AlUla: A living museum in the heart of the desert

ALULA: Once known as a lost city of the dead, today AlUla is a living museum that houses ancient civilizations, historic sites and archaeological wonders dating back 200,000 years.

Located in the northwest of Saudi Arabia and covering an area of ​​over 22,000 km², it is known for its sandstone mountains and fertile oases teeming with resources. Due to its location as the ancient crossroads of the Arabian Peninsula, it was an ideal resting place for caravan merchants who traveled great distances in the region.

The AlUla Valley is a landscape of stark contrasts, with bizarre rock formations carved by man and nature, petroglyphs and engravings, and a lush oasis that has flourished since ancient times.

The AlUla valley is a landscape of striking contrasts. (a photo)

AlUla was the capital of the kingdoms of the Arab civilizations Dadan and Lihyan, which flourished in the desert oasis from 600 to 300 BC by controlling the frankincense trade routes that passed through the valley.

Prints of hunters holding spears on horses and camels can be seen on the mountains of AlUla, which had religious significance for the Dadanites and Lihyanites who, according to local guide Abdulkarim Al-Hajri, worshiped all that was in their sight. was taking advantage.

“In the past, the Arabs worshiped only the divine trinity: the star, the sun and the moon,” he said. “For the Arabs, the camel had community significance, just like the bull, which represented fertility, and the lion, which represented strength and resilience.

“Man started with symbols, then with drawing, then with writing, all of which can be found on these mountains,” Al-Hajri said. “Some people say it’s the different Arabic languages ​​and that’s wrong; in fact, they are different Arabic scripts – Arabic is the mother tongue, a language that has evolved over time.

“The current Arabic writing style is directly derived from Nabataean writing,” he added.


The AlUla valley is a landscape of striking contrasts. (a photo)

Visitors to the area can inspect the Lihyani and Thamudi markings and inscriptions with the help of local guides, who told Arab News that many of AlUla’s treasures have yet to be discovered.

The Nabataean kingdom followed, whose inhabitants lived and prospered in the city of Hegra for over 200 years until it was conquered by the Roman Empire in AD 106. The Nabataeans were one of the many nomadic Bedouin tribes that roamed the Arabian Desert. They most likely originated in the western Arabian Peninsula, in the Hejaz, due to the similarities between the Semitic languages ​​spoken and the deities worshiped in the two regions.

Hegra, an ancient city of 52,000 square meters, was the kingdom’s main southern city and today is home to over 100 well-preserved tombs, the largest of which is Qasr Al-Farid or “The Lonely Castle”. It is one of the most recognized and visited sites in AlUla. Hegra is also the kingdom’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site.


The AlUla valley is a landscape of striking contrasts. (a photo)

The Nabataeans were adept at harnessing natural water resources, so much so that travelers sought their help as they passed through the arid lands.

In Hegra, they drew on underground water reserves and designed canal systems to orient and store it. The Nabataean name has been linked to the Arabic word “Nabatu,” which means water that gushes out of a well.

Hegra’s tombs were built to contain the remains of families or groups, whose status was reflected in the size or decoration of their final resting places. Higher in the mountains were simpler pit graves where people of lower social status were buried.

A deity worshiped by the Nabