The Wells of Memory

One of the first travelers in a century to walk through the Hejaz desert of Saudi Arabia, Paul Salopek encounters a fabled past of caravans and pilgrims, of empires come and gone.

This story appears in the July 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.

There are thousands of wells in the old Hejaz. We walk to them.

Sometimes their water is sweet. More often it is salt. It matters little. These wells, which pock the long-disused caravan trails of Arabia, are monuments to human survival. Each concentrates a fine distillation of the landscape. And the same applies to the people who drink from them. In the Hejaz—the fabled realm of a vanished kingdom of the Hashemites, who once ruled the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia—there are bustling wells and lonesome wells. There are wells whose waters convey the chemistry of sadness or joy. Each represents a cosmos in a bucket. We take our bearings off them.

Wadi Wasit is a well of forgetting.

We reach it on a fiery day in August. We are halfway through a more than 700-mile foot journey, perhaps the first made in generations, from Jeddah to Jordan. We rest in the dendrites of gray shade thrown by the well’s two thorn trees. Here we meet the running man.

He arrives in a pickup truck. Portly, mustachioed, a Bedouin camel herder, he is friendly, curious, talkative, jittery. He mistakes us for treasure seekers. (Why else walk through the scorching desert?) He has come to sell artifacts.

“Look at this!” he says. He displays a tin ring. The iron scabbard of a sword. A well-rubbed coin.

How old are these things?

The running man doesn’t know. “Kadim jidn,” he says: Very old. He shrugs.

The Hejaz—a crossroads where Arabia, Africa, and Asia meet, and long tied by trade to Europe—is one of the most storied corners of the ancient world. It has seen millennia of wanderers. Stone Age people hunted and fished their way north out of Africa through vanished savannas. People from some of humankind’s first civilizations—Assyrians, Egyptians, and Nabataeans—roamed through here, trading slaves for incense and gold. Romans invaded the Hejaz. (Thousands of the legionaries died of disease and thirst.) Islam was born here, in the dark volcanic hills of Mecca and Medina. Pilgrims from Morocco or Constantinople probably drank from the well in Wadi Wasit. Lawrence of Arabia may have gulped its water too. Nobody knows. Kadim jidn.

“Take it!” the running man says. He shoves his orphan finds at us. “Take it for free!” But we decline to buy his curiosities.

Packing our two camels to leave, we spot him once again. He is running now—sprinting around the well. He has removed his white robe. And he is running through the desert in his underwear, circling the well under the ruthless sun. He runs with abandon. Ali al Harbi, my translator, takes a photograph. Awad Omran, our camel handler, guffaws. But I cannot laugh. He is not mad, the running man. Or drugged. Or playing some joke. He is lost, I think. As we all are when we abandon history. We don’t know where to go. There is an abundance of pasts in the Hejaz. But I have never been to a place more memory-less.

A small, bottomless well in the Hejaz: a white porcelain cup.

It holds dark, rich coffee. It sits atop a polished wooden table inside an elegant mansion in the port of Jeddah. Three articulate Hejazi women refill the cup endlessly. They take turns talking, wishing to correct misperceptions about Saudi Arabia: that the kingdom is a homogenized society, a culture flattened by its famously austere brand of Islam, a nation rendered dull by escapist consumerism and by petrodollars. No.

Saudi Arabia, they say, is a rich human mosaic. It enfolds many distinctive regions and cultures: a Shiite east, a Yemeni south, a Levantine north, and a tribal Bedouin stronghold in the center—the puritanical redoubt of the Najdis, home of the ruling dynasty, the House of Saud. The women insist, moreover, that no region in Saudi Arabia remains more independent, more proud, than the realm that has guarded the holy cities of Mecca and Medina since the tenth century—the vanished kingdom of the Hejaz. Fully independent by the end of World War I, the Hejaz was annexed by the Al Saud dynasty only in 1925. It remains a place of contradictions, of complexity, of tensions between religion and geography. On the one hand: a sacred landscape, its holy cities long forbidden to nonbelievers. On the other: the most cosmopolitan and liberal corner of Saudi Arabia, a melting pot, an entrepôt and nexus of migration, brightly checkered with influences from Asia, Africa, the Levant, and a hundred other places—the California of Saudi Arabia.

Laila Abduljawad, a cultural preservationist: “The Hejaz has attracted pilgrims from every corner of the Islamic world. How could this not rub off? Our main dish is Bukhari rice from Central Asia! Our folk textiles are Indian! Our accents are Egyptian! We are more open to the world than the people from the center.”

Salma Alireza, a traditional embroiderer: “The traditional dress for women in the Hejaz was not the abaya”—the severe black robe imposed by the ruling Najdis. “Women here used to wear bright red and blue dresses in public. That was traditional. But life changed in the 1960s. The oil money poured in. We modernized too fast. We lost so much in 50 years!”

