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Ted Conover hitches a ride with the first American tour group to visit a kingdom that still isn't sure tourists are a good idea.

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Along with Mecca some miles to the southMedina is one of the two holiest sites in the Islamic world. And ladies, you must wear your abayas and your head scarves here. A groan issues from members of our tour. The women, nearly three-quarters of the 42 of us, have grown fairly accustomed to wearing the black, ankle-length abaya, but a week into our tour of Saudi Arabia, head scarves are still a chore. Nancy York of Pasadena is one of three intrepid women who venture out of the hotel together, only to return promptly: two blocks out, she reports, drivers whistled and yelled at them in a threatening manner.

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Our two-week trip, sponsored by Smithsonian Study Tours, is the very first to bring a group of American tourists to Saudi Arabia. Prior to last fall, tourist visas to "the kingdom," as it is known, did not exist. But the country, long insulated from the non-Muslim world, is slowly opening up.

Educationally oriented groups are the target--alumni associations and museums are sponsoring many of the upcoming trips. To judge by my fellow tour members, Saudi Arabia is a destination that appeals to travelers who have been almost everywhere else and are dying for some place new and unknown.

Excepting myself, my photographer, and his assistant, most of the trip's participants are septuagenarians. In the Sheraton's lobby are the remaining tumblers of colorful fruit juice, dates, and once-chilled, moistened hand towels we were presented with upon arrival.

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It's not a bad prison, but it's hard to be stuck here in the anteroom of Islam. Mecca, where pilgrims circle the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque, and Medina, where Muhammad's message was first embraced and where he is buried, are the centers of the universe for the world's almost 1. An arrow pointing toward Mecca is attached to the top of practically every hotel dresser in the country so that guests know which way to face when praying.

On most Saudi Arabian Airlines flights, a giant arrow superimposed on an outline of the plane is displayed on cabin monitors every 30 seconds or so to indicate the direction in which Mecca lies.

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On 's there is even a prayer room. It's hard to be so close to Medina and not be allowed in. In truth, we came here only because its airport is the nearest to Madain Salah, the country's greatest archaeological attraction which is still a four-hour drive away. I hear a little grumbling along the lines of "The pope doesn't care who visits the Vatican," but mostly our group is accepting.

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After all, it's beastly hot outside--and since the fall of the Soviet Union, how many places are left on earth where you can be restricted to your hotel? Our welcome in this land, warm but limited, reflects the way Saudi Arabia has met the non-Muslim world in the 68 years since it became a nation. This former congeries of bedouin desert tribes, united in by King Abdul Aziz, has grown into a powerful regional force by embracing Western petroleum engineering, cutting-edge military technology, superhighways, and high-tech medicine, as well as the English language--everything modern except secularism, which elsewhere seems the soul of modernity.

It is a nation that claims the Koran as its constitution; you can even read it on the individual monitors beside every seat of the national airline's new Boeings. Saudi Arabia is no stranger to visitors: between 2 and 3 million faithful arrive every year on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.

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The Sheraton Medina is set up for those guests: the five clocks behind the front desk do not show the time in, say, New York, London, Rome, Tokyo, and Mexico City but, rather, the hour of the five daily prayers that the kingdom observes assiduously. Some 5 million guest workers percent of Saudi Arabia's population--live here. To the country's rulers, all of them descendants of King Abdul Aziz, these "guests" are very different from tourists. Prince Khalid al-Faisal, the popular governor of Asir province whose recent poetry reading in Jordan drew 10, people, told me in an interview that "twenty years ago tourism was almost a four-letter word.

I couldn't arrange a meeting with the prince until three days after the rest of the Smithsonian tour had returned to the States. The school's modest building sits next door to the sumptuous Abha Palace Hotel, the jewel of Asir's infant tourist industry, and after a ribbon-cutting at the school, the prince entered a large and crowded hotel conference room.

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Everyone stood as a cadre of policemen with submachine guns entered the room, followed by dignitaries in thobes the flowing white robes traditionally worn by Saudi men draped in gold-trimmed cloaks called bishts, and six bearded men with daggers in their belts and Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, who appeared to be a sort of palace guard. It was a of the times that on the stage where the prince sat, only three nights earlier, our group had watched an ever-so-touristic dance performance by tribesmen wearing floral headpieces.

