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Al Ahsa


There’s much more to Saudi Arabia than vast ochre deserts. With more than 2.5 million date palm trees blanketing a verdant expanse just inland from Saudi Arabia’s Gulf coast, Al Ahsa is the archetype of a lush desert oasis. And the UNESCO World Heritage-recognized region recently added a new feather to its cap: in October, Guinness World Records declared Al Ahsa the largest self-contained oasis in the world. What that means for travelers is that there’s plenty to choose from. From hot and cold springs to historic mosques to sweeping panoramic vistas, you’ll find a lot to explore in this 6,000-year-old oasis, which has long been a gateway to the Arabian Peninsula for travelers from the East. Don’t miss a chance to sample a khalasah date before you leave —locals proudly proclaim it’s one of the world’s best. But while the date farms are an obvious stop on your Al Ahsa itinerary, here are some other sites you can’t miss.

When in Al Ahsa, go and explore

Al Qarah

Al Qarah stands about 75 meters (or about 250 feet) tall — and the view from the top of the 30,000-acre oasis below is not to be missed. The craggy limestone peaks are well worth scaling, too. Explore the network of caves that carve out snaking pathways flanked by soaring tawny walls, and pay a visit to the Land of Civilizations museum to learn about the area’s millennia-old history.

Jawatha Mosque

Built by the region’s Bani Abd Al Qays tribe in the seventh century, Jawatha Mosque is believed to have been the first mosque in eastern Arabia. It’s also where the second Friday congregation prayer was held. Much of the original building has been destroyed over the centuries, but the mosque was recently restored. Now Friday prayers are regularly recited there again.

Souq Al Qaisariya

Its origins may be unclear — travelers through Al Ahsa have alluded to it in their journals as far back as 1822, though many locals claim it’s been thriving for centuries longer than that — but what is clear is that Souq Al Qaisariya is one of the liveliest, most historical markets in the kingdom. With a maze of more than 7,000 square meters of shops to explore, visitors can bargain for everything from handmade leather sandals to abayas to vials of rosewater, vintage gramophones and antique daggers.

Yellow Lake

On the outskirts of Al Ahsa, this striking lake is hemmed in on all sides by lofty sand dunes and fringed by a thick ring of ferns. Visitors are in for quite an adventure: There are no roads, so you have to get to the banks of the lake by dune-bashing your way over in a four-wheel drive. Once you’re there, have a picnic, go bird-watching (keep an eye out for moustached warblers, Kentish plovers and greater spotted eagles in the winter), or kayak on the lake’s placid waters.