Rediscover The Saudi Region Of Alula
Wanderlust Travel Magazine|November/December 2021
Desert wonders, clear skies and the relics of kingdoms past. George Kipouros beats the crowds to rediscover the Saudi region of Alula, Arabia's best-kept secret...
George Kipouros

Time has always been at the centre of AlUla,” smiled Faiz. As a rawi (a reciter of poetic tales) and among the town's first storyteller guides, he was helping me to navigate the labyrinth of AlUla's Old Town, and his gift for puns was showing. The reason for his smile became apparent as we stood in Tantora Plaza, the central square of the thousand-year-old settlement, named after the sundial (tantora) at its heart. “The region's farmers depended on this ancient clocktower for their crops - and also to distribute spring water fairly, he explained, gesturing to the oasis just opposite the plaza.

Water has long been the game-changing element for AIUla. To this day, over 60 natural springs provide for the Waha, an oasis of 2 million date palms with around 40,000 inhabitants. The old name for the region is Wadi Al-Qura (Valley of the Villages), an apt designation for somewhere that has hosted so many ancient peoples. Water security coupled with a strategic trading location in the Arabian peninsula helped numerous civilisations thrive here, from the Dadan Kingdom to the Nabataeans and Ottomans, the final rulers before the formation of the modern Saudi state.

At its height the region grew into a busy trading hub, leaving a long legacy behind. We have always been expert tradespeople. The Old Town alone had 400 shops at the beginning of this century,” explained Faiz, as he showed me around its ruins. For hundreds of years we were like an ancient Dubai a commercial hub for Arabia, he continued, before narrating some stories passed on to him by his grandfather, who lived here as late as the 1980s. With electricity and plumbing making its way across the valley, the last few residents left the Old Town for more modern living conditions. “But we always keep the memories alive, reassured Faiz. “Time will never erase our connection with the past.

AlUla's worldly locals have long blended history with mythology. The region's prodigious ruins provide the captivating background to many a myth narrated by the alrowah of AlUla, excited to share their illustrious history as the region welcomes back visitors from around the world.

“We grew up playing around the ruins of ancient Dadan, home of the Lihyan Kingdom, and our parents would always tell us stories and legends about The Good Land explained the first female rawi of AlUla, Mashail. “Yet we knew these were important milestones in our past that needed protection and safekeeping.”

The past is never far away here. In a pattern seen across human history, many of the bricks that support the Old Town's historic buildings were ‘recycled from much older temples, houses and tombs left behind by the ancient Lihyans.

The region's other claim to fame lies with the trailblazing Nabataeans, known for their expertise in rock carving. It was they who not only built Jordan's bucket-list destination of Petra but also left behind AIUla's ancient city of Hegra, previously known as Madain-Saleh. This is a huge, iconic site in the modern-day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, yet it is tiny compared with what is still to be uncovered here. Sulaiman, a rawi with a deep understanding of the area's many layers of history, explained that while there are more than 100 decorated tombs in Hegra, AlUla has over 23,000 archaeological sites, with only a small number of those already excavated. Indeed, Saudi experts estimate that less than five per cent of the area's archaeological riches have been brought back to life.

This treasure trove of human history is enveloped in otherworldly desert scenery. Within Hegra itself lies a Martian-like grouping of sandstone rock formations, known as Jabal Ithlib. Sulaiman brought us back there in the early evening, taking us through constantly changing sand dunes to reveal dozens of rugged peaks and a landscape that wouldn't feel out of place in a Star Wars film. Yet we weren't here to admire nature's sculpting skills, but rather human ones.

“The layers of AlUla's history are evident in the petroglyphs on these rocks,” Sulaiman explained, as he pointed to the 3,000-year-old carvings of camelids and human hunters. The Lihyans, the Nabataeans, people from across the Islamic world have all left their mark through rock carvings that can be found all over the valley,” he continued, while pointing to intricate inscriptions and images of cattle and hunters. It is a similar, if more detailed, affair at Jabal Ikmah, often described as a 3,000-year-old open-air library where works are splayed across the rocks and dozens of texts carved by the Lihyan people survive in outstanding condition, delivering unique insights into their lives and customs.

After 8,000 years of human history, AlUla once more finds itself the centre of attention. In Maraya - the world's largest mirrored building - I attended an exhibition that outlined the region's growth plans. The level of ambition was clear. AlUla is a living open-air museum and we've invited talent from around the world to work with the local community in showcasing its uniqueness,” explained Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) and Saudi tourism ambassador Laura Alho, who was enthusiastic about the scale of the project. From architect Jean Nouvel to Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, leading historians, engineers, musicians and archaeologists are working with residents, using local materials and expertise to ready AlUla for welcoming the world.

Just before flying out, I met Laura once again. After what I'd seen, I was curious as to how ready she was for AlUla to become a 'bucket-list' destination. Yet I was surprised at a ' her restrained smile. “Now is the perfect time to visit, she agreed, “but we are not too eager to be joining bucket lists for mass tourism.” Sustainability with strong local involvement is at the heart of their approach, not volume. We're developing a unique global destination for heritage, nature and the arts through conservation and engagement of the local community, she told me, going to great pains to stress this isn't about turning AlUla into a Dubai-style destination. Thinking back to the rawis and their unique connection to the past, I felt reassured. After all, AlUla has been popular since time immemorial. Some things should never change.

History & archaeology

Tracing ancient Arabian kingdoms

From ancient 'open-air libraries' to the rock-cut wonders of the Nabataeans, AlUla's long history offers plenty to explore...

AIUla extends across 22,000 square kilometres (that's a little bigger than Slovenia) and features over 23,000 sites of archaeological interest. These remains span eight millennia of human history: from the Neolithic age and the refined settlements of the Dadan and Lihyan Kingdoms, to the Nabataeans and the Romans, to the birth of Islam and on to the Ottomans and the modern-day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The story of human occupation in AlUla can be explored in the thousands of prehistoric stone structures dotting today's desert landscape. It's a fascinating adventure. Archaeological teams recently dated some of these rectilinear structures back to 6,000 BC, making them some of the oldest monumental structures identified anywhere on the planet.

AIUla's importance began to rise in the 9th century BC with the foundation of the ancient city of Dadan. As the capital of the Dadanite Kingdom until the 6th century BC, then subsequently the Lihyanite Kingdom until the 1st century BC, it became one of the most developed cities in Arabia. This civilisation's mysterious demise is an archaeological enigma, but one that has yielded some extraordinary sites that can be visited today, including lion-sculpture tombs cut deep into the red-rock cliff in the east of the modern-day city. Further out, other treasures can be found at Jabal Ikmah, home to over 500 petroglyphs and inscriptions, carved and in relief, telling fascinating tales of pilgrimages and local rituals.

The storied Nabataeans arrived later, in the 1st century BC, and moved the centre of human settlement here a good 20 kilometres away to establish Hegra. This became the second-most important city in Nabataea, after its more famous sibling, Petra. But it wouldn't be until 1877 that British explorer Charles Montagu Doughty first ‘re-discovered' ruined Hegra for the West, after hearing stories from local Bedouin of Petra-like monuments with multiple inscriptions. By then, Petra had already captivated the imagination of Western audiences after Johann Burckhardt stumbled upon it during his 1812 expedition.

For a very long time, Hegra was inaccessible to visitors. A significant restoration effort began just as it received World Heritage status in 2008 - becoming the first Saudi site on the UNESCO list - and it, ironically, only reopened fully to travellers just before the COVID pandemic hit, in early 2020.

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