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Bird Watching - Maraya - Al Ula Old Town - Medina

A fascinating day, but not feeling my best

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

Yesterday morning as we walked to the restaurant for breakfast, I noticed a few birds hanging around the hotel gardens. I wished I’d had my long lens with me at the time, so this morning I get up early to do some birding before breakfast.

White Spectacled Bulbul

Tristram's Starling

Red Backed Shrike

Spotted Flycatcher

Arabian Green Bee Eater

A couple of nice little lifers there (birds we have not previously seen).

After yesterday’s frustration and disappointment at having to explore the sites on a group tour, we decide to give the Al Ula Old Town excursion this morning a miss. Instead, we ask Bacha, our lovely driver, to take us to see some ultra-modern architecture that I have read about, as an alternative.

We encounter the first problem before we even get near the building – there is no entry to the site unless you are on a group tour organised by the tourist office. Groan.

Bacha, having previously spent some time in Al Ula, knows another way. That road too, is blocked off so we cannot enter. Looking at google maps, Bacha explores yet another possible way in, and it turns out to be third time lucky. This is the route taken by the construction vehicles, and Bacha sweet-talks the supervisor by talking to him in Urdu, the official’s native language (and one of several that Bacha can speak). The guard agrees to let us pass, but gives us only eight minutes inside, just about enough time to be able to drive around the building without stopping.

Trucks travelling to and from Maraya on the dirt road cutting through the mountainous desert scenery

So what exactly is Maraya? This is the world’s largest mirrored building (Mataya means mirror or reflection in Arabic) with 9740 mirrored panels, and is designed to blend into the desert landscape and rise from it like a mirage.


As part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan of greatness on the world tourism scale, Maraya has been coined the centrepiece of Al Ula’s growing cultural scene. The building features a restaurant (we were even told that foreigners are permitted to drink alcohol there, but whether that is true or not I have no idea), a concert auditorium, a wedding venue, a conference centre, and a place for art exhibitions to name a few.


This award-winning architectural masterpiece was completed in just 2½ months in 2019, and is constructed so that it can “move and adjust itself” to the wide range of temperatures in the desert.


Like a mirage, Maraya plays tricks with my mind – I struggle to make out what is the background and what are reflections as the building seemingly appears and disappears while we are driving around it. It really is quite extraordinary.




Much as I love history, seeing this unique reflective cube that has ostensibly been plonked amongst stunning rocky outcrops, adding to the beauty of the desert scenery, is of more interest to me this morning. I am so glad we had the opportunity to work around the rules and get a quick glimpse.

Spotting our car on the mirrored surface

By the time we get back into town, I am desperate for the loo and am grateful for the recent expansion of Al Ula to attract world tourists as I enter the modern toilet with a ‘proper’ western seat in the new bus station. I have never enjoyed having the ‘squits of the squats’, but with my bad knee, it could be pretty disastrous. I take some Ciprofloaxin (antibiotics that 'should' help clear up any diarrhea), just in case, for the long journey ahead.

Old Al Ula Town
This is where our itinerary was supposed to be taking us this morning, but when I see the large groups of people getting off the buses at the edge of the town and walking to the ruins of the old city, I am even more glad we opted out of the old and into the new this morning.


It’s an extensive site and not much is left of the once-important city.


It is said that Mohammed came through here on his way from Mecca and stayed for three days, which attracts a number of Muslims who come here to pray.



I sleep for a while as we make our way towards our last destination of the day: Medina. When I wake up, I am in dire need of a toilet. This. Very. Minute. Explaining my urgency to Bacha, he looks out for service stations, which are few and far between on these long-distance roads. He spots one and pops in to check it out for me. Closed. The second one is also closed. It is now becoming so desperate that I no longer care whether there is a seat or a hole in the ground, I just need to go!

Bacha pulls up at a mosque and finds the attached ablutions building open, with a communal toilet block. Hurrying as carefully as I can to avoid any sudden jerky movements, I rush in. As I open the door, my bowels scream “can I let go now?” with me pleasing “no, no, no, not yet!” I will spare you the gory details but suffice to say that for the first time ever on all our many travels, I don’t make it to the cubicle in time.

