A chance visit to the Khyber Fort in Saudi Arabia: a perfect fusion of legend and reality
Khaibar or Khyber evokes images of bravado, chivalry and victory against extreme odds. If one were to recount epic battles that marked the beginning of Islam, then the battle of Khyber would rank alongside those of Badr, Uhud and Khandaq. The latter three were defensive battles. Battles for survival against larger, well equipped forces. Khyber was the first time Muslim forces went out on the offensive to take on rebellious tribes who had breached terms of a treaty. Their treachery had nearly led to a defeat at the battle of Khandaq. Victory at Khyber opened up riches for the first time to the Muslims for it was a prosperous region with agriculture and trade.
A common thread across these historic events are the heroic exploits of Imam Ali (with whom Allah was pleased). Stories of his courage and valour are recounted both at home and at schools to children across the Islamic world. The story of all stories is his role at Khyber.
Muslims had besieged a strategic fortress but were unable to break through and the morale was waning when the Prophet (peace be upon him) handed Imam Ali (with whom Allah was pleased) the task to capture this fortress. First, he had to dispose of lead warriors Haris and Marhab – in duels worthy of being extolled on their own. Imam Ali (with whom Allah was pleased) and his team then scaled the fort which on top of a cliff, virtually impossible to access unless one enjoyed support from those inside. It is related that he clambered up the hill and ripped off the gate with his bare hands. Later, seven men acting together struggled to move that door.
My grandmother often told me stories of Imam Ali (with whom Allah was pleased). One of the oft repeated ones was the account of the Battle of Khyber. Time passed and I did not think too much about it except just another historic event. However, an image of a fort perched up a cliff and a few brave men storming up remained with me.
Imagine my surprise when on a trip to Madina, I was told that the city of Khyber was just 150 kilometres to the north. Some remnants of the famous fort still existed.
This I could not resist. It had to be seen if this was true or not.
I instructed my driver to head north. Initially, he was not too keen as his specialty was driving pilgrims around Madina and he had never been to Khyber in his twenty years in Saudi Arabia. Anyway, he agreed and in less than two hours across a comfortable highway we arrived in Khyber.
The town that sat on the highway and was called Khyber, seemed rather new and quite modern. There were no signs that indicated any historic sites nearby. I was disappointed, rather deflated. As we stopped to refuel for our return journey to Madina, I asked the attendant, luckily a compatriot, who told us that we were in the ‘new’ Khyber. The town had been built to be closer to the highway. Access to the old town was via a dirt track right behind the gas station. He said that there were some ancient structures in that area.
As we drove on the track, we were surrounded by date palms on both sides. Clearly, they were rather ancient farms as the walls around them were made of mud and crumbling. I recall reading that the people of Khyber were rich as they farmed dates and livestock. The track led us through the old town, consisting mainly of abandoned mud houses and shops. It was hard for me to estimate the age of this abandoned settlement as parts of Saudi Arabia had such construction well into the twentieth century. That is before they hit the oil bonanza.
As we crossed the old town, we saw more date palm plantations that didn’t seem to be cared for, but the land was fertile enough to sustain them. It was quite lush vegetation, unlike the vast expanse of the arid Arabian landscape I had seen on the way to Madina.
Then as we went around the bend, on a higher plane, I saw it in the distance. And it took my breath away.
A few hundred metres from us jutting out of the flat land and top of the date palms was a cliff. Just as the stories told to me as a child, perched on top of the cliff was an abandoned fort.
I have been extremely fortunate to have visited most of the famous sites in Islamic history. Be it Masjid Al Aqsa, the historic mosque in Kufa, the battleground of Mutah or many sacred sites in Hejaz. But I must admit that finding the Qila or the Khyber Fort would rank right at the top. It was as if the legend and reality were in a perfect accord.
As I walked up to the fort the steel fence at the base of the cliff prevented me from proceeding further. There were signs forbidding visitors from proceeding further.
But I had seen enough.
I could not imagine how such a structure, fully defended, could ever be conquered by an ill-equipped force 1,500 years ago. It sent shivers down my spine as I realised that I was standing on hallowed ground where such an epic event took place and heroes we venerate walked on. It was humbling to have experienced it.
There was something raw about my visit to Khyber. I went there expecting to be disappointed and, initially, I was. Finding this legendary castle was beyond my wildest imagination. Despite no maintenance, the fort was in a decent state. The best part was that not much had changed in that area. Makkah and Madina, infinitely sacred, have changed beyond recognition in the last 50 years alone. It is hard to imagine the life of the Prophet (peace be upon him) if one is to visit Madina today. Khyber on the other hand is a different story. One could easily picture the forces trudging through the date palms, on a hot sweltering day. Besieging this fort with little hope of a breakthrough. That is until the Prophet (peace be upon him) handed the banner to the Fateh-i-Khyber.
The writer is a finance professional based in Dubai. He tweets @travelutionary1