Rabya Alfadl, a young marketing consultant: “Is the Hejaz still different? Take a look around.”

And it’s true. The women sit at the table unveiled. They wear casual Western clothing: blouses and trousers. (Such a meeting would be difficult to arrange in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where gender segregation and tribal ways remain so strict that a man will not utter his mother’s name in public.) The house where we chat is sleekly designed, chic, minimalist, global in decor. And outside, in Jeddah’s streets, there are art galleries, cafés, promenades, museums—the cultural hub of Saudi Arabia.

“A sense of cultural identity has persisted in the Hejaz for a thousand years. It developed its own music, its cuisine, its own folktales,” Abduljawad tells me. She turns her cup in her hands. “We are taking our first baby steps to rescue a small part of this.”

These women are daughters of a feminine city. Arab folk tradition holds that the biblical Eve was buried in Jeddah, now a modern, sprawling, industrial port. Eve’s tomb—200 yards long, shaped like a reclining figure—was crowned by an “ancient and lofty dome,” according to the Moorish traveler Ibn Jubayr. It is gone, marked today by a barren concrete cemetery. Wahhabi clerics, who abhor shrines as idolatrous, likely razed it nearly a century ago. But again, no one can remember.

More than 300 miles north of Jeddah, near a dry well called Al Amarah, we stop walking. We look up from our tired feet. A car approaches across a plain of glistening salt. It is a Toyota HiLux, the iron camel of the modern Bedouin.

This is an event. Traversing western Saudi Arabia on foot today is lonelier than it was one or two generations ago when the black tents of Bedouin were still pegged to the brittle hide of the desert. The famous nomads of the Hejaz—the Balawi, the Harb, the Juhayna—have resettled in towns, in suburbs, in offices, in army barracks. Modern Saudi Arabia is heavily urbanized (matching the United States in this respect).

Yet a few diehards remain.

One steps from the truck. He is a graybeard in a stained gray thobe, the classic robe of Saudi men. He brings us a gift. “It is our way,” says the old man, who calls himself Abu Saleh. He sweeps a callused hand at the surrounding desert. “We welcome all travelers.”

No other soul is visible on the horizon. Abu Saleh leaves us with a simple goodbye. His gift: a small well of kindness—a dented steel bowl full of camel’s milk.

Built of necessity, the wells in the old Hejaz have faded, softened, eroded into objects of beauty and contemplation.

The earliest of these watering stations were established, precisely one day’s walk apart, by the Caliph Umar in A.D. 638. “A traveler is the person worthiest of receiving protection,” he declared, before pioneering the most sophisticated rest-stop system in the ancient world: waypoints on the pilgrims’ trails to Mecca serviced by forts, cisterns, guesthouses, date groves, hospitals, canals, even distance markers.

We trudge the same trails—ribbons of desert burnished by countless shuffling camels, by numberless sandaled feet. Scholars from Timbuktu drank from these wells. So did merchants from Spain seeking frankincense. So did sun-boiled 19th-century European explorers who rambled the Hejaz disguised as pilgrims. One who didn’t pose was a blustery Englishman named Charles M. Doughty. He announced himself to everyone as a Christian, an infidel, and walked with a knife up his sleeve. (Of one caravan swollen with 10,000 animals and 6,000 people, he wrote: “The length of the slow-footed multitude of men and cattle is near two miles, and the width some hundred yards in the open plains.”)

North of the city of Al Wajh we unpack our two camels at a well, utterly ignored by the speeding traffic of a superhighway. This well, called Al Antar, was rendered obsolete a century ago by steamships. It is made absurd today by the pilgrims hurtling overhead in Boeing 777s. I bend over the well’s lip. A damp air breathes up from its darkness, cooling my cheeks. I hear from somewhere far below the calls of startled songbirds. I think: Arabia is like the American West. It is a landscape of terrible absences.

If the Hejaz still inspires romance in the non-Muslim world, it is due to its long caravan of foreign chroniclers.

There is the 19th-century Swiss polymath Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who traveled to the religious core of Islam as a pauper—a “reduced Egyptian gentleman”—and never made it home. (He died of dysentery and was buried with Muslim rites in Cairo.) There is the brilliant and pompous Englishman Richard Francis Burton, who, if he can be believed, actually touched the Kaaba, the holiest of holies—a massive cube of volcanic stone in Mecca toward which all Muslims must pray. These Europeans witnessed a world locked in time. They found Red Sea towns built of shining white coral blocks, their arched doors and window shutters painted sea green and dazzling nomad blue. They passed through walled cities whose tall gates creaked shut at dusk. They galloped camels between fortified oases with wild-haired men, the Bedouin, whom they found harshly admirable. (Burton: “We had another fight before we got to Mecca, and a splendid camel in front of me was shot through the heart.”) This literary Hejaz, if it ever truly existed, has long since disappeared under American-style suburbs and strip malls. Yet outside the old pilgrim’s port of Al Wajh, we stumble upon the ghost of one of the most famous of these Orientalists.

