Three flights over one day.
That’s all it took to land in the middle of nowhere. But when the destination is as remarkable as AlUla, the travails of travel mean nothing. Add to that the scent of landing on a fresh new airport, which is still getting its finishing touches, and you know you’ve arrived at a destination largely untouched by humanity. A convoy of five luxurious SUVs carried us into the heart of the city. As the landscape of AlUla—brimming with sandstone—took over, flight fatigue and jet lag lost all meaning.
If this article made you look up AlUla, don’t be hard on yourself. Most people hadn’t heard of it until recently. It was only in the last couple of months that the name began to appear in headlines. Many articles called it ‘Saudi Arabia’s Petra’. But it’s more than a little unfair to compare one marvel to another. It’s time to recognize AlUla for its uniqueness. But before we get to its present alluring state, it bodes well to delve into its rich, captivating history.
BACK IN THE DAY
It was in AlUla that the ancient Dadanite and Lihyanite kingdoms thrived from the ninth century BCE to the first century BCE. An oasis in a desert valley, the walled city was blessed with fertile soil and plenty of water. It was located along the Incense Road, the network of routes that saw caravans of traders carry spices, silk, and other luxurious items through Arabia, Egypt, and India. Though most of the original houses of the Old Town were rebuilt over the centuries, there are many remnants of traditional Arab architecture among the ruins. In fact, some old stones used in the foundations of buildings standing today have Lihyanite markings on them. The abandoned city has a religious significance as well. Muslims believe that Prophet Muhammad passed through Wadi al-Qura in AlUla—located about 380 kilometers north of the holy city of Medina—at least thrice, including on his journey to the Battle of Tabuk in 630 CE. The Old Town of AlUla was founded around the 12th century and remained inhabited until around three decades ago. They say that the last family left town in 1983, and the last mosque service was held two years later, in 1985.
Now popular for housing the archaeological site of Hegra, the first one in the kingdom to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, AlUla is being positioned as the crown jewel of Saudi Arabia’s tourism. Hegra was once an important trading hub for the Nabataeans; today, it is dotted with ancient ruins, tombs that date back several centuries, date farms, and sandstone boulders. This became our cover girl’s favorite site in the ancient city.
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