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THE HIGHLANDS OF TA’IF

Located less than a hundred kilometers to the east of Mecca, the highlands of Ta’if province are a popular destination for Saudis, local expatriates and an increasing number of visitors from overseas.

In the sixth century CE, the city of Ta’if was populated by the Banu Thaqif tribe whose descendants still live in and around the city today.
Sitting on the slopes of the Sarawat mountains at an elevation of 1,879 meters, the walled city was the home of an idol goddess, Al-lat, known as “the lady of Ta’if.”. In addition to being a center of pagan worship, the city was also a center of trade due to its situation at the crossroads of two of the most important roads in the Arabian peninsula – the “frankincense” road that originated in Yemen and the road to Mecca which was also a place of pagan worship before the advent of Islam.

The people of Ta’if grew wheat, grapes and other fruit which earned it the title “the Garden of the Hijaz” In the early seventh century CE, the prophet Muhammad, who was born in Mecca, began to spread his message hroughout the Hijaz but encountered resistance and, in some instances, persecution from many of the tribes including the Banu Thaqif.

In 630 CE, the battle of Hunayn took place close to Ta’if and shortly after that, the siege of Ta’if itself when the city was able to repel the attacks. The final battle, Tabouk, took place in 631 CE and left Ta’if completely isolated. The leaders of Banu Thaqif went to Mecca to surrender and agreed to destroy their idol goddess, Al-lat, along with all of the other signs of their city’s pagan existence.
In 1517, the Sharif of Mecca capitulated to the Ottoman sultan, Selim I, and surrendered to him the keys of Mecca
and Medina. As part of the Hijaz, Ta’if also fell under Ottoman control and remained so for a further three centuries until 1802, when the Hijaz was retaken by rebels in alliance with the House of Saud. The loss was keenly felt by the
Ottoman empire which viewed itself as the “protector” of the two holy cities.

In 1813, the new Ottoman sultan, Mahmud II, called upon his viceroy in Egypt, Muhammad Ali, to launch an attack on the Hijaz. In the same year, the Swiss traveler and orientalist, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, visited Ta’if and wrote an eyewitness account of the city following its recapture by Muhammad Ali with whom Burckhardt had several interviews.
Burckhardt wrote about the destruction of the city that had been caused by the conquest of 1802, noting that most
of the buildings were still in ruins. He also recorded that the population of the city was still mostly Banu Thaqif and that, in terms of trade, the city was an entrepôt for coffee.

In 1916, the Hashemites launched their revolt against the Ottoman empire. Ten years later, in 1926, Abdulaziz al-Saud was officially recognized as the new king of Hijaz. Ta’if remained a part of the Hijaz until 1932 when the two kingdoms, Hijaz and Najd, were unified as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Today, the city of Ta’if has a population of well over half a million people and is the center of a fertile agricultural region best known for its flowers, grapes, pomegranates, peaches, apricots, dates, figs and honey. Although Ta’if has hot summers, the temperatures are still not as extreme as they are in lowerlying regions of the kingdom which is one of the reasons it’s such a popular destination for city dwellers looking to escape the heat.
Beside the climate, another reason for its popularity is its flowers. Indeed, the provincial capital is known as the “City
of Roses”.

A unique species of rose, commonly known as the Damask rose, is grown on seven hundred farms and is renowned for its robust and spicy fragrance. It is harvested for rose oil and rose water and is also used in the manufacture of designer perfumes by leading brands such as Ormonde Jayne, Perris Monte Carlo, Chanel, and Guerlain. The icon of the city is celebrated each year at the beginning of spring at the Ta’if flower festival which draws tens of thousands of visitors.
The natural beauty of Ta’if province can best be seen from al-Hada nature reserve. A cable car starting at al-Kurr water-park village takes visitors on a thirty-minute ride to the top of al- Hada mountain, 2,100 meters above sea level.

Al-Hada means tranquility and the mountain peak offers fresh, cool mountain air, true relaxation and panoramic views over the surrounding valley and massif. The mountain is also known for the groups of wild baboons that can often be spotted on the slopes.
Other popular vantage points are the village of ash-Shafa perched at 2,200 meters above sea level and Jebel Daka which is covered in juniper trees at 2,500-2,900 meters above sea level.
The rich history of Ta’if can be explored at Shubra Palace. Named after a similar palace in Cairo, it was originally built in 1858 as a two-storey structure. The current four-storey building was built in 1905 on the orders of Sharif Ali
Pasha.

With its latticework windows and balconies and interior marble from Carrara, Italy, it is one of the city’s most impressive buildings. In 1986, the late King Fahd designated the palace as a museum to display the heritage of the
Ta’if region.
Some forty kilometers north of Ta’if is Souk Okaz. Historically, this was a gathering place for local tribes which took place for twenty days each year during the lunar month of Dhu al-Qaada. The tribes would meet to settle disputes,
make agreements and treaties and hold sporting competitions. It was especially important for competitions in poetry
and prose which served to formalize the rules of Arabic language, grammar and syntax. Since 2007, many of these
traditions have been revived in the Souk Okaz festival and the annual event now attracts a large number of visitors.
Organized by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, the twoweek festival offers visitors a wide range of art and cultural activities including an open theater, a museum, exhibitions of art and calligraphy, an equestrian school for children and shops selling handicrafts, artworks and gifts.
Another popular annual event is the Ta’if camel festival held over thirty days in August and September. Known as
the “ship of the desert” the camel is celebrated for its grace, beauty, strength, and endurance Even as the country
rapidly modernizes, camels remain a central part of Saudi culture as well as being a lucrative business with selling
prices for camels reaching hundreds of thousands of dollars. Held under the patronage of crown prince Mohammed
bin Salman, the Ta’if camel race is the largest in the kingdom in terms of its size and the value of the prizes totaling $12 million.
For horse lovers, the al-Massara International Equestrian Centre serves as an auction house for selectively bred
Arabian horses. The center is one of the largest equestrian centers in the Middle East and offers lessons for both novices and those with some experience.
In October 2017, plans were announced to invest up to $3 billion in the development of “New Ta’if”. The new master planned city is expected to cover an area of 1,250 square kilometers. The plans include a new airport, the expansion of Souk Okaz, the construction of new hotels, a new university, a number of technology and industrial parks, vocational training centers and a residential suburb comprising more than 10,000 homes.