05-Jan-2006 -- It was the Ḥajj week and we were following the Ḥijāz railway and old caravanserais north for over 600 km from Madīna to Tabūk. Thursday, 5 January was a very nice Sa`udi winter's day – blue clear skies, no wind and the temperature in the mid 20 °C's.
al-Buwayr is 100 km north of Madīna and the small village is well known to a few western expatriates as it has a station on the old Ḥijāz railway and a standing freight train and carriages, with the locomotive built in 1910. The railway was built by the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900's to transport thousands of pilgrims from Istanbul and Damascus to Madīna, and although the steel railway sleepers and rails have been removed, the railway bed is still mostly intact with some beautiful stone bridges, culverts and forts every 20 km. During World War 1 in 1917 the British were fighting the Germans and the Turks, and guerrilla tactics were used by T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) along with the Arabs to ambush and blow up the Turkish trains causing the railway to close. On our last visit 12 years ago, al-Buyawr was an important stop, as it was the first gas station for some 250 km on the track from al-`Ulā, and was the start of the paved road to Madīna. Now the pavement goes NW for a further 100 km and in the last three years the Ministry of Antiquities has built a strong fence to protect the train and station from being defaced, but ruins the ability of local tourists to fully enjoy.
The confluence point was only 5.5 km NNE of al-Buwayr and it looked quite easy to get there. It was late in the afternoon when we drove north for 2 km from the station to find a track between small farms. This led across the flat sand plains but as we neared the ḥarra (lava field) on the side of the plains it got rougher with washouts running off the rock. Then we were suddenly stopped with 1.5 km to go by a very serious strong fence with barbed wire at the top - the type used by the Military and also the Antiquities department. The fence looked new and covered such a big area that we could not see the boundaries or why it had been built - strange. The entrance to "whatever" must have been from the north side. Definitely there was no way to get to the confluence point, which was in the low ḥarra. So it was disappointing but at least we had attempted it. We took our photos quickly as sunset was near and we needed to find another area to camp further away from the fence and local farms.
The next morning we returned 7 km north of the confluence point to the small village of Šajwā where there is a fantastic old caravanserai on the edge of the wādiy - probably originally built in the 1600's by the Syrians on their pilgrim route to Madīna and Makka. It is still in relatively good condition with plastered 10 metre walls to reflect the heat, towers at some corners, and has nice arches around the inner courtyard and an inside deep well and outside a birka (rain water reservoir). The area still has a lot of water and we greeted the Sa`udi farmer next door and saw his falj (canal) water system taking water from his well with a diesel pump to irrigate his palm trees and other crops underneath. So although our confluence point attempt was incomplete, it did provide us with an opportunity to see a lot of history in the near vicinity.