Workmen are cleaning out a well.

The well lies within the high rock walls of Al Zurayb fortress, built 400 years ago by the Ottomans. The laborers haul up old explosives: cannon shells that look like rusted pineapples. The ordnance was chucked down the well in panic, probably in January 1917. At that time a camelback Arab army was approaching fast. The tribes of the Hejaz had risen against their German-allied Ottoman overlords. And the foreigner who had stoked the revolt—he was barely five feet five inches tall but possessed a masochistic hardness—whooped along with the attackers. Of the Arab cavalry he wrote: “They wore rusty-red tunics henna-dyed, under black cloaks, and carried swords. Each had a slave crouched behind him on the crupper [of the camel] to help him with rifle and dagger in the fight, and to watch his camel and cook for him on the road.”

Thomas Edward Lawrence, more famous as Lawrence of Arabia, is one of our first postmodern heroes: a compromised superman. The young British intelligence officer and Oxford medievalist yearned, subversively, to bring liberty to an Arab world that was then staggering under the corrupt yoke of the Ottoman Turks. Yet he was tormented by the knowledge that the Hejazis who fought alongside him would be betrayed by the European colonial powers that carved up the Middle East after World War I.

“Lorens al Arab,” I tell the workmen at the fort. I point to the live shells.

The name means nothing to them. Lawrence is virtually forgotten in Saudi Arabia. He backed the wrong dynasty after the war. His champion, Faisal, the moderate Hashemite prince of the Hejaz, lost a power struggle to the fierce tribes of the interior led by the peninsula’s future king, Ibn Saud.

“They were a people of spasms, of upheavals, of ideas, the race of the individual genius,” Lawrence wrote of his comrades in the Hejaz. “The desert Arab found no joy like the joy of voluntarily holding back. He found luxury in abnegation, renunciation, self restraint. He made nakedness of the mind as sensuous as nakedness of the body. He saved his own soul, perhaps, and without danger, but in a hard selfishness.”

This is what happens when you peer down wells in the Hejaz. You glimpse your own reflection. Lawrence, an ascetic of empire, was describing himself.

Wells of piety: plastic cups of water arranged by the thousands across a stone courtyard in Medina.

It is Ramadan, the fasting month. The holiest month of the Muslim lunar calendar. Just outside Al Masjid al Nabawi, the burial mosque of the Prophet Muhammad, the second holiest site in Islam, at least 60,000 faithful are gathered at sunset to break the day’s hunger.

They come from all quadrants of the Earth. I see Indians and Africans. I hear French. I am not Muslim. But I have been fasting all month out of respect. Across from me a big pilgrim from Afghanistan—a red-haired Nuristani—kneels in front of one of the prepackaged meals distributed daily at the site. He hands me his orange. I give him mine. We exchange our food like this several times, laughing. On the loudspeakers an imam sings the crowd into prayer. They pray. And beneath a fading yellow sky, we eat in tender silence.

Strange new wells on the roads of the Hejaz: machines humming in the desert.

Their fitted aluminum surfaces shine under the sun. Hallucinations of metal. Of rubber and plastic. They are outdoor electric coolers. They dispense water so icy it numbs the mouth. We encounter hundreds of these mechanical shrines, called asbila: public water fountains commissioned by the pious to earn virtue in the eyes of Allah. One day their rusted parts, jutting from the shifting dunes, will puzzle archaeologists. How can any society afford to chill a cup of water in a barrens as gigantic and remote as the Hejaz? It seems impossible. Mystifying. Yet the asbila from which we gratefully fill our canteens exist because of other wells—ones drilled in the distant oil fields of eastern Saudi Arabia.

“We’ve traded away our past for wealth,” laments Ibrahim, a water engineer in the port of Al Wajh. “My grandfather’s 200-year-old coral-block home? Bulldozed. The docks where dhows from Eritrea brought in camels? Gone. Our city’s stone lighthouse that used to be seen from 20 kilometers at sea? Rubble. Nobody cares. It’s all old stuff. It has no economic value.”

Some Hejazis blame Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative version of Islam for much of the erasure of their past. In recent years, for example, urban historians have decried the demolition of the old quarters of Mecca and Medina, including the flattening of ancient structures associated with Muhammad himself. Officially this was done to provide services for the two million or more pilgrims who swell the cities on hajj. But religious authorities have frequently blessed the destruction of cultural sites. Wahhabis emphasize that all the past before Islam is jahiliyya: a time of ignorance. And they fear that even the preservation of Islamic sites may lead to the worship of objects, and not God—thus promoting idolatry, or shirk.

