The unexplored treasures of the Farasan Islands

The unexplored treasures of the Farasan Islands

An archipelago of over 170 idyllic islands and islets, this is one of Saudi’s rising tourist destinations
08 June 23
Farasan Islands: Mangroves of the Al Qandil Forest Image source: Osama Jaberti and Aladdin Enzawi

Imagine turquoise waters punctuated by largely uninhabited verdant islands, each filled with natural treasures and species.

These are the Farasan Islands, where coral reefs, islands, and islets prove the startling depth and richness of Saudi’s natural landscape. One of the Kingdom’s maritime and natural gems, the islands have been the subject of fascination for travellers for centuries, due to their beauty and historical importance.

Situated 40 kilometres off the coast of Jazan, on the Kingdom’s south-western coast, the islands have a sub-tropical and arid climate – with high average temperatures and low annual rainfall that occurs in January, May, and October, largely due to the Indian Ocean monsoon.

Since the first millennium BC, Jazan attracted people from Arabia, Africa, and Europe. The archipelago takes its name from Portus Ferresanus, a Latin inscription found on the main island dating to AD144, reflecting the existence of a Roman garrison. Over time, it captured the interest of others such as the Ottomans and the Germans, who built a fort on one of the islands during the second world war.

Long a popular local destination, the islands are now being developed with international tourism in mind. As part of Vision 2030, Saudi is working to evolve its tourism sector for regional and international travellers, and the islands have become a leading spot due to their beauty, cultural heritage,
and ecotourism potential.

A Cultural Haven of Heritage

One reason Farasan lures domestic and global travellers is cultural heritage, which is mostly found on the main island, also named Farasan. Since ancient times, the archipelago has been an important place for trade and cross-cultural exchange due to its location near international shipping routes and its proximity to the Bab al-Mandeb Strait and the Horn of Africa – a fact underlined by several recent archaeological discoveries.

In August 2022, Saudi’s Heritage Commission announced the discoveries of several architectural structures and artefacts from the second and third centuries, following excavations by a Saudi-French team. The pieces included Roman folded armour made of copper ingots and armour known as 'lorica squamata', which was used during the Roman era between those centuries.

They also found an inscription of garnet for Genos, a renowned Roman figure in the Eastern Roman Empire, and the head of a small stone statue. The team has made exploratory trips to Farasan Island since 2005 and has discovered architectural and archaeological remnants that suggest sites date back to nearly 1400BC. Such discoveries underline the importance of historical ports that once controlled ancient marine routes that influenced the Red Sea trade. In the past, pearl-rich fisheries were among the main source of livelihood for inhabitants, as well as fishing, which is still a main occupation.

On Farasan Island lie the ancient ruins of Al Qassar village, one of the earliest inhabited settlements on the island. There, one can find prominent structures made of mud, sandstone, and corals from the surrounding waters – a mix ancient dwellers used to build homes.

These settlements, which continue to stand despite their ruined state, date back to Roman times. In total there are some 400 houses, with a few still inhabited, while others carry remnants, like a museum, of previous dwellers. The village was originally devised to be a summer resort, and residents built their homes along five lanes. A further imprint of Roman times can be found at Al-Kedmi, which includes stone fragments resembling columns.

In Al Qassar village, one can also find Beit Al Refai, a residence that once belonged to a wealthy pearl merchant named Munawar Al Refai. It boasts traditional Farasani architecture with its walls made of coral, stones, and sand, while delicate carvings can be spotted on its gypsum walls.

The village has a mosque, too. Built in 1928 at the height of the pearl trade, it is named after pearl trader Ibrahim Al Najdi. It is decorated in ornate style, replete with intricately carved patterns and geometric shapes. Just like Beit Al Refai, it is a wonder to behold and a history lesson in recent and ancient Saudi heritage.

Several projects to develop the area for ecotourism are underway, including its natural and cultural heritage sites, as well as numerous archaeological ones that reflect the history of the area. Several civilisations visited and stayed on the islands.

The main island is known for its fortified Ottoman fort with its lengthy stairway, once a military base during the early 20th century. From atop, visitors can view the surrounding islands amid the Red Sea.

Other Ottoman-era and style structures, such as the Al Awadi watchtowers, can be found on the island – reminders of the Ottoman rule the islands were under prior to the founding of modern Saudi.

