National Geographic : 1966 Jan
By Land-Rover, camel, and jet plane I traveled 20,000 miles through the sparsely settled peninsula, an area roughly the size of the United States east of the Mississippi. Half of Saudi Arabia's 6,630,000 people cluster in booming cities and small oases that dot the desert kingdom. The rest, the hardy Bedouin, still graze their flocks across the endless sands (pages 18-19). Like a Bedouin, I too roamed-from the green hills of Abha to the sand-blown wastes of Ar Rab' al Khali (the Empty Quarter), from ancient holy cities to modern oil towns along the Persian Gulf. Wher ever I went, I found the Arabians welcom ing the 20th century, but never with open arms. "Modernization we want, we need, and we will have," a Saudi friend told me, "but on our own terms." From Jidda, an international port of entry, I flew to the government capital, Riyadh, to begin my journey (map, pages 8-9). The jet flight from Jidda was a typi cal Saudi blend of past and present. A Saudi prince wearing white robe and head cloth and black 'aba, or cloak, sat with his three wives; only their high heels showed beneath their all-covering black garments. A British geologist fanned his red mustache with a copy of The Times, while across the aisle a weathered desert sheik sat next to a bodyguard armed with a silver-mounted dagger and a Czech submachine gun. We climbed above the steaming Red Sea coast, over the volcanic mountains of Al Hijaz, and across the Harrat Rahat, a life less plain of black basalt boulders that even the Bedouin fear. Egyptian popular music poured from Emotions at fever pitch, a quarter of a mil lion Moslems jam Haram Mosque in the holy city of Mecca to pay homage to Allah. In a milling mass, those in the center-blurred in this time exposure-circle the black-draped Ka'ba, most sacred of Islamic shrines. Shouting, weeping with joy, pilgrims seek to touch its granite walls and thus achieve the goal of a lifetime. Moslems believe the prophet Abra ham-like Mohammed a messenger of God and his son Ishmael built the first structure here. And five times each day, from across the globe, the world's 456,000,000 Moslems turn toward Mecca to pray. KODACHROMEBYTHOMAS J. ABERCROMBIE© N.G.S . THIS PAGE FOLDS OUT 5 the cabin speakers while the steward served us cardamom-flavored Arab coffee from a long-beaked brass pot. We flew 500 miles across the desert plains of the Najd. Not a village or a palm grove did I see un til we crossed the Jabal Tuwayq escarp ment and let down into Riyadh. It was here that I met young Soliman Alsaleh, my friend from the Saudi Ministry of Information. "Modernization has changed the face of Riyadh since I was a boy," said Soliman as we climbed into his Volkswagen. "It's becoming a city of two different worlds." Born in Riyadh and schooled in Califor nia, Soliman felt perfectly at home in both. Glass and Steel Supplant Mud Brick Huge glass-and-concrete buildings of the new Saudi Government ministries lined six-lane Airport Road (pages 12-13). Soliman pointed them out as we drove in from the terminal: Petroleum, Defense, In terior, Communications, Agriculture, Edu cation, Health, Commerce and Industry, Finance-impressive symbols. I thought of the new responsibilities Arabia was taking on. Yet the old ways persist: In the shade of the Ministry of Finance a family of Bedouin had pitched their black tents. In the busy suq, or market, around the Masjid al-Joma-the Friday Mosque-we wove through the colorful throng. A black veiled woman clutched a bolt of gingham under her arm; a gray-bearded hawker waved bright red headcloths; a ragged boy peddled water from a pottery jug for two cents a glass. (Continued on page 10) "Sand. Always sand. In my eyes, in my shoes, in my cameras." Author-photographer Thomas Abercrombie will never forget the cruel, gritty, all-pervading sand encountered during his four months of travel in the remote, long-mysterious kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As a Moslem, he ob tained rare permission to photograph the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. As a guest, he found a wel come in homes of desert tribesmen and city dwellers alike. The result: an extraordinary portrait of a land isolated for centuries by its religion and its geography. In the cool light of dawn, Bedouin break camp. By day they roam the deserts where only brittle shrubs scar the wastes. In bold con trast, the glittering airport terminal at Dhahran links the nation's far-flung cities by Saudi Arabian Airlines jets.