Black and White Volcanoes of Harrat Khaybar


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Everyone knows that Saudi Arabia has huge sand deserts and oil fields. Fewer people know that western Saudi Arabia has many volcanoes and extensive lava fields (called ″harrats″). The eruption of 1256 AD produced a lava flow (visible on Google satellite images) that came within a few kilometers of the holy city of Al Madinah. In April-July 2009, moderate-size earthquakes in Harrat Al-Shaqah, caused by magmatic intrusion, resulted in the evacuation of more than 20,000 people from the town of Al-Ais and surrounding villages in northwestern Saudi Arabia.


Harrat Khaybar lies about 130 km north of Al Madinah and covers an area of approximately 14,000 square km. The most recent eruption occurred between 600 and 700 AD. This fascinating harrat contains many volcanoes, some black, others white (made of silica-rich lava, called comendite), as shown in these NASA satellite images (north points roughly upward in these images).




In February 2010, during a visit to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (, I had the chance to make a short excursion to Harrat Khaybar with Sigurjon Jonsson, a professor in Geophysics at KAUST.


Two pictures from KAUST.


We drove from KAUST to the small town of Ath Thamad located on the main road north of Al Madinah. At the northern end of the town, just before a gas station, we turned right (east) toward the volcanoes. The following Google images (at three different scales) show our itinerary by car (yellow dots) and on foot (red dots). We used a GPS to navigate toward the volcano and back. The terrain was quite rough and Sigurjon‛s car (a 4x4 BMW SUV) was barely up to the task.


Region traversed to reach Harrat Khaybar from the main road north of Al Madinah (blue rectangle).


Itinerary from the small town of Ath Thamad, first by car (yellow dots) and then on foot (red dots).




Harrat Khaybar skyline at sunrise.


Along a road track toward the volcanoes.


Young white camels along the way.



A typical thorny tree in the area.


Other trees.



Landscapes on our way toward the volcanoes.



Hiking through lava fields before reaching the volcanoes.




Lava patterns.



More camels higher up close to the volcanoes.



The ground around the volcanoes is almost void of any vegetation, except for a few plants like these gourds (first photo below) and thorny shrubs with bulb-shaped flowers (second photo).



Jabal Bayda (which translates to ″white mountain″) seen from the south. It is the white cone with an almost perfectly circular crater in the NASA satellite image reproduced below. Its elevation is 1913 m.


Sigurjon ascending Jabal Bayda.


The crater of Jabal Bayda (~1.5 km in diameter). The black volcano in the background of the bottom-left photo is Jabal Qidr (2022 m). It lies to the north of Jabal Bayda. The volcano in the background of the bottom-right photo is Jabal Abyad (2093 m), another white volcano, the highest volcano in Harrat Khaybar. Bayda and Abyad are respectively the feminine and masculine forms of ‛white‛.



The rim of Jabal Bayda‛s crater in the forefront and Jabal Qidr behind.


A smaller volcano west of Jabal Bayda.


View from the rim of Jabal Bayda‛s crater, toward the west and the north-west.



Jabal Qidr and its huge black lava field, seen from the rim of Jabal Bayda‛s crater (view toward the north).


Two views of Jabal Bayda from its western side, while returning to the car.



On our way back to the car. Thanks to our GPS we went straight back to it.



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