Empty Quarter: exotica

…info flow…

Dhows still ply the Arabian Peninsular waters today, albeit with diesel engines in their holds.

On the edges of the Rub al Khali, dhows have always carried information and goods along what we all have known as the ‘Spice Route’.

For millennia, dhows traversed these barely habitable edges of the Arabian Peninsula and the Empty Quarter creating at the ports, point concentrations for massive flows–massive flows of information and exotic goods–which exotic goods you ask?  Let your dreams be your guide.


Dhows have always bounced port by port along the edges of the Empty Quarter.

Little wonder why Westerners have been attracted inland from these ports…inland in the southern Arabian Peninsula to discover something richer than mirage–to explore what must be mysterious history, paths, journeys, routes–answers in the shifting sands of the Empty Quarter.

…still felix? Hardly!

…my tether?

Four incredible deserts–Nafud, Dahna, Nejd and the Rub al Khali. No weather reports–no GPS–no communications? No way. Still felix?

Our Western image of the Empty Quarter landscape, an image pieced together from the writings of our past, the holy books, the Greeks, the Romans, Marco Polo(1254-1324), Ibn Battuta(1304-1369), the ships docking in Genoa and Venice, the writings of Richard Francis Burton(1821-1890), Gertrude Bell(1868-1926), T.E. Lawrence(1888-1935),  Wilfred Thesiger(1910-2003), and others, continues today–even with GPS, even with 24/7 online large pipe digital coms–to be a mystery…an unknown landscape…still beckoning…still threatening.

Arabia Felix


Arabia Felix…some call it the Yemen–but, why felix? Because it gets rainfall…it is happy. But it is the Empty Quarter, the Rub al Khali, the arid, tropical sand desert that is the true enigma.

There is no Arabia Felix without the Rub Al Khali.

Straddling the Tropic of Cancer and, known in English as The Empty Quarter, the world’s largest contiguous sand desert…has always been, and still is, for humans…an enigma…throughout millennia…a massive natural and cultural enigma.

Hejaz, Tihama

Not every desert in the Arabian Peninsula is sand.

Hejaz, Tihama

The house, the human shelter in this photo sits where the Hejaz mountains fold down onto the flat Tihama coastal plain. The house’s position in the landscape tells the story of: water–there is life; and no water–no life.

In the mid 1980s I lived on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia,  in the Western Region. The area is known historically as the Hejaz after the mountains running north from Jeddah, parallel to the Red Sea coast. This is the region of Mecca and Medina. And the Hejaz mountains divide the Tihama, the coastal plain influenced by the Red Sea from the inland deserts, Nafud, and Nejd.

The first time I heard the phrase in the above image caption, ‘no water–no life’ was in Morocco in the early 1970s. I was sitting with a group of people including a young Moroccan man, from Meknes, whose family originally had been farmers in Taza. He said, “Without water there is no life and no cleanliness.”

Between Nejd and Nafud

Nejd Nafud

In the Nejd and Nafud deserts, it was these sand dune beauties that called…that seemed to be the emissaries of the Empty Quarter, the Rub Al Khali, the world’s largest contiguous sand desert, located in the southern Arabian Peninsula, to the south east of the Asir Mountains and north of Yemen and Oman.

In the 1980s, while living and working in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I travelled the triangle from Jeddah to Riyadh to Medina, touching the edges of the Nejd and Nafud deserts, and then via the Red Sea coast back to Jeddah.  There were always somewhere in the landscape…sand dunes–not always continuous but amongst rocky plains and stony mountains, sand dunes tucked here and there.

Somehow these sand dune emissaries had moved north on their own from the Empty Quarter, and I must say–they began as magnetic attractions for my eyes.

But also their landscape stories, their landscape reputations became magnetic attractions through the ears as heard by St. John Philby, Bertram Thomas, Richard Francis Burton, Wilfred Thesiger, Gertrude Bell and T.E. Lawrence–all authors, all travelers, all mesmerized into their own Arabian Peninsula sand dune desert explorations.