"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 AlUla. 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 AlUla’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 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.
From ancient ‘open-air libraries’ to the rock-cut wonders of the Nabataeans, AlUla’s long history offers plenty to explore…
AlUla 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.
AlUla’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.
Hegra was both a trading centre and military stronghold, and enabled the Nabataeans to control the Arabian caravan trade. Yet, unlike Petra, the most spectacular sites that can be visited today are the resting sites of the elite – tombs hewn from the rocks of the Hijaz mountains. There are over 100 monumental tombs grouped among four different necropolises. The exteriors of these tombs are surprisingly far grander and more ornate than those of Petra, with animals, monsters and deities depicted in elaborate detail. Towering above all, the Tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza (previously identified as Qasr Al-Farid) offers the most iconic sight
of AlUla. The colossal monolith, the biggest of all the tombs in Hegra, displays a skilfully carved – and still unfinished – facade. If you arrive for sunset, you may even be lucky enough to get this glorious, mystical site all to yourself.
A 30-minute ride from Hegra brings you a few centuries forward to AlUla Old Town. Dating from the 12th century AD and inhabited until the 1980s, the town held a vital position among Arabia’s trade and pilgrimage routes. The advent of Islam was accompanied by increased cultural and mercantile exchange with the Arabian Peninsula and the world, including the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. The majority of the still extant 900 buildings date from after this period, from around the 12th century onwards. Most are atmospheric ruins, yet over 30 have been faithfully restored to give visitors a clearer view of local custom and architectural tradition.
The heart of the town is Tantora Plaza, where locals used the sundial to tell the time and season. Traditional shops, galleries and food stalls can be found in the square and throughout the maze of the Old Town’s streets. Make sure a rawi accompanies your visit – you will hear fascinating tales spanning generations and can avoid getting lost in the labyrinthine urban fabric.
As a last stop on the heritage trail of AlUla, don’t miss the Ottoman-era Hijaz Railway Station. Here you can see one of the original locomotives that ran the Damascus-to-Madinah line, subsequently abandoned after the First World War. Many of the station buildings, located close to the site of ancient Hegra, have been preserved and make for an interesting visit, particularly for rail-travel enthusiasts.
This desert is far from empty. Discover rocky mountain hikes, unmatched stargazing and endemic species rescued from extinction in a wild land…
The scenery of AlUla feels very much like stepping onto another planet. There are towering sandstone formations touched by enormous sand dunes and mountaintops with lunar-like barrenness interrupted only by very strong winds. And yet sooner rather than later, the glistening green of the oasis makes its appearance, its magnificent date palms helping create their very own microclimate in the sprawling valley.
As you walk, cycle, hike, horse ride, drive, zipline or fly around these ethereal landscapes, you will come across formations that resemble humans, animal figures, even rainbows if you let your imagination run wild. One of the more impressive is Elephant Rock, at its most captivating during sundown when – in the winter season – a pop-up café and restaurant serve guests in lounge areas created from holes cleverly dug in the sand. This is one of the few areas with developed facilities. Unlike, say, Jordan’s Wadi Rum, visitors will often meet no one for miles in these places and experience their striking landscapes all to themselves.
Hikers in AlUla are rewarded with glorious panoramas across a good variety of trails/routes. An easy introduction is the 3km Oasis Heritage Trail which connects the Dadan Kingdom site to AlUla Old town. The path goes past date and citrus farms, with picnic spots along the way. The popular Oasis View Trail, a medium-difficulty 5km hike complete with Lihyan petroglyphs throughout the route, explores the slopes of Al-Fath Mountain, while a more difficult option is the 10km Mujdar Mountain Trail, which has spectacular views at the end. For serious hikers, the EcoTrail AlUla is 83km long and gives you a comprehensive overview of the region.
The reserve lies less than an hour’s drive from the ancient highlights of Hegra and wraps 1,000 square kilometres of wild terrain. Not only is it home to some of the most distinctive desert rock formations anywhere, it is at the heart of a promising conservation story. Local experts, with the help of RCU, have reintroduced idmi gazelle, Arabian oryx, Nubian ibex and red-necked ostrich into the reserve, and all are currently thriving. The rangers are also excited by the prospect of welcoming back the Arabian leopard in a breeding programme that will hopefully bring the critically endangered species back into the wilds of AlUla. The reserve will also house several eco-minded luxury resorts, including one designed by French ‘starchitect’ Jean Nouvel.
It’s not the only wildlife success story here. Back at the site of Hegra, a rewilding project has preserved hundreds of hectares of land for the reintroduction of oryx, ibex and Arabian gazelle. When it finally opens to visitors, you will be able to see native wildlife roaming in the background of its Nabataean wonders, just as they did millennia ago.
Lastly, a real highlight of any stay in AlUla is the sky itself. Multiple areas are designated ‘dark sky sanctuaries’, including Hegra. You’ll never feel closer to the Milky Way than when taking in a stargazing experience with a local astronomer (or astronomy enthusiast) at Gharameel, with its mystical rock formations. End your evening with a traditional Bedouin barbecue under the glowing stars and, if you’re lucky, you might get to see a meteor shower, too.
