I live in an old house in the town and, when I unlocked the town's gate for his car, the government driver asked me to follow his passenger, a bearded stranger. ‘So he doesn’t get lost’, he added. The stranger wasn’t going to get lost: this isn’t a big site. It is one of the most important tourist sites in Saudi Arabia, but foreign visitors are rare and the stranger could enjoy peace and solitude as he wandered the ancient streets. No, he wasn’t likely to get lost, the driver was just passing on responsibility.
The sun was high, bright and very hot, it was well over 40 degrees. Once upon a time this area had just been dunes and a river. It became a village and then a town. It is called Direiyyah. The houses are now mostly ruins, though mud walls remain which soar up to twenty feet or higher. Originally built to keep the narrow streets in shade, they are old and mostly collapsed, dramatic shapes against the clear blue sky.
After a while I approached him and beckoned him into my house, into the cool. While I served tea I described some of the history to the stranger, for example how the town’s walls had withstood 20,000 Turkish troops for over six months in 1818. The Turks captured the town eventually and destroyed it. It was finally abandoned in the late 19th century because it was surrounded by dams, farms and valleys and couldn’t expand. But it’s historically important to us Saudis, for it was here that the Ibn Saud tribe formed their first statelet and teamed up with Wahhabism, the state religion: here were taken the first steps in the birth of the Saudi Kingdom. I also told him some more recent history, for example why my agal (the cord which wraps around our heads over our head-dresses) is black. It is black in mourning, we say, for the peninsular tribes’ betrayal by the British during World War One.
Then he had to go. He turned round at the door, thanked me and told me that being outside was like standing in front of the open door of a furnace. It’s true. The sun is certainly hot but there’s shade. What never stops is the wind: so dry, ever so hot, and absolutely relentless. It’s truly energy-sapping if you aren’t used to it.
Earlier I had seen the stranger stagger and stop as he explored the ruined houses and streets, leaning against a mud wall for a rest. This was why I’d suggested he enter my house and have tea; and this is why his driver had passed on his responsibility and stayed in his air-conditioned car.