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  • Writer's pictureKristin

Exploring the Asir Mountains Around Abha

Ancient villages hidden in the mountains seems like something out of a story book, doesn’t it? However, these were actually part of the history of this region of Saudi Arabia & Yemen. After spending time in Jeddah & Taif, we continued further south into the Asir Mountains to the mountain town of Abha. The ancient village of Thee Ain was in between Taif & Abha, so we spent one night between to explore this area before continuing an additional 4.5 hours to Abha. In this region, many of the historical and cultural relics come have a strong influence from Yemen due to its close proximity.

Abha is a big tourist destination for many Saudis, due to it being in the mountains (at an elevation of 2,200 meters), it provides cooler temperatures from the sweltering summer heat in the rest of the Kingdom. In the height of the summer, daytime highs average around 30 C with an average low of around 16 C. In the winter, average highs are around 19-20 C and a low of around 6-8 C at night. We had actually been warned by several Saudis that it was cold and many things were closed during the off-season. However, as Canadians the cooler weather didn’t bother us, so we headed down to explore the area and actually enjoyed the break from the heat. These are the top things we explored in the Asir Mountains near Abha.

Thee Ain Ancient Village

Tucked away in the Asir Mountains, this ancient village goes by a variety of names including Thee Ain, Dhi Ayn or Zee Ain Village. This village dates back to the 8th Century when there was a threat of invasion by the Ottoman Empire. The village is near Al-Mekhwa city in the Al-Baha province. (This ancient village is still about 4.5 hours away from Abha, but if you are driving from Jeddah, it's worth stopping & checking out!)

Two children looking at the ancient village of Thee Ain in Saudi Arabia.
The Ancient Village of Thee Ain sitting above the green oasis.

The village is characterized by multi-story houses that sit on top of a hill above agricultural land that produces banana, basil, lemon and palm trees -- even today. Many of the houses are 3 stories and several of them you can enter and explore, making it a unique way to explore the Old Town. There is also a spring tucked behind it that flows all year long. The mosque is beautiful too in that it is made with the same stones as the houses.

The government has invested in this location and equipped it with the different amenities for a tourist destination, including a large parking lot and a playground area. However, we visited one afternoon during the week and had the place almost to ourselves. Sunset was a great time to come as the temperatures were cooling and the lighting was great for photos.

Al Soudah Mountain

This peak sits 3,000 meters above sea level in Saudi Arabia’s mountain range about an hour from Abha. Here there are several viewpoints, walking pathways (concrete ones) and a series of bridges that will lead you to the different viewpoints & through the Juniper-covered forest. If you’re looking for an extensive hiking trail this probably isn’t it, as it is relatively short; but because of the high elevation we started to feel winded much faster than we normally would.

It is a wonderful view of the valley below. However, this area is also home to baboons that live in the mountains. Several locals are seen carrying in their cooking supplies to enjoy a lunch in the area, which seemed a bit risky. LOL. We sat on a raised wall and as soon as we took a sandwich out, several of the baboons started to approach. Luckily, there were some people who were picking up garbage in the area that scared them back off, but just be aware! We ended up just taking our food back to the car to eat there.

Rijal Alma Heritage Village
Two children looking up at the Rijal Alma "Gingerbread Houses" in the Asir Mountains.
The ancient village of Rijal Alma in the Asir Mountains.

This ancient Aseeri village is about a 90-minute drive from Abha or 30-minute drive from Al Soudah. The road takes you from the top of the mountain almost straight vertically down the mountain through a series of bends and turns. Its historical significance was its location in the valley of the ancient trade route between Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, as well as a major point for Muslims journeying to Medina & Mecca from Yemen. It was built up against the bend of the mountainside to protect it from invaders and various watch towers are visible. The village is mentioned as early as 636 CE. However, it is most notable for its defeat over the Ottoman army that was 50,000 strong, which caused the forced treaty signing to grant Asir independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1825.

The village is called ‘The Gingerbread Village’ as the stone houses are all uniform with decorative lumps of sugar-white quartz on different areas of the structures as well as around the windows. In addition, the windows and doors are all a bright color of green, blue, yellow, etc. Entrance into the village was free, but if you wanted to attend the museum it was 20 SAR per adult. The museum is small but has several artifacts, and what I found most interesting was the well preserved brightly painted walls & doors.

Rijal Alma "Gingerbread Houses" - Saudi Arabia.

To reach the village you can either take the cable car from Soudah National Park complex or by road. During the winter, the cable car doesn’t run so we just drove to the village.

