The spectacular emptiness of the Arabian landscape provides a blank canvas upon which is projected a riot of cultural, religious, intellectual and trading wonders.
In describing his travels with the Bedouin across the Empty Quarter, 20th-century desert explorer Wilfred Thesiger acknowledged the power of the desert to leave an imprint on the imagination. This austere allure has attracted travellers to Arabia for centuries: Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo and TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) are among many famous explorers beguiled by the beauty and challenge of the barren landscapes. Thankfully, modern desert-goers no longer need risk life and limb to venture into the wilderness, as roads and camps make encounters with this inspiring landscape possible for all.
When asked what they most like about their land of sand dunes, the Bedouin near Al Hashman in Oman reply that they enjoy coming to town. Town! This is the Arabia of the 21st century, built on oil and banking – sophisticated communities looking to the future and creating empires out of sand, or at least on land reclaimed from the sea. For those looking for a dynamic urban experience, the Gulf cities are the place to find it. With high incomes per capita, elegant towers, opulent hotels and eccentric malls, these cities offer the ‘pleasure domes’ of the modern world.
The essence of the Arabian Peninsula lies in its people: good-natured haggling in souqs, cursing on long journeys, sharing sweet tea on the edges of wild places. Unifying all is Islam, a way of life, the call to prayer carried on an inland breeze, a gentle hospitality extended towards strangers. This is what many travellers most remember of their visit here – the ancient tradition of sharing 'bread and salt' and of ensuring safe passage, albeit in a modern context. Visitors can expect friendly exchange as equally in supermarkets as in remote desert villages.
It’s hard to think of Arabia without conjuring the Queen of Sheba and camel caravans bearing frankincense from Dhofar in Oman; dhows laden with pearls from Dilmun; the ruins of empire in Saudi Arabia’s Madain Saleh. The caravans and dhows may be plying different trades these days, but the lexicon of The Thousand and One Nights that brought Scheherazade’s exotic, vulnerable world to the West still helps define the Peninsula today. Visit a fort, barter in a souq or step into labyrinthine alleyways and you’ll immediately discover the perennial magic of Arabia.
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