The Souk Okaz festival in Taif is the re-birth of an ancient Arabian market dating back to Pre-Islamic times. The modern-day Souk Okaz was re-created on the exact same location in the Saudi Arabian desert where the ancient souk was historically held.
The Souk Okaz Festival was revived in 2006 by Prince Khalid al-Faisal, Emir of Makkah and it’s held every year in accordance to the Hijri calendar. The event goes on for 2 weeks and many tour companies from around the Kingdom arrange tours there but you can also easily visit Souk Okaz on your own. The festival is open to everyone and is free of charge.
The souk is located near the Saudi-Arabian city of Taif in the Western part of Saudi Arabia. The Ancient Souk Okaz was active at during 542-726 CE and it used to be the largest and most important event of its kind back then. Historically it was more than a marketplace, the souk served as a meeting place for tribal leaders and for people interested in poetry and literature.
Many poetry competitions were held at Okaz and this tradition has also been revived in the modern-day Souk. Learn more about the history of Okaz from their official website (Arabic only) and from the Saudi Commission for tourism page, which has this to say of the Souk:
The importance of the Souk lies in its historic symbolism as the original source of Arabic central culture as a destination for ancient Arab intellectuals and poets and people passionate about culture and literature.
In ancient times, Arab traders and bedouins would bring their goods, including perfumes, spices, rugs and handicrafts to sell at the market. It was an ancient economic and cultural meeting hub for intellectuals and influencers.
People from all parts of the Arabian Peninsula would meet at Souk Okaz to compete and select the best poet. The ancient Arab poet would deliver words of praise for his tribe and denigrate the other tribes. The poet represented the individual tribe’s prestige and importance. Zajal, a battle of the poets, would often take form of an actual battle. Early Arabic poetry offers the modern Arab a glimpse of life in Pre-Islamic times. Poetry is truly in the soul of the Arab.
A Finnish friend of mine here in Riyadh who like myself, is an avid explorer of Saudi Arabia, showed me some images from her trip to the Okaz festival. The images blew my mind! It’s as if she visited the scene of an Arabian adventure film. The colorful costumes, the impressive parade and knights showing off their horsemanship skills. Even my half-Finnish half-Saudi kids (3 and 4 year olds) were amazed. They asked upon seeing the pics “mommy is that outer-space? Mom are they aliens, is that a knight?!” I laughed and replied, it’s what your Saudi ancestors and forefathers used to dress like. And the kids were, of course even more flabbergasted.
Both now want to become ‘Arabian knights’ when they grow up. I can totally see why they’d say that though, to me the images reminded me of an ancient Arabian adventure movie and the scenery surrounding the souk is other-worldly.
Funny enough when I asked my friend Raija to describe her experience at the Okaz festival, she said “it was like being in another world, almost like being on another planet!”
To fully grasp this other-worldly feeling you must watch the video clips attached on this post. The kids and I watched the clips over and over, mesmerized. So what is this Souk Okaz festival and where is it happening??
I thought this was all so interesting it should to be shared with a wider audience, so with the permission of my friend here are her Souk Okaz photos. Everyone should know what a glorious past this desert Kingdom has! It deserves to be showcased and the efforts of Prince Khalid bin Faisal to restore it are commendable. Next year I’m definitely going there, and taking my kids aka the mini Arabian Knights too!
Please let us know in the comments what you think. Would you like to visit the festival?
UPDATE: According to the official website, 261,00 people visited the Souk Okaz in 2015. The next festival will be held in August 2016!
**All images and video in this post were taken by © Raija Valimaki**
Watch these clips to get a better idea of the what the performances at the souk are like.