No one is left behind in AlUla’s new tourism adventure. Here is how a historic region opens its doors to visitors without losing its soul…
AlUla has traditionally been a rural area, and for decades had very limited urban development with only basic infrastructure and services. All this is currently changing, as the destination invests in tourism growth and locals are experiencing a surge in visitors from around the world. Guaranteeing a sustainable approach to tourism with strong community engagement is no easy feat, and it’s something the RCU, the body responsible for the development of the region, is well aware of.
While international talent has been recruited to build, renovate, research and educate, visitors here will immediately recognise that it is the locals that still run the show. From the alrowah of AlUla’s Old Town to the archaeologists working in Dadan, tourism has diversified the jobs market in a region more typically associated with farming. The RCU programme Hammaya has even seen over 2,500 residents – taught in universities and vocational centres both in Saudi Arabia and internationally – trained to become advocates for AlUla’s natural and human heritage.
There have been other successes, too. For the last three years Madrasat Addeera, an arts and crafts school, has brought training much closer to the local community. A project under the auspices of UK charity Turquoise Mountain, it is yielding promising results, with the first cohort of 50 students currently training in two-to-three-year modules all receiving a full stipend. Over 90 per cent of the students of Madrasat Addeera are also local women, many previously unemployed.
The aim is to preserve local arts and crafts traditions while bringing artisanship to an international standard, without the need to import inauthentic souvenirs made in different continents. Students are trained in ceramics, palm weaving, textile making and jewellery design and creation. While teachers and experts have joined the school from around the world, there is a concentrated effort to keep things local: for example, by using designs inspired by the rich archaeological heritage of the region. Visitors can support the students’ endeavours by buying one of their many works that grace the storefronts of AlUla Old Town.
Beyond local training, the area’s infrastructure will need to be upgraded to handle the significantly bigger number of visitors due in the region. Water supply and waste management plans have been drawn and will be imperative in ensuring the additional number of visitors don’t strain local services or cause damage to the environment. But one upshot has been that the farm-to-table approach from many of the upcoming accommodation establishments has meant that local farmers can go back to diversifying their crops away from dates and onto a greater range of fruits and vegetables – AlUla oranges are as sweet as sukkari dates!
It is critical that future tourism development in the region continues to empower the local community while respecting and conserving AlUla’s natural and human heritage. The challenge of building a world-class destination brand while maintaining authenticity is one that both local residents and the RCU will need to deliver on. After all, one of the many surprises that AlUla already provides is the authentic, from-the-heart hospitality of the locals, many still excited every time a visitor from a new country arrives in their timeless, cultured, historic region.
Prince Abdul Majeed Bin Abdulaziz International Airport serves AlUla. The newly overhauled Saudia (saudia.com) flies from London and Manchester via Riyadh and/or Jeddah, but note that an overnight stay in either city may be required. It is a 11-hour drive from Riyadh, or an eight-hour one from Jeddah, although there’s not much to see en route. There are plans for international non-stop flights, which should launch for the winter 2021/2022 season.
Saudi Arabia (KSA) launched its e-visa tourism program in September 2019. Tourists from 49 eligible countries (including the UK, EU, US and Canada) can apply for a tourist visa online through the eVisa portal (visa.visitsaudi.com) ahead of their trip. UK, EU and US citizens can also apply on arrival in Saudi Arabia through visa kiosks at immigration. Independent travel is possible for both men and women – you no longer need to show proof of a full tour programme to visit.
KSA’s well-reported public decency laws have been relaxed over the last three years. The dress code for visitors is now different – women visitors no longer have to wear the abaya or cover their hair but still need to dress modestly, as do men, always keeping their knees and shoulders covered. Beyond dress, women and men can now eat together in all AlUla establishments and shops stay open throughout the day in major cities and in AlUla (except during the summer midday heat). Avoid bad language and loud behaviour; respectful public decorum is advised. Also, refrain from taking photos of people without their permission. KSA remains a dry country, so no alcohol can be brought in or consumed.
Saudi Arabia can get unbearably hot from mid-May to mid-September. The best season to visit is mid-October to mid-April. Coming to AlUla in the winter means that you may experience temperatures close to zero in the evening, so pack accordingly.
The Royal Commission for AlUla’s official website (experiencealula.com) is a one-stop shop for booking all activities, admissions and experiences that you will want to do in the region. Pick-up and drop-off is usually included as part of the activity/admission package, otherwise there is limited visitor-orientated public transport, so you may need to rent a car. Go Zahid (gozahid.com) can arrange on-the-ground private tours and exclusive visits in AlUla, as well as plan day-visit itineraries in both Jeddah and Riyadh.
Accommodation options in AlUla are currently rather limited, but that is about to change as several new openings are on the horizon (Banyan Tree, Habitas and Aman resorts are opening in the next few months), although mid-range accommodation will still be sparse, so book ahead.
The independently owned and run Shaden Desert Resort (from £160pn in low season) is currently the best address in town, with a spectacular location between towering rock formations. Sahary Resort is a more modest option, with tented accommodation units and Arabian-inspired decor (from £100pn in low season). Both properties are frequently sold out, so make sure you book your accommodation before your flights.
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