarpment, and was abandoned only about 40 years ago.

Dhee Ein, 2013
The village’s setting is dramatic. With forbidding mountains all around, this cluster of houses towers above an oasis that owes its surprising greenness to a spring at the base of the escarpment. The spring supplies water for carefully tended fields of palm trees, banana trees, and herbs. The fields would have been the source of the village’s wealth as well as the bait for raiders in the region.

The ancients would have chosen this particular location not only for the oasis but also for the escarpment’s view of the surrounding countryside. From the rooftops of the ruins, we could hear the raucous screams of baboons and see them fighting near the spring below. From this view, the people would also have been able to spot enemies and sound the alarm for workers to hurry in from the fields. I’ve read that mountaintop villages such as this are evidence of societies with weak or nonexistent central governments and a high degree of fragmentation and lawlessness: although living on the plains would be much more convenient for agricultural populations, height provides a critical defensive advantage.

The village’s multistory houses are marvelous. Apparently constructed with little or no mortar or mud, they are simply slate stones laid one atop another. Roughly hewn timbers run crossways to form floor beams and lend some stability to the stone structures. On these the ancient builders laid floors of flagstone. The houses often have three such levels as well as a serviceable rooftop.

To the modern eye the village looks thrillingly precarious, which makes it all the more amazing that these houses have survived so many centuries. Even more marvelous for a site this old is that many of the wooden doors and shutters are still intact—not yet carried away by archaeological poachers or museums. Much of the wood is carved, but very little of the stone is engraved, evidencing the unsophisticated (but no less fascinating!) nature of this village’s culture.

Dhee Ein, 2013
Despite temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, numerous Saudi tourists were exploring Dhee Ayn on the afternoon we visited. I had to continually warn the kids, however, to watch their step, to stay away from the precipices, and to keep out of the bat-infested houses. Although the government has obviously invested a great deal to renovate the ruins, they’re still very dangerous for the unwary. Tourism is still a fledgling industry in Saudi Arabia.

The kids loved exploring the place as much as I did. They’re starting to get really good at noticing exciting little details about ruins that tell us about the people who lived there. S pointed out a painted carving in some floor beams. H called out the things he could see from progressively higher levels of the village.

My kids, indefatigable, wanted to go to the very top. We were among the few tourists who ventured that high, and everyone stared at me when I passed them—perhaps because my “guardian” was not with me (he had taken one of our girls back to the car to rest) or because I was a woman who appeared to be enjoying physical exertion or because I was wearing both a camera and a babycarrier with a 2-year-old in it or because I was looked a little scandalous for wearing only an abaya and a headscarf but no face covering. By the time we all arrived at the top of the mountain, the kids and I had the view to ourselves, and I was completely soaked in sweat. . . . So I guess I can cross that off my bucket list.