AlUla, a governorate in the Medina region of northwest Saudi, has long existed at a very important crossroads in Arabia. Boasting an oasis, architectural sites galore, and several thousand years of human history, this is a rare place where one can truly interact with the traces of ancient civilizations. Notice that we said civilizations, plural; the many archaeological wonders and artefacts here tell a story of a place that many different people touched, shaping history with their hands. Each culture that settled, traded, or passed through here left behind their own distinct record, such that several different languages can still be observed in rock inscriptions across the landscape. When you come to AlUla, you will be picking up a thread of history that goes for many thousands of miles, across the Middle East and beyond via trade routes and similar settlements. Best of all, this place is pristine and untouched, having just recently opened to the world. Will you be one of the first to explore this living museum?
AlUla has more history than could ever be contained in the extent of one article, but we’ll do our best to capture the mystique of a place so ancient and expansive. Nowhere else can visitors retrace the steps of those who took formative trade routes through this region while also taking in intricate rock reliefs carved in the sandstone by people who came from all over Arabia.
History of AlUla
There is no telling how far back human history stretches at AlUla, but the first of the structures that one can still walk amongst today were constructed in the 6th century B.C. by the Lihyanites and Dedanites, a Kingdom of Arabians who were skilled traders and incredibly advanced in their sculpting: a trend that would live on at AlUla. They left some of the rock-cut tombs that you can see in the outcroppings at Dedan. It is unclear exactly what precipitated their fall, but nonetheless this seat of their kingdom passed into the hands of the Nabataeans during the 1st century B.C. Theirs was a society so advanced that it eventually garnered the attention of the Romans, who would annex Nabataean territory a few hundred years later. In the meantime, though, their metropolis at Hegra in AlUla served as their second capital alongside Petra in Jordan — it is no coincidence that the architecture at both sites is so similar.
The legacy that the Nabataeans left behind here is as intriguing as it is mysterious, with many details of their mythology, lives, and practices either lost or confounding to scholars. In addition to their construction of the now-famous tombs, they were also skilled at managing the abundant water source at the AlUla oasis, managing feats of engineering that would allow this place to prosper until the modern day. Following Roman annexation and decline, little is known about what became of AlUla, until what is now known as the “Old Town” was constructed in the 13th century. The settlement grew and indeed thrived once more until the time of the Ottomans, who came here and established some fortifications that still stand.
You can now book a ticket at any time of year to see the ancient tombs of the Nabataeans at Hegra, about 25km north of the town of AlUla itself. These are the main event, so to speak, and you may be so blown away by their size and detail that you’re left wondering what it all means, or where to even begin understanding it. Luckily for you, a rawi (Arabian storyteller) is always on hand to explain everything that you see, since several thousand years of untouched history requires a kind of expertise and intimate relationship with the material that only they possess.
These are much more than just tour guides — they have all been especially briefed on the archaeological and anthropological work that goes on at the historic sites of AlUla, and many of them were born in the region. You can expect them to speak on their personal connection to the land, offering you a level of insight that will make you feel welcome and privy to some precious knowledge that only few possess at this time.
The largest tomb at Hegra is a gargantuan monolithic structure, standing at 72 feet tall. Called Qasr Al-Farid, or “the lonely castle” in English on account of its distance from some of the other tombs, taking up a solitary position amidst the desert floor. Though it was left unfinished, there are inscriptions describing its dedication to a specific family, which just add to the mystique of seeing a structure cut into a massive desert rock.
Closer to the town of AlUla, you can see more inscriptions (in several different languages) and even more tombs (of a different, more ancient style) at two adjoining sites: Jabal Ikmah and Dadan. As Dadan was the ancient capital of the mercantile Lihyanites, people from all over Arabia and beyond came here to create a bustling standard of daily life. While the region around AlUla has some of the oldest pre-Arabic inscriptions in the world, no site has more extensive, detailed, and varied inscriptions as the mountain near Dadan, Jabal Ikmah. Carvings that include individuals’ names, pleas to God, and accounts of music and animals can be observed in the languages of Aramaic, Dadanitic, Thamudic, Minaic, and Nabataean.
The legacies of Dadan include architectural and agricultural innovation, which allowed them to cultivate a number of different crops and carve their distinct rectangular tombs into the rock wall about 50 meters off the ground. While they look simple from a distance, get closer and you’ll wonder how they managed to cut these spaces that feature intricate reliefs of lions, symbols of power and protection.
There is much more adventure to be had in AlUla, as Saudi institutions seek to draw on history as an inspiration for future development and cultural celebrations at sites such as this. There are fantastic accommodation options in and around AlUla, exciting art installations, and plenty of outdoor space for you to breath, reflect, and even take in the beauty of the stars at night. Learn more about all of this from Visit Saudi themselves, or from one of our other guides!
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