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Sakaka - Rajajil - Marid - Tabuk

Zaabal Fortress, Sakaka Old Town, Sisra Well, Rajajil Standing Stones, Marid Castle

View Saudi Arabia 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

At 08:00, we meet our new local guide, Abdul, at Ta'leel Coffee House as agreed last night.


Abdul asks if we would like to sit inside or out for breakfast this morning. As the temperature is still relatively cool, we choose some seats in the shade in the walled courtyard with a view of Zaabak Castle.


Traditional Arabic seating

The coffee house is apparently open 24 hours a day and is very popular with students who come here to work.


This morning there is one student inside and a group of three ladies on the patio.


Two of the ladies speak reasonable English and are quite insistent that they should show us around the town and we should visit their farm to see how they live. Unfortunately, we have to decline their kind hospitality as we are on a reasonably tight schedule today.

Seeing A/C units OUTSIDE is a complete surprise to me.


The restaurant features an ancient well within its grounds.


We are certainly not going to starve this morning, with an enormous breakfast spread containing khubooz flatbread, addas lentils, three different kinds of cheese including my favourite soft cheese: labneh (made from yogurt), hummous with meat, babaganoush (smokey aubergine dip), stuffed baby aubergines, plain omelette, plum jam, black and green olives, falafel and chips.


On this trip, as meals have varies tremendously in availability and timing, I adapt my usual travel motto of “never pass a toilet without using it”, to “never pass up food without stuffing your face”.

Zaabal Castle
The name of this Nabatean castle is translated as “ribs”, and refers to the fortifications protecting the city like the ribs protect the heart of humans.


Although the fort originated some 2000 years ago, the top has been added later.


This was purely a military fort, used to defend the town below – it consists of only two rooms and offers no living quarters.

Sakaka Old Town


As old as the castle, the town at its base was abandoned some 65 years ago, when the lure of modern houses with electricity and running water became too tempting for its inhabitants.


Some of the houses have been restored, carried out by 'people from Riyadh', and the locals are said to be unhappy about how it is done, as they feel it is not in keeping with the authentic original local style.


The bright and modern museum close to the castle has a few interesting artefacts.


Fossilised tree branches, 250 million years old

Quartz stone tools 1,300,000 years old

Neolithic pottery shards, 8,000 years old

Abbasi pottery, 750 years old

Neolithic pottery, 6,500 years old

This piece was only discovered around a year ago, and features Thamudic carved writing from around 2,500 years ago. The inscription has been translated as: “I, (name), sacrifice (it doesn't say what) for my friend who died. May his soul be blessed.”

5,000-year-old petroglyphs

Various palm weave items, used to collect dates, store dates to keep the flies off, mats to serve dates on, as well as a fan.

The two images below show ancient board games


Sisra Well
The nearby well is believed to be older than the fort, dating from the Thamudic period, some 2,500 years ago. It is an unusual design, in that it is dug out of the rock rather than into the soil. Collecting water that ran off from the nearby rocky outcrop, the well features a 6km long underground tunnel to irrigate local agricultural areas that had no water of their own.

The well itself is deeper than the tunnel outlet, in order to collect any stones than were washed off from the hills. The steps provide access for removing those stones.

Most of the tunnel has since collapsed, with the construction of the foundations for the modern houses.


Affectionately known as “The Stonehenge of Saudi Arabia”, these ancient stone pillars are part of a collection of around 50 groups of standing stones dating back some 6,000 years – that's a whopping 1,000 years older than its namesakes in the UK.

Admittedly, they are nowhere near as large or imposing as Stonehenge, but they are still incredibly impressive and intriguing. Being close to these ancient monuments, just the four of us (David, me, our driver Bacha, and Abdul, the local guide) is humbling, and knowing that ancient people stood right in this very spot, admiring these pillars long before Stonehenge was even a glint in an architect's eye, sends shivers down my spine.


Historians are unsure about how or why these pillars were erected or what purpose they served. Numerous human remains have been found, leading to suggestions that this may have been a burial site. It is understood that they were all of a similar age when they died, indicating possible sacrifices or maybe battles similar to the Roman Gladiators. A landmark or 'road sign' on a popular caravan route, or maybe astronomical structures, have all been suggested. Inscriptions on the stones are in the Thamudic language, which has not been fully studied yet.


Each of the groups is arranged in an East-West direction, and just like Stonehenge, the rocks are not local but have been brought from 160km away. This then triggers the question: how?

This group is believed to form the entrance to the site and may have had a roof at one time.

There is a small visitors' centre and museum on the site. Which also provides a clean and modern toilet (with a seat, paper, water to flush, soap, and towels, no less!). We sign the visitors' book, which indicates that the last tourist here was three days ago.

I am asked if I will record a short video of my impressions of the site for the curator of the museum. You can see the video below.


Marid Castle


Excavations have revealed that the castle dates back to the Nabataean Period, around the 1st century AD.


The whole area was fortified with stone walls to repel attacks by invaders, while the fort itself was built on a strategic rocky outcrop overlooking the city.


