Al-Aḥsā, also known as al-Ḥasā, is a region in eastern Saudi Arabia, located about 60 km inland from the coast of the Persian Gulf. It is historically an oasis region, which is why it is called the Al Ahsa Oasis. Having an area of 85.4 km2, it is the largest oasis in the world.
The region comprises 4 main cities and 22 villages, the Al-Mubarraz and Al-Hofuf cities being among the 15 largest cities in the country. There are many wonders to be explored by curious travellers and below are just a few places that can be visited on a short 48-hour visit.
1. Ibrahim Palace
The Ibrahim Palace, or the Qasr Ibrahim, is a historical castle and fort in the north of Al-Hofuf. Built in the 16th century, it combines traditional Arabic styles with military designs, having been used as an army base.
In 2018 it became the fifth site in Saudi Arabia inscribed on UNESCO’s world heritage list. It also houses the Qasr Ibrahim Mosque, one of the 12 sites in the Cultural Landscape of the Al-Ahsa Oasis.
2. Jawatha Mosque
The Jawatha Mosque is the oldest mosque from the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. About 12 km northwest of Al-Hofuf, it was built around 630 AD by the Bani Abd al-Qays tribe that lived there. Although most of the original structure is in ruins, the mosque is still used for prayers five times a day. It is believed to be the first place in the kingdom, after the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, where Friday prayers were held.
3. Natural springs and Asfar Lake
It is the dozens of natural springs that turned the region into an oasis. Over 100 hot, warm and cold water natural springs surface in Al Ahsa and they are almost always busy. People believe they have curative properties and are often seen bathing in them or even drinking their water.
4. Asfar Lake
The Asfar Lake, or Yellow Lake, is just outside the city of Umran. The lake is surrounded by sand dunes, which makes it difficult to reach. Experienced guides take people there in SUVs that can handle the sandy landscape.
The lake also houses a truly diverse wildlife, since its shores create different types of environments, from wet to semi-dry and dry areas. The fluctuating water level further diversifies the conditions, inviting even more species to prosper there.
5. Al Qarah Mountain caves
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.
6. Souq Al Qaisariya
Al-Qaisaryah market, or Souq Al Qaisariya, is a historic market located in the centre of Al-Hofuf. Dating back to 1822, this open-air souq is one of the oldest markets in the country. It spans over 7,000 m2 and its maze-like alleyways are packed with more than 420 stores selling traditional handicrafts, colourfully decorated teapots, clay pots and chests, spices, oils, textiles, leathers and local perfumes.
7. Best dates in the world
Al-Ahsa is the largest date-palm oasis in the world, with an estimated 3 million date trees spread across 30,000 acres. The khalasah date, also known as khlas, is specific to the region and is commonly described as the best date in the world.
Al Tayar Dates, a factory in Aljafir, is open to the public and offers a vast array of date and date-and-nut combinations that visitors can try before buying. They have also opened a new shop in Al-Hofuf. For a different approach, Wacafe Café offers date and saffron lattes, while Hasawi has bread spiced with dates and cardamom.
8. Traditional cuisine
For a genuine and intimate dining experience, the Dar Basma restaurant offers traditional Saudi cuisine with a modern touch, or, for an even more authentic menu, local women cook family recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation at the restaurant of the Al Koot Heritage Hotel.
9. Spend the night in a castle
The InterContinental hotel in Al Ahsa is built to mirror a 16th century Arabic palace. The 5-star luxury hotel, near the Al Hofuf airport, is decorated with contemporary art, featuring rooms and suites with a view of the city skyline and the vast oasis.