Other archaeological tourist sites include Wadi Matar, situated in Farasan Al Kubra, where visitors can find large rocks with Himyaritic inscriptions dating back to the 10th century, and Mount Luqman, which holds the ruins of an old fortress.

Home to Natural Wonders & Biodiversity

The area’s other alluring facet is its natural and maritime landscape. A haven for divers and travellers eager for natural discoveries, the islands are rich in marine biodiversity. Situated in the extreme south-west of the Kingdom near the Yemeni border, the coral islands are gems for the study of biodiversity in the southern Red Sea.

“One of the Kingdom’s maritime and natural gems, the islands have
been the subject of fascination for travellers for centuries.”

The islands, which are up to 70 kilometres long and 20 to 40 kilometres wide, are composed of reef limestone extending to heights between 10 to 20 metres above sea level, with some reaching 40 metres above that level and the highest at 75 metres. Such elevations are commonly known as mountains by locals. The coasts are covered in white sands made from the fragmentation of corals and seashells, while the coastlines and islands are home to a variety of ecosystems, including red and black mangroves, coral reefs, seagrass beds, macroalgal reefs, and salt marshes. The surrounding waters are home to all kinds of fish and other sea creatures like manta rays, dolphins, whales, dugongs, and green and hawksbill turtles. Colourful parrotfish, which can be easily spotted by scuba divers, are a popular attraction.

Those wishing to study the seemingly endless array of marine life found in the region can visit a maritime museum established in March 2022 by Zaylai Al Zaylai, a retired Saudi with a passion for marine life. The museum, located on Farasan Island, was established after Al Zaylai travelled with a group of fishermen and lived for nearly 20 days on the main island, where he learned to fish and swim while enjoying the natural surroundings.

It was this experience that inspired him to build the museum that now houses 10,000 mummified creatures, including shells, fish, and crustaceans – 90% of which were collected in the Red Sea. The self-named museum also includes a 300-year-old mummified turtle and a mummified whale. Al Zaylai has also decorated the museum with seashells and sea snails.

On dry land dwell numerous animals, such as the largest population of idmi gazelles in the Kingdom, endangered Arabian gazelles, and different birds, including pinkbacked pelicans, white-eyed gulls, red-billed tropicbirds, and ospreys. There are also crab-plovers, sooty falcons, Red Sea noddy birds, flamingos, and migratory birds in the winter, among others.

Plus, the islands are home to numerous rare and endemic species of plants, including endangered red mangrove trees. Visitors can expect to be charmed and irresistibly lured to return time and again to this mesmerising place, where nature's embrace intertwines with captivating heritage and teeming biodiversity.

Did you know?

In 1996, Juzur Farasan (as the islands are also known) were declared one of Saudi’s most important protected areas by the Saudi Wildlife Authority. The area has since included 84 islands, the largest of which is Farasan Al Kubra (Greater Farasan), followed by the Saqid (Lesser Farasan) and thirdly, Qummah. These constitute the area’s inhabited islands, where local dwellers work as fishermen, or to cultivate maize and millet.

Local officials and the Saudi government are going to great ends to protect the area and develop it for tourism. Farasan is building on extensive field work and research to support its terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and plant and animal species – all of which are of great value to the Red Sea ecosystem. Such work resulted in the Kingdom’s first nomination dossier of Juzur Farasan as a Biosphere Reserve in March 2021 by the International Advisory Committee for Biosphere Reserves. The nomination was subsequently approved by the International Coordinating Council of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme in September 2021, during the commission’s session held in Abuja, Nigeria.

Where to Stay?

While high-end hotels and resorts are still in development on the Farasan Islands, largely part of the Red Sea Project, travellers seeking an adventure or weekend getaway still have a variety of options for hotels and eateries - most of which can be found in Jazan. These include the popular Radisson Blu Resort, Novotel Jazan Hotel, Courtyard by Marriott Jazan and Farasan Coral Resort.

Top Tour Companies

Visitors first need to make their way to Jazan, where they can hop on a free ferry ride twice per day from the port. Once they arrive on the main island, there are numerous tour companies that can take visitors around the islands and out into the Red Sea. These include Masarat Club, Saudi Arabia Tours, Najran and Almosafer.

Images: Osama Jaberti and Aladdin Enzawi