Restoration and excavation work is currently being carried out, which means that parts of the site if off-limits to visitors.


We part ways with Abdul after the visit to Marid Castle, he will return to Sakaka, while we are continuing to Tabuk.


Abdul's fabulous car!

We stop for Bacha to get some breakfast (he didn't join us at the restaurant this morning), and while David goes into the store with him to buy some water, I do some street photography from the comfort of the car.


Initially, the uniformly straight road is surrounded by flat, uninteresting scenery consisting of sand, sand, and more sand. I take the opportunity to catch up on some sleep.

When I wake up, some pretty sand dunes have appeared and I enjoy doing some drive-by-shooting (taking photos from a moving car, nothing to do with guns).




It feels like we have been driving forever, and I become quite despondent when I see a sign telling me that there is still another 143 km to Tabuk.

Banan Suites
Unlike yesterday, tonight's accommodation actually looks like a hotel, and a posh one at that. We do, however, go through the same rigmarole as we have several times so far:

The receptionist has no record of our booking.

“Do you have a reservation number?”

While we do not have a reservation number as such, I show them the confirmation email from the local agent.

A lot of toing and froing, and animated discussions on the phone and with other colleagues takes place. After about 20 minutes the receptionist suggests that we may be booked into the annexe.

While I am relieved that we have finally been located on the system, I do feel a little like the poor cousin when we go to the building next door. The main hotel lobby has a plush reception area, with a desk, a bell boy, and comfy seats, whereas the 'Pauper's Palace', as I have affectionately named it, shows none of these luxuries. A bored-looking security guard barely looks up when we arrive, and the corridors leading to the rooms smell strongly of garlic.

The room itself is large, clean, bright, and airy, but sadly lacking in furniture, with not a single chair to sit on (just a small stool on wheels by the desk).


The bathroom is small, but at least we do have a toilet roll!


Getting into the shower means squeezing between the toilet bowl, basin, and shower screen, and in order to elicit any water from the top shower rose rather than the low tap, I eventually work out that I have to hold down the diverter lever while turning on the tap.


We are unfortunately not the only people staying in this hotel. The kid in the next room is throwing the mother of all tantrums: crying, screaming, shouting, stamping her feet, screeching, throwing things, and banging furniture against our interconnecting door to the point I can see the door shaking in utter horror and fear that it might collapse and cave in.

Whenever I notice a connecting door in a hotel room, I immediately check it to ensure it is locked after an incident many years ago where the door leading from the other room was suddenly flung open as I was sitting naked on the side of the bed, with a laughing toddler running in throwing her arms in the air, followed by her very shocked dad! I don't know who was most embarrassed, him or me. Anyway, I digress.

It is a relief to be leaving the room to go to dinner at the posh end of the hotel, where we are warmly greeted by the charming Egyptian manager. The restaurant is located on the 5th floor of the building, with good views over the road below and the lights beyond.


I put a headscarf on this evening, and a black abaya over my normal clothes, but as soon as we sit down in the restaurant the manager confirms that it is OK to remove them.


We order three dishes to share:

Chicken kebabs

Lamb chops

Fattoush salad

The fattoush salad is delicious – I don't normally like cucumber, but I find the Middle Eastern ones quite palatable. There is a tangy and fresh dressing, and the bread is wafer thin, rolled up, and toasted until crisp. A fabulous combination.

The chicken kebabs are, well, like good chicken kebabs found in other establishments, but the lamb chops absolutely steal the show. These are simply the best lamb chops I have ever eaten. They are tender, cooked just right, fall off the bone, melt in my mouth, and have a delectable flavour that tantalises my tongue. I am in sevenths foodie heaven.

The desserts, while very, very nice, do not live up to the same standard as the lamb chops – but then again, it would be an extremely hard act to follow.

Mini pancakes with chocolate sauce


After dinner, the manager brings over a pot of complimentary Arabic coffee laced with cardamom (which I do find a little strong).


A little later he returns with a couple of beautifully wrapped single roses, explaining how they have their own farm where they grow them, and a fridge here to keep them fresh. He holds two roses towards me and asks which one I prefer. I don't really want a rose, as we are only staying in Tabuk for two nights, and the rose probably won't travel well to our next destination. On the other hand, I don't want to offend him by seeming ungrateful and declining the gift. While red is my favourite colour, that one looks a little sad, so I tell him a like the pink one best. He hands me the rose with a theatrical bow and walks away.


As we come to pay for the meal, we query an item on the bill market 'coffee shop', and it turns out to be the rose. As it is such a small charge, it seems petty, as well as a little embarrassing that we assumed it was a gift, so we just pay it and leave.


The room is wonderfully quiet as we get back to our Paupers' Palace, but not for long. The brat is soon back, but thankfully not making as much noise as before.

Thank you so much to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this fascinating trip.


Posted by Grete Howard 22:30 Archived in Saudi Arabia

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That breakfast looks fantastic and the dinner sounds equally so - the Saudi food scene is looking up! And so much ancient history too. I can absolutely see why they feel they have a lot to offer international tourists.

by ToonSarah

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