Saudi Arabia is not high on the list of Jewish travel destinations.
There has been no organized Jewish activity in the country for 70 years. Even though a Saudi delegation visited Israel last month, anyone with an Israeli passport is banned from entering the country, as the two countries don’t have diplomatic relations. As of 2014, Jews are now apparently, unofficially, allowed to work there, though not to hold prayer services.
Yet 3,000 years ago, around the time of the First Temple, there was a strong, vibrant Jewish community in the area of what is today Saudi Arabia.
And in the sixth and seventh centuries, there was a considerable Jewish population in Hejaz, mostly around Medina, Khaybar and Tayma. Hejaz makes up most of the western part of modern-day Saudi Arabia and is centered on the two holiest Muslim cities, Mecca and Medina.
The medieval Jewish traveler, Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela in Spain, during an 1165-1173 trek to the Holy Land, made his way to the far-flung Jewish communities that are now in the geographic area of Saudi Arabia.
He cataloged his trip, describing the places he visited and the people he met and providing a demographic rundown of Jews in every town and country. Tayma and Khaybar, where he visited, are two oases that became populated communities because they were along a key land route between the Red Sea coast of the Arabian Peninsula and the Nile Valley.
Historical sites pertaining to the ancient Jewish experience still exist. With the Saudis just possibly warming their ties to Israel — ex-Saudi general Anwar Eshki, who led the recent delegation to Israel, also met publicly in the US last year with Foreign Ministry chief Dore Gold — the day may be drawing near when these locales will be more accessible.
These are five top Jewish spots in Saudi Arabia, to savor online for now, and just maybe up close in the near future:
1) Khaybar is situated in a valley with natural wells that have irrigated the area since ancient times, aiding in the growth of dates known throughout the country. The oasis made Khaybar a regular stop along the incense trade route from Yemen to the Levant, which is why it was the home of the Jewish community at the time. Visitors can also stop at the Jewish cemetery, a 1,400-year-old graveyard without any headstones but known locally for its Jewish history.
2) There’s also the Khaybar Fortress, perched on a hill overlooking the oasis, which is at least 1,400 years old. The earliest accounts of its construction date from the Battle of Khaybar, when the Prophet Mohammed and his army invaded and conquered Khaybar. It was Mohammed’s nephew and son-in-law, Ali, who was able to unlock the gate of the fortress to allow the Muslim armies to finally conquer the fortress. It was rebuilt and reused several times, but is still usually referred to it as the Fortress of the Jews.
3) The Palace of the Jewish Tribe’s Head is also located in Khaybar, and was the home of the Jewish tribe of Marhab. The tribe was known to be wealthy from dealing in gold and jewelry, and the palace it lived in is above the town, about a ten-minute climb from the center.
4) In Tayma, which was often referred to as a fortified city belonging to the Jews, most travelers stop at the Al-Naslaa Rock Formation, located in the Tayma oasis. It’s considered to have one of the most photogenic petroglyphs, or rock art, depicting the life and times of ancient communities. Al-Naslaa is also known for the perfect, natural slit between the two standing stones. Experts say the cause of this perfect slit could be the ground having shifted slightly underneath one of the two supports.
5) At the center of Tayma is Bir Haddaj, a large well considered to be about 2,500 years old, dating back at least to the middle of the sixth century BCE. It wasn’t in use until the 1950s, when it was repaired and later restored to its previous appearance.
The well is mentioned in the Book of Isaiah as the place where the descendants of Ishmael’s son, Tema, lived: “Unto him that is thirsty bring ye water! The inhabitants of the land of Tema did meet the fugitive with his bread.”
There are also the famous Tayma stones inscribed in Aramaic that are now in the Louvre Museum. Thousands of other Aramaic inscriptions that have been found in the area are stored in the city’s museum.