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Meet the Flower Men of the Qahtan Tribe in Saudi Arabia

On the highest mountain peaks in Saudi Arabia, there used to live an indigenous tribe in the name of Qahtan. This tribe still exists today, conserving their traditions. The men of this tribe are known as Flower Men, for the elaborate flower crowns they wear almost daily. Why do they wear them? Are there any symbolic meanings to them? Let us introduce you to this interesting culture. 

The Flower Men

The flowers used in the wreaths are usually marigold and jasmine. Herbs are also features in the crowns, usually wild basil and fenugreek. The young Qahtanis enjoy competing with each other over who has the most intricate flower crown, while the elders opt for more modest designs composed mainly of herbs and grasses.
Some wear them daily while others keep them for Muslim holidays and events. Some weave medicinal herbs into their wreaths to prevent headaches. 
As this is a highly conservative culture, photographing the Qahtani women is strictly forbidden. But we can tell you that the men aren't alone in donning colors- the women wear headscarves with geometric embroideries in yellow, blue and red. 
The men carry their crowns proudly. It is their way to retain a most important facet of their tradition. This is their way to mark their legacy, setting them apart from the other provinces. Men who don't wear a flower garland daily keep their hair long as a cultural attribute. 

Some dye their beard with henna

The market

The Flower Men go each morning, in the earliest hours, to the Mahalah market to buy their daily wreaths and crowns. Some prefer to make their own, customizing a unique look. The ones featuring jasmine flowers are a bit more expensive, and will only last about two days; this flower is very delicate and is kept in cooling boxes at the market. 
Walking around the area, you can spot some traditional garments. In the picture above, you can see traditional palm leaves shoes. In the pictures below, you can see the traditional futa, a cloth worn from the waist down, and the jambiya, the traditional ivory dagger. 

A dagger shop with a safe. Some daggers are of exceptional value


The traditional residencies

Nowadays the tribe people live in the Asir and Jizan provinces in southern Saudi Arabia, near the border with Yemen. They are considered the oldest social formations in the area, claiming to be descendants of Ishmael, one of Abraham's sons, a figure in the Hebrew Bible. 
They used to live mostly off the land, growing wheat, coffee, fruit, and khat. The latter is a natural stimulant herb used for chewing. The Qahtanis are the only ones in Saudi Arabia allowed to grow and consume this herb as it is considered a drug. The penalty for drug abuse is death. 
Until the Saudi government had set up a cable car, some regions were only reachable through rope ladders, hence the name Habala Mountains, derived from the Arabic word for rope.
Until they were evicted by the Saudi government, the Qahtanis lived in residencies built from mud and red bricks. These houses are 200 years old. Dotted between them are watch towers, no longer in use, you can see up close in the picture below. Inside the homes, on the walls of a room made for welcoming guests, there are vividly colorful patterns and shapes, that were used to inform visitors of the age and gender of each family member. These were updated regularly.  
The eviction was part of a project made to make the region more accessible to tourists. The tribes were relocated to modern residences and were expected to integrate seamlessly into Saudi society. Now the Qahtanis are only partially living off the land, mainly relying on tourists for income. They climb back up the mountain mainly to work as guiding tours in the old residences.
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