After changing all my clothes and cleaning up the mess (this was not the day to wear white trousers), I collapse with embarrassment in the car and immediately go back to sleep.

Al Anbariah Restaurant
On the outskirts of Medina we stop at a traditional restaurant where we meet up with our local guide, another Ali. As a traditional hospitality greeting, the manager brings out an incense burner – thankfully it is only symbolic, as both David and I can feel our eyes stinging and noses running as soon as the smoke hits us.

Ali orders a selection of dishes for our lunch. What a spread! The plates just keep arriving, there must be enough food to feed around 20 people.


I really shouldn’t eat much, if anything, but I don’t want to offend, either, so I take just a very small helping.


Fattoush - a salad of tomatoes, cucumber, mint, parsley, and toasted pitta bread


Shorba - a complimentary soup offered by the management as part of the hospitality

Selik - rice with milk served with chicken in a spicy sauce

Another different type of rice with chicken

Molichia - a green vegetable sauce to go with the chicken and rice, which is made from a vegetable known in English as jute mallow

Bamya - a chicken and okra stew

Camel kebabs with bread and a yogurt sauce

After all that food, a dessert is brought out.

Echestraya - a pudding made from bread, milk, rosewater, sugar, and date honey. It is similar to a crumble and absolutely delicious!

And there is Arabian coffee to finish, of course.


Medina is the second holiest city for Muslims after Mecca, and I am requested to wear an abaya and hejab as we tour the holy sites this afternoon.


Ali, our local guide here in Medina

Al-Masjid an-Nabawi AKA The Prophet's Mosque or the Grand Mosque
Along with thousands of other people, we head to the Grand Mosque in time for the afternoon prayers. As non-Muslims, we are not permitted to enter the mosque compound, but Ali finds us the perfect viewpoint where we can observe the many different nationalities who have made their way here to pray, some of whom have come from afar.




We see people from Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, other Arab nations, and more, all heading for the Tomb of Mohammed to pay their respects. Muslims believe that the rewards of praying in Al-Masjid an-Nabawi are better than 1,000 prayers in any other mosque.



The large courtyard in front of the mosque is covered in the most amazing and ornate umbrellas that are being lowered automatically as we arrive. I would love to see the courtyard from the inside with all the umbrellas up.

Umbrellas being lowered

According to the internet, this is what it looks like:

Photo: King Eliot, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, that is never going to happen, so I make the most of soaking in the incredible ambiance that surrounds this place. Despite still feeling pretty rough, I am totally mesmerised by this place, with its peaceful and reverent atmosphere.


The umbrellas are completely folded up now, and blend seamlessly into the rest of the architecture.


The surrounding area is one huge hotel complex, with more springing up by the minute.


Still, they are struggling to meet demand. When I see the number of people here today, just an ordinary day, not even a Friday, I cannot begin to imagine what this place is like during Hajj (the annual pilgrimage).


These images from the internet show the sheer scale of the haram of the mosque (the sanctuary area inaccessible to non-Muslims).




Hejaz Railway Museum
The former railway station has been turned into a museum with artifacts from the age of the railways and earlier.


By now I am suffering from some bad stomach cramps, so I stay in the car with Bacha while David and Ali go in. The museum is very crowded, so they don’t stay long. The following images are screen grabs taken from David’s video.

The foyer

Model of the museum

Museum exhibits

While we are waiting, a man knocks on the window of the car, holding up a bunch of grapes. “Medina grapes,” he says as he hands Bacha the fruits and walks off. The last thing I would want to eat right now, is unwashed grapes. Bacha tries one, screws his face up, and states: “No good”. As I say to Bacha, perhaps that is why the chap is giving them away.

Not long afterwards another man comes along offering grapes – this time Bacha just waves him on.

