From the breathtaking summit of Al Qarah Mountain, Arabic translations of the surrounding region’s place names bring new meaning. Al Ahsa, the name of the governorate, means ‘murmuring streams’ and Hofuf, the name of the main city, translates as ‘whistling wind’. Visitors who scale this limestone mesa will be able to hear the latter while witnessing the lush green impact of the former.
However, the reward for reaching the top is not only a sultry gust but also a stupendous view of the world’s largest oasis, a source of life that has proven integral to the growth of Al Ahsa through the ages.
A 25-minute drive east of Al Hofuf towards Al Ahsa National Park is where the village of Al Qarah and its mountain can be found, but you’ll spot it long before you arrive. The peak rises 75-meters above street level – and 205-meters above sea level – but requires no great exertion to get to the top for unparalleled 360-degree views over Al Ahsa.
Care should nevertheless be taken when climbing any part of the mountain, and an experienced guide will be able to lead the way safely – or locate more secluded paths. Alternatively, ask on-site staff who will be only too happy to point out the optimum route for getting to the top.
From on high you’ll view this emerald oasis among the sand, with over 160km of oasis housing the bulk of Al Ahsa’s estimated three million palm trees. The true miracle of the terrain can be fully appreciated, giving an understanding of how the villages – branching off the mountain like fronds – have sustained life for millennia.
These palms, their fruits, and the reservoirs of crystalline fresh water running underneath the oasis are the reasons that Al Ahsa was able to house civilizations that pre-dated Islam, with archaeological evidence of some of the oldest settlements in the Arabian Peninsula dating as far back as 5,000 BC.
Key to survival over the millennia has been how humans here have interacted with the environment, working with nature rather than fighting against it. For as well as producing five tons of the world’s best Khalas dates every day, these much-loved palm trees also play the role of guardian, as a barrier that protects houses and farms from regular sandstorms.
Al Qarah Mountain is located at the eastern edge of the Shadqam plateau, which links to Kuwait and Iraq in the north and the Rub Al Khali desert in the south. Its network of curves and caves are a result of a phenomenon known as sub-aerial weathering, where the limestone rock has been crafted from rain and rivers rather than ground water. This has led to the mountain’s remarkable mushroom-like shapes, narrow canyons and tall interior passages.
As with cumulus clouds, spotting faces among the caves is a fun game to play with the kids as you make your way through the winding crooks and nooks that intertwine within the mountain.
Another quirk of the caves is the way the high walls, cool limestone and gentle breeze combine to regulate the temperature – making these caverns cool in summer yet warm in winter. This advantageous quirk of fate ensures the caves are a popular tourist attraction all year around, not to mention a birdwatching hotspot during migration season with Eurasian hoopoe, bee-eaters, nightingales and bulbuls all known to visit.
Recent renovations to make the caves more accessible include lighting and paving, while the ‘Land of Civilizations’ museum provides an excellent account of the area’s ancient history. Stories of local legends include the mountain’s rumored role in the lives of Dilmun kings, Prophet Ibrahim. An accompanying cast of carved structures relating to the story of Adam can be found outside, while in-depth information about Al Ahsa’s feats of farming and irrigation also feature.
Elsewhere on site you’ll also find a mosque, café and gift shop, with wheelchair access is provided in several areas. The complex opens at 8am every morning, closing at 9pm through the week and 10pm at weekends. Entry is SAR50 (about US$13.32).
Visitors should remember to bring sunglasses, for while the temperate caves protect from the sun, there are few areas for shade on the surface. The rock reflects the beaming sun like a gloss, creating a white aura that only adds to the mountain’s mystique.