It is worth noting that the loudest laments for the disappearing heritage of the old Hejaz come from Muslims outside Saudi Arabia. “It is difficult to get young Saudis involved in their own history,” says Malak Mohammed Mehmoud Baissa, the mayor of Jeddah’s remnant old town. “It isn’t taught seriously in schools.”

Breakneck economic change. Modernization. From tents to Twitter and glass skyscrapers in barely three generations. Europe must have been this way during the industrial revolution. It is miraculous that Paris survived.

Meanwhile, in the fishing towns along the shore of the Hejaz, the last local fishermen strain to sing sea shanties into my digital recorder. Songs from the age of wooden dhows. Songs of warm Red Sea winds. Of beauties waiting in ports. These Hejazi fishermen, most of whom have hired out their boats to migrant Bangladeshis, have earned their own anthropologists. “It is important,” say researchers from the University of Exeter in England, “to capture the last true remnants of the songs of the sea before they become mere pastiches.”

We inch northward toward Jordan. We guzzle a gallon of water a day. We seek out wells of memory.

In Jeddah a female artist honors a lost world, displaying on the old city’s walls images of her grandfather sitting with his vanished majlis, a traditional council once common in the homes of Hejaz aristocrats. (The art—titled “Where Is My Majlis?”—is mysteriously removed after a week.)

In Medina a museum director spends seven years of his life constructing a meticulous, 50-foot-square diorama of the holy city’s heart, with its mazy alleys and lemon trees. These timeless features were scraped away in the 1980s to make way for high-rise hotels. (“Old residents come here to cry.”)

The past is fraught territory in every country. Until barely a generation ago U.S. textbooks rarely acknowledged the complex universe inhabited by Native Americans. Israel points to biblical archaeology to cement its right of existence. Yet in Saudi Arabia this blinkered view is changing.

Riyadh has spent nearly a million dollars on a museum devoted to the Hejaz Railway—the storied Arabian version of the Orient Express—terminating in Medina. Jeddah’s antique quarter is also up for review as a UNESCO World Heritage site. (One such global treasure already exists in the Hejaz: Madain Salih, a colossal necropolis of the Nabataean empire.) Most extraordinary of all, an entire Hejazi caravan town of some 800 homes, abandoned and crumbling for 40 years, has been bought by the government for renovation.

“This is our greatest experiment,” says Mutlaq Suleiman Almutlaq, an archaeologist with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, and the curator of the ancient caravansary town of Al Ula. “We are looking back more. This is good.”

Almutlaq is an earnest, friendly man. He scrambles ahead of me in his white thobe through the walled ghost town located south of Madain Salih. He vaults broken archways and pokes through covered medieval streets. He shows me courtyards where traders hawked incense, lapis, and silk for eight centuries. Kerosene lanterns manufactured in Germany rust on the floors of the empty homes. The legendary Muslim explorer Ibn Battuta passed through in the 14th century, praising the honesty of Al Ula’s populace: Pilgrims stored their luggage here en route to Mecca. Almutlaq takes pride in this fact. He lived and worked in Al Ula as a youth. The site’s residents were trucked, en masse, to modern apartments in the 1970s.

“I remember,” he says, smiling. And he talks of traveling merchants loading bales of Egyptian textiles. Of farmers stalking in at dusk from the fields. Of women talking to each other from windows latticed for modesty.

Twin wells of memory: Almutlaq’s glasses, flashing excitedly amid the dim archaeology of his childhood.

We are all pilgrims in the Hejaz. Wanderers through time. We stop at its wells, or we pass them by. It matters little. Used or not, the wells remain. In their basements shine disks of pale sky—the unblinking eyes of memory.

After six months of walking, I say goodbye to my guides Ali and Awad. I cross the Haql border from Saudi Arabia to Jordan. I carry little. A shoulder bag of notebooks bound with rubber bands. Seven hundred miles of words. Pages crazed with jottings about devastating heat. Inked maps of pilgrim roads. Divinations of Bedouin fire doctors. Bearings for remote wells.

I reach a modern tourist resort. No one pays me any mind. There is the novelty of women driving cars. I watch couples strolling beaches in sarongs. I stop at a mini-mart and buy a bottle of filtered water: a small plastic well, an artifact from the main channel of history. I peer south, beyond the Gulf of Aqaba—toward the Hejaz. A cloaked place. The lips of its ancient wells are grooved by ropes turned to dust. Dust long since blown away. I sip my water. It tastes utterly ordinary.