Quba Mosque
Built in 622AD as the Prophet Mohammed migrated from Mecca to Medina where he made his home, this was the very first mosque to be constructed anywhere in the world. At the time, it had palm trees for pillars and leaves for the roof, and it was built by the Prophet himself and his companions. Over time, various caliphs have renovated and extended the mosque to the super-mosque we see today, with four minarets, 56 domes, and a capacity of 15,000 devotees.


Bacha explains that to Muslims, this is a very special place to pray, and he excitedly asks if he and Ali can go and make their sundown prayers here as he has never had the opportunity before. Right at the start of this tour, we told Bacha that we are very happy for him to stop at any time to make prayers during the trip, and he has briefly done so on a couple of previous occasions. Meanwhile, David and I are left babysitting the car, which is double parked in the overfull car park.

Alia Al Madina Farm
No trip to Saudi Arabia is complete without a visit to a date farm. This place, the oldest farm in Medina, is reached via a long fenced alley; and once inside there is a touristy open-air space that is a peculiar mixture of workshops, a café, shops, and a museum.


The Explore group (a small group tour operator) that we saw yesterday is already here, it seems.


First, we are shown how these seats are made from rope and palm leaves. While the place is touristy in appearance, there is no sales pressure.


The main item produced here is dates. There are so many different dates, and we are shown the best ones in the area. Neither of us is particularly fond of dates, but after being given a taster, we buy some date syrup, at great cost.


In the ‘museum’ part of the complex, we are shown how the farm may have looked in the early days.


Archer’s Hill
There is a lot of Islamic history tied to this hill, mostly because of the Battle of Uhud that took place here in the 7th century between the non-believers of Makkah, and the Muslims. In the battle, 50 archers were posted on Archers' Hill to protect the Muslim army from attack, under strict instructions from Mohammed to stay there. Some members of the army, however, mistakingly believed the battle was over and deserted their post, which led to the Makkah army gaining an advantage resulting in a great loss of lives for the Muslims.


Ali manages to obtain special permission for us to drive around the site rather than walk, because of my knee injury.


Martyr’s Cemetery
Many pilgrims come here to visit the sacred hill, as well as the cemetery next to it, where the bodies of 70 martyrs from the battle are buried. It serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of disobeying the Prophet Muhammed.


Bacha goes to pay his respect at the cemetery.

Sayyid al-Shudada Mosque
The mosque is named after Mohammed’s uncle, Hamzah (full name Sayed al-Shohada Hamzah ibn Abdul Muttalib), who was killed in the aforementioned battle. The mosque is a recent structure, completed in 2017, but replaces another mosque structure that was originally attached to Hamzah’s tomb.



Delights Inn
When we get to the hotel, the Explore group is already there, checking in. One lady has a problem, and it takes the single receptionist ages to get through them all.

By the time it is finally our turn, we get the usual dreaded question: “Have you booked?” Yet again they struggle to find our reservation, but eventually, some 20 minutes after we first arrived, we do have somewhere to retire to.

The room is small, but the bed is enormous. I do not feel like eating anything this evening after my mishap earlier, and as there is no restaurant in the hotel itself, we just retire to bed. David ate a lot at our late lunch, anyway.

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this fascinating trip for us.


Posted by Grete Howard 22:33 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged hotels desert mosque cemetery museum grapes farm toilet birding mirage arabia medina parasols flycatcher saudi shrike dates muslims runs bulbul middle_east mohammed starting hummus bird_watching saudi_arabia birdlife ksa undiscovered_destinations ciprofloxacin diarrhoea bee_eater grand_mosque bird_photography arabic_coffee al_ula sahary_resort maraya al_anbarian_restauarnt camel_meat incense_burner tomb_of_mohammed fattoush shorba selik molichia bamya camel_kebabs echestraya al_masjid_an_nawwabi the_prophets_mosque quba_mosque unbrellas haram hejaz hejaz_railway_museum railway_museum alia_al_madina_farm date_farm archers-hill battle_of_uhud uhud martyrs_cemetery sayyid_al_shudada_mosque hamzah sayed_al_shohada_hamzah_ibn_abd delights_inn

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