Pearl Merchants' Neighbourhood

Top choice in Saudi Arabia

Staring at the mesmerising geometric and floral designs of the carved patterns that adorn the houses and arched gateways of Farasan's former pearl merchants, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the midst of Andalusian or Mughal ruins. The best preserved house is the stunning Rifai house, built by wealthy pearl merchant Munawwar Al Refai in 1922, but it is locked up. Fortunately, several near-complete and dilapidated examples close by are accessible.

One of these, directly opposite the Refai house, has a stunning carved portico entrance that welcomes the visitor into an area where the rest of the property remains hidden. After walking through a low archway that ensures any visitor enters bowed in a state of humility, the magnificent house comes into full view – its upper part entirely covered in decorative carvings. The most complete and accessible room is the one painted blue, with tall arabesque shelf niches covering all four walls. Each niche is framed by beautiful floral carvings that intensify the closer they get to the ceiling. Almost every house here has a grand arched gateway, giving the neighbourhood an almost regal feel, like no other historic area anywhere in the country.

The houses are built from coral rocks retrieved from the Red Sea and then covered in plaster before being carved by master artisans. The ceilings are made of timber and many houses also had coloured glass called kamaryat decorating the upper edges. Most of the surviving houses date from around the 1920s. The houses where the historically wealthy pearl merchants lived is a 15-minute walk to the northeast from the centre of Farasan Town.

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