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The crowd today was a bit different: the room was packed with a sea of Saudi students and businessmen in white thobes, he covered with the square of red-and-white houndstooth known as a ghutra, held on with the igal, or black band. The hum of the crowd was punctuated by a chorus of beeps, rings, and jingles. Saudi men are mad for cell phones.

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There are princes and then there are princes--four or five thousand of them in Saudi Arabia, a few destined for greatness and riches, but most destined simply for riches. Of the former variety, Prince Khalid is exceptional. Tall, white-bearded, with quiet eyes, he looked like one of the three wise men of my imagination. When Khalid made any move to sit down or stand up, the nearest minion rushed to help with the chair as though his life depended on it. At the end of the meeting, the prince was surrounded by admirers.

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Eventually the crowd dispersed, and I was alone in a room with him, an aide, and a guard. The opening of the nation to foreign visitors wasn't solely Prince Khalid's achievement. He told me it got its biggest push from the global drop in oil prices of the past 10 years.

The prince--who it seems would scarcely be moved by vogue--said with a little smile, "Tourism is now the fashion. We have always been perceived as a closed society, surrounded by walls. Anyone who sees it like that would always assume bad things are happening inside these walls. But the walls are there to protect, not to hide. Surprisingly, according to Bandar, the Persian Gulf war speeded this process. But the best reporting about Saudi Arabia was during the war, and it was because journalists got to see the people, know the country.

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That has changed the whole mentality of how we think of tourism. A hot sun pounds our he at madain salah. Perhaps, but whatever it lacks in monumentality is more than made up for by the fact that we have the place nearly to ourselves. The old Hejaz Railway, made famous by attacks against it orchestrated by soldier and adventurer T. Lawrence of Arabiapasses nearby, and we cross its railbed several times; we eat on the ground in the shade between our bus and an old railway workshop that has been restored by the government.

It is arid, windless, dusty. The prophet Muhammad did not like this place, and many Saudis believe it to be cursed. But those who stay away are missing a true marvel.

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Nabataeans lived in this area, which somewhat resembles Utah's Monument Valley, between about b. The most prominent excavated enormous tombs for themselves in the sides of the smooth, rounded red-stone formations that dot the desert floor. Inscribed on the tombs' elaborate pediments, in an ancient script, are warnings to those who would dare approach them: "This tomb is sacred.

Whoever has inheritance rights may never sell this tomb or allow anyone to take control over it, nor shall he lease nor rent the tomb nor write on the tomb.

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May women gods Dushara and Manutu curse whoever changes what is written above. The desecration of the tombs by vandals over the years has given the place something of a bad vibe. I wonder whether that's why one of the problem travelers in our group--a woman in her eighties with a strong misanthropic streak--has her worst moment here.

Pasadena nicknamed this woman the Hermit Arabian she often won't let people sit next to her on our nearly full bus, and she generally scorns most of her co-travelers "The women on this trip have an average I. Madain Salah is an amazing photo op, and she's an avid photographer. The problem is, we're all in her way. In telling me to move, she's simply rude, but in order- ing our Kenyan bus driver to move, she employs a racial epithet.

Dating nearby are appalled, and we apologize to the driver. A group leader has a talk with the Hermit Crab. Reportedly, she agrees to try a little harder. Archaeological ruins are part of the texture of many small Saudi towns; the minimal rainfall means that some stone-and-mud structures endure for hundreds of years. We visit a of the sites, including an enormous fortress, Qasr Marid, in the town of Domat al-Jandal, whose foot walls look as if they might crumble at any second.

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Apropos of nothing, our guide says cheerily that "Islam came here and chased the Jewish. When we sent in our applications for the trip, the tour leader had told us that anyone whose passport bore an Israeli stamp had better get a new one. But then we received a letter saying things had changed and such precautions were no longer necessary. The Saudis now profess not to care. A Saudi Arabian Airlines executive I spoke with said being Jewish is no impediment at all to visiting the country, never has been.

He's a Jew.

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