An Explorer's Journey: Sheila Russell shares her Saudi experience

An Explorer's Journey: Sheila Russell shares her Saudi experience

We meet modern-day explorer Sheila Russell as she documents her travels through the Kindgom
02 November 23
Sheila Russell, Instagram: Saudi Travel Notes

For Sheila Russell, an explorer, photographer and storyteller behind the Instagram account Saudi Travel Notes, it’s difficult to put a number to all the trips she’s taken across the breadth and width of the Kingdom.

Since arriving in 2017 from Wales, Russell has made several memorable trips from Tabuk in the north to Jizan in the south.

And each expedition brings forth a lesser-known period in Saudi’s history, a new discovery, a viral Instagram reel that generates social media discourse, and perhaps the most valuable outcome from travel – new friendships.

A Lesser-Known Chapter in History

Russell recalls a noteworthy trip she made to Tayma, close to Tabuk in the north-western part of the Kingdom, to see the cartouche of Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III. Dating back to the 12th century BC and first discovered in Saudi in 2010, the cartouche hints at the existence of an ancient trade route between Egypt and the area (then known as Midian).

“Saudi archaeologists believe that the double signature (cartouche) was carved in the presence of the pharaoh,” Russell explains. “It’s believed that Ramses III deployed several missions to extract copper from this region nearly 3,000 years ago, and that there was a direct commercial route that linked the Nile Valley to Tayma.”

Russell adds that travelling to Tayma and seeing the cartouche in person was a very special experience that left her in awe. “I’ve always been interested in history and people – it’s what connects us as human beings,” she says.

While the question of “How did this person go from point A to point B, and what happened along the way?” is one that always intrigues her, looking at these archaeological wonders can also give us an insight into lives that transpired before us.

A New Discovery

Russell likens her expeditions to that of a detective trail. She follows her curiosity, pours over academic papers and old maps, visits the area multiple times, converses with experts in the area, and joins the dots to eventually peel the layers of history.

She takes List through one such expedition filled with twists and turns – one that links the Louvre Museum in Paris to mysterious inscriptions found on Jabal Ghunaim in Tayma, to finally the archives of a British explorer housed in Oxford University.

Found in 1883 and currently preserved in Louvre Museum, the Tayma Stele is a 6th century BC stone tablet that documents how Babylonian King Nabonidus captured a caravan of traders along Sabah (present-day Yemen) and Midian, establishing his control in the region. Mentioned in the Qur’an and other holy texts, the Midian heartland was located along the trade route of present-day Madinah, Khaybar, and AlUla, and connected the region to Mesopotamia.

The Tayma Stele was also the first reference found to Salm, the crescent-moon deity worshipped in the region for nearly 500 years. Last year, the Royal Commission for AlUla opened The Ancient Temple of Salm (a temple complex) to the public.

Russell likens her expeditions to that of a detective trail. She follows her curiosity, pours over academic papers and old maps, visits the area multiple times, converses with experts in the area, and joins the dots to eventually peel the layers of history.

“I had visited Tayma several times and was curious about Salm, who was often referred to in this area,” Russell explains.

While there was very little information about this deity, Russell knew someone must have documented its role and importance to the region. Eventually, she found a reference to Salm in a guidebook by St John Philby, the British explorer, advisor, and confidant to King Abdulaziz Al Saud (Ibn Saud), the Kingdom's founding father.

While Philby’s Land of Midian expedition notes from 1951 spoke about his visit to Jabal Ghunaim, where there are images of Salm, there were no sketches from his trip. This came as a surprise to Russell because Philby was known to be meticulous in his documentation of the Kingdom.

It was only after some more digging around that Russell learned that the Middle East Centre Archive at Oxford University preserves many of Philby’s original sketches. Here, she was able to access his original maps and notes. And earlier this year, Russell made the trek to Jabal Ghunaim, a range of mountains 10 kilometres south of Tayma. On a flat area of land, she saw the coveted image she was searching for – carved into a rock was a bull deity with large horns and a star on his forehead.

Social Media Disclosure

Surrounded by castles while growing up in Wales, Russell recounts another memorable experience that reminded her of home – seeing Qal’at al Mu’azzam, an Ottoman-style castle in the province of Tabuk.

Working with an aerial photography group, Russell flew over the castle one winter morning to capture the majestic fortress and its arches on video. However, the most defining feature of the castle is the water body, believed to be a stopping point along the Hajj pilgrimage from Syria, and which serves as a lush oasis in the middle of the desert.

The video garnered over a quarter million views on Instagram. Russell’s social media fame comes at an exciting time – she had the opportunity to attend the recently-held World Archaeology Summit in AlUla and is excited to see where her passion for heritage in Saudi will take her.

New Friendships Along the Way

One of the most fascinating things about travelling across Saudi, according to Russell, is the vastness and variety that the country has to offer.

“You can go from being out in the open, rolling dunes to mountains with blooming lavender and rose, and then down to the Red Sea,” she says.

However, the best thing about her travels is the people she meets along the way, many of whom are now friends. While traversing new terrain, her mantra has always been “take a moment to smile and listen to people’s stories” – you never know what new adventure it can lead you to.