By Maryam Al Shehhi
When it comes to travel and exploration, many people tend to zoom into popular touristy places, while leaving out the places that are abandoned, despite the beauty and serenity that their stillness offers. Beyond the frequently visited headlines, here are seven picturesque abandoned places in the Arab world that are worth exploring.
Al Madam: The abandoned village in Sharjah, UAE
Although this photograph looks like a scene from the Japanese movie Women in the Dunes (1964), it was actually taken from Sharjah’s abandoned village, Al Madam, where a picture is worth a thousand words. Said to be more than five decades old, this village has been left to its animals and plants. Although no one knows the actual reason why the locals left everything behind (including their furniture and suitcases), many assume djinn, or spirits, were the reason they were forced to escape. Others assume that the sands increasingly occupied the area, making it difficult for the locals to continue to live there. The fact that the village is made up of two rows of identical houses and a mosque, has also invited questions about who lived here, how their lives were like and why they left. “I can’t help but wonder what unfolded behind these doors,” pondered one traveler after she visited the site.
Despite the paranormal and mysterious tales that surround the area, there is a sense of calmness and serenity that will envelope any visitor to it, especially if the site is visited at sunrise or sunset. It is the reason many people seem to have increasingly visited the unofficial tourist attraction since the onset COVID-19, to momentarily escape the worries and challenges that come with our new normal, and recharge.
Dr. Farid Serhal Palace, Jezzine, Lebanon
Located in the south of Lebanon, this palace was named after the member of parliament, Dr. Farid Serhal, who had big dreams and visions for his future home. It is said that when the doctor knew the land the palace is currently situated on was empty, he traveled the world to collect carpets, sculptures and books on Greek mythology to house in his new home. He also traveled throughout the Arab world (including Damascus and Iraq) in search of antique dealers to decorate it. The palace was more than brick to him and definitely much more than a place to stay. “The palace was his life, his sole subject of conversation, his passion, his folly,” describes one Lebanese blogger. However, he unfortunately passed away before the construction of the palace, his lifelong dream, was completed.
Today, the unfinished state of this gem is where its charm stems from. Though inspired by oriental architecture, this palace’s design combines elements from both the east and the west. Starting from the entrance, this enchanting palace opens its doors to an ancient courtyard that stands in between the large rooms, the wide windows, and the statues Dr. Serhal so carefully curated. What adds to the beauty of Serhal’s Palace is the echo that results from its wide spaces; spaces that lure you to explore their details. The palace is open for sightseeing, exploration, and reflection like a number of similar abandoned sites in Lebanon, yet this one requires an appointment and an open eye.
Ushaiger Heritage Village, Najd, Saudi Arabia
This ancient village may initially look like any other old mud-brick village, however, it is not. Located in the heart of Najd, 200km Northwest of Riyadh, the Ushaiger Heritage Village was a place where Bedouins settled approximately 1500 years ago, and it quickly became a location in which pilgrims stopped to rest and refuel on their way to Mecca. Though many have since departed the village (whose name means “little blonde”), a small community of residents remains there. The Ushaiger Heritage Village was restored to preserve the beauty of its picturesque streets, 400 yellow mud houses and 25 mosques, all which are a testament to Najdi architecture, with their triangular windows and beautifully carved wooden doors. It is open to visitors.
Visiting the Ushaiger Heritage Village means that you will experience a wholesome journey that reflects the history of the kingdom and the way its people lived. There, you will also find the Al Salem Museum which houses embroidery, jewelry, utensils and even weapons that belonged to the residents of the village. It is truly a museum built by its people for the whole world.
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Tin Mal Mosque, Al Haouz, Morocco
Established in a city that dates back to the 12th century, the Tin Mal Mosque stands in memory of Almohad, the North African Berber Muslim empire. Constructed to honor the founder of the city, Ibn Tumart, the Tin Mal Mosque in the Atlas Mountains has been abandoned for years despite its restoration in the 1990s. What makes this mosque special is its architecture; the mosque looks castle-like and has a beautiful minaret. It is the perfect location to visit for those looking to enjoy the serenity and beauty of old Morocco.
The abandoned plane, Umm Al Quwain, UAE
Driving past Umm Al Quwain and see a plane parked off the highway? Don’t worry, you are not in an episode of Sherlock Holmes nor in an action movie about a hijacked plane; you are simply looking at the Ilyushin IL 76 cargo plane, which has been abandoned for more than two decades.
This aircraft from the Soviet era was built in 1975 and landed in a now closed airfield in Umm Al Quwain in 1999 (although some suggest it was as early as 1990). It was registered and re-registered under several authorities for years, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its last known owner was Centrafrica Airlines. However, no one knows the precise reason the plane has remained there over the years, even after the airfield’s closure. One theory, amongst many, suggests that it landed by accident and was left there. Another suggests that the plane was bought as scrap metal for a person who lives in the emirate.
Whatever the reason, its decades spent in the desert are visible on its body today. Its tyres deflated, birds have used it as a location to set up their nests. The plane’s body also has the words “Palma Beach Hotel” written in now faded colors, on it as an old advertisement for the hotel nearby.
Visitors can explore the location, awaken the Sherlock Holmes inside them, and ask questions that do not have certain answers. The beauty of this landmark lies within its mystery.
The archaeological sites of Bat, Al-Khutm and Al-Ayn, Oman
The protohistoric archaeological complex of Bat, al-Khutm and al-Ayn in Oman’s Al Dahirah region is one of the world’s most complete and well-preserved ensembles of settlements and necropolises that date back to the 3rd millennium BCE. The UNESCO World Heritage sites house stone towers, irrigation systems and rural settlements that have withstood the test of time long after the areas were abandoned by its inhabitants, and serve as a testament to Oman’s rich history. Bathed in Oman’s gentle sun and surrounded by its bold mountains, the complex gives any visitor to it a special experience of the protohistoric age in the Gulf.
Bristol Hotel, Manama, Bahrain
Why would a hotel surrounded by lively buildings in Bahrain’s bustling capital stand still despite its abandonment and alienation? This is what many abandoned places enthusiasts, such as the Bahraini journalist Jehan Al Khateeb, wonder when they visit Bahrain’s Bristol Hotel. A location that hosted many travelers and tourists for decades, and witnessed chaos and tranquility, this hotel’s aesthetics stand today to tell a story about the history of Bahrain.
The Bristol Hotel, with numerous branches around the world, was the center of Bahrain’s lively scene in the 1980’s, with its Willow Steak House and The Londoner Bar, which were attractive locations to many travelers and residents. In addition, during the Gulf War, the hotel was a location that represented calm against the chaotic nature of the outside, and many visited it to unwind.
As she documents through photography and text, Jehan describes that everything in the hotel has pretty much remained as it is, despite the changes that resulted from its mysterious abandonment. The still vibrant furniture and the architecture mirror the 1980s in Bahrain, the western inspiration, the past liveliness of the place and showcases the fact colors do not fade easily. Colors stand still, similar to the questions, concerns and uncertainties that accompany abandoned places.
Maryam Al Shehhi is an Emirati writer studying Political Science and Literature Creative Writing at NYUAD. The daughter of Ras Al Khaimah’s mountains, yet, having been born and raised in Abu Dhabi, she finds herself existing in the land in between seas and mountains. Maryam is passionate about the arts and culture, as she has been invested in various forms of self-expression; she has performed in plays and a musical reality show, and she is an editor of an Arabic magazine. Maryam is currently interning at Sekka.
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