Al Habala Ancient Village

This 400-year-old ancient village is literally sitting off the edge of a large canyon wall – about 300 yards from the top –and is often known as the ‘hanging village.’ It is about an hour’s drive from Abha. The name of the village – Habala – comes from the Arabic world for rope, because historically the village was only accessible by rope ladder. The village was originally inhabited by a tribe known as the ‘flower men’ because they wore garlands of dried herbs and flowers in their hair. Similar to other villages in the mountains, it was built during the Ottoman Empire to flee the Turks.

Habala "Hanging Village" sits literally on the side of the canyon wall.
Habala "Hanging Village" sits 300 meters from the top surface.

Today the village can only be reached by cable car. However, the cable car was temporarily closed during our visit. However, we couldn’t verify whether that was because we were visiting during the winter or if they had it closed for other reasons. So unfortunately, we had to view the village from the edge. But supposedly the village has people dressed up in traditional attire doing performances, as well as places to enjoy coffee & tea in the old village, during the summer tourist season. The Al-Habala Museum also was temporarily closed during our visit (Dec. 2021).

Habala Park cliffs in Saudi Arabia.
Canyon walls at Habala Park with the mountain range below.

Supposedly it is also common for the fog to envelop the mountain during the winter days, but we didn’t get the privilege of seeing that.

We searched for areas to hike around Al Habala, but came up short, as they aren’t really labeled on the map; and in general, we just think that hiking – like we are used to in North America & Europe -- isn’t a big thing in Saudi Arabia. We even headed to Alqroon Forest to see if we could find some hiking paths there. However, as we were accessing the hillside with trees, one of the park rangers came over to tell us that it was dangerous to hike down, so we were unable to proceed. Instead, we drove on a crazy steep & twisty mountain road before we got to a junction where the pristine road just turned to a T-junction of two dirt-sand roads. Since we didn’t have any 4-wheel drive capabilities we just had to turn around and ascend back up the mountain back to Abha.

Road running through the steep cliff faces just past Alqoon Forest - Saudi Arabia.
Windy mountain road just past Alqoon National Forest.

Abha Tuesday Souk

This marketplace in the Al Muftaha district is known for selling honey and other goods such as clothing and handicrafts. However, the name is a bit confusing, as we went on a Saturday and it was still open. We enjoyed wandering around looking at the different things. However, you can tell that this area isn’t a huge international tourist destination, as we were trying to look for a couple of small souvenirs and had a really hard time finding some! One of my favorite parts about the souq was just getting a better taste for the local culture. We arrived during prayer time so many of the shops closed during this time, which has been customary across the country. While some of the shops just halfway closed their door, others just tied together pieces of clothing to signify that it was closed! Talk about a safe and trusting society – I loved it!

The alley of the Tuesday Souq-Market from Abha, Saudi Arabia.
Tuesday Souq in Abha, Saudi Arabia.

Shamsan Castle Ottoman – Qishleh

This castle is one of the oldest in the Abha region and dates back to the Ottoman Empire. Most of its outer walls are still standing and it has three towers, as well as a courtyard inside. However, when we visited in December it was closed and we were only able to walk around outside the castle. From different online reviews it sounds like it was closed as of September 2021 as it needs some restoration work.

Al-Dhabab Walkway

This walkway runs along the edge of Abha and provides spectacular views of the valley and highway below. It is said that often times the clouds will fill the valley below and you are literally above the clouds. However, during our time in Abha there were no foggy or super cloudy days.

Other Attractions in Abha:

There are a few other places that are noted as being places to visit while in Abha, including High City, Green Mountain and Al Muftaha. To us, High City and Green Mountain seemed more like a commercialized tourist attraction, so we ended up just skipping those. There is a cable car that runs between the two, but in our opinion, it seemed quite expensive for the view you would get. High City also just seemed to be a place for various stores and shops.

One area that we did want to try to visit was Al Muftaha. This is a cultural village in the heart of Abha that has a variety of art galleries and displays, as well as the village is set up to look like the historical villages. Unfortunately, it was surrounded by construction barriers and seemed to be under construction. I guess when you travel during the low tourism season you run into issues like these from time to time.

Mountains are our happy place so it was a nice area to explore and see this different type of mountain range, as well as the spunky baboons that came with them. The ancient villages built on the mountainsides are so unique to this area and they were the highlights of exploring the southern area of Saudi Arabia. Our only world of caution is that if heading there during the off season, there might be several things closed. Although it was a lot of driving during our time there – from Jeddah up to the northern part of Al Ula, back to Jeddah and down to Abha & back to Jeddah again – we feel like we really saw a lot of the unique areas of Saudi Arabia and really got to explore places off the beaten path.

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