1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Asir

ASIR, a district in western Arabia, lying between 17° 30′ and 21° N., and 40° 30′ and 45° E.; bounded N. by Hejaz, E. by Nejd, S. by Yemen and W. by the Red Sea. Like Yemen, it consists of a lowland zone some 20 or 30 m. in width along the coast, and of a mountainous tract, falling steeply on the west and merging into a highland plateau which slopes gradually to the N.E. towards the Nejd steppes. Its length along the coast is about 230 m., and its breadth from the coast to El Besha about 180. The lowland, or Tehama, is hot and barren; the principal places in it are Kanfuda, the chief port of the district, Marsa Hali and El Itwad, smaller ports farther south. The mountainous tract has probably an average altitude of between 6000 and 7000 ft., with a temperate climate and regular rainfall, and is fertile and populous. The valleys are well watered and produce excellent crops of cereals and dates. The best-known are the Wadi Taraba and the W. Besha, both running north-east towards the W. Dawasir in Nejd. Taraba, according to John Lewis Burckhardt, is a considerable town, surrounded by palm groves and gardens, and watered by numerous rivulets, and tamous for its long resistance to Mehemet Ali’s forces in 1815. Five or six days’ journey to the south-east is the district of Besha, the most important position between Sana and Taif. Here Mehemet Ali’s army, amounting to 12,000 men, found sufficient provisions to supply it during a fortnight’s halt. The Wadi Besha is a broad valley abounding with streams containing numerous hamlets scattered over a tract some six or eight hours’ journey in length. Its principal affluent, the W. Shahran, rises 120 m. to the south and runs through the fertile district of Khamis Mishet, the highest in Asir. The Zahran district lies four days west of Besha on the crest of the main range: the principal place is Makhwa, a large town and market, from which grain is exported in considerable quantities to Mecca. Farther south is the district of Shamran. Throughout the mountainous country the valleys are well watered and cultivated, with fortified villages perched on the surrounding heights. Juniper forests are said to exist on the higher mountains. Three or four days’ journey east and south-east of Besha are the encampments of the Bani Kahtan, one of the most ancient tribes of Arabia; their pastures extend into the adjoining district of Nejd, where they breed camels in large numbers, as well as a few horses.

The inhabitants are a brave and warlike race of mountaineers, and aided by the natural strength of their country they have hitherto preserved their independence. Since the beginning of the 19th century they have been bigoted Wahhabis, though previously regarded by their neighbours as very lax Mahommedans; during Mehemet Ali’s occupation of Nejd their constant raids on the Egyptian communications compelled him to send several punitive expeditions into the district, which, however, met with little success. Since the reconquest of Yemen by the Turks, they have made repeated attempts to subjugate Asir, but beyond occupying Kanfuda, and holding one or two isolated points in the interior, of which Ibha and Manadir are the principal, they have effected nothing.

The chief sources of information regarding Asir are the notes made by J. L. Burckhardt at Taif in 1814 and those of the French officers with the Egyptian expeditions into the country from 1814 to 1837. No part of Arabia would better repay exploration.

Authorities.—J. L. Burckhardt, Travels in Arabia (London, 1829); F. Mengin, Histoire de l’Égypte, &c. (Paris, 1823); M. O. Tamisier, Voyage en Arabie (Paris, 1840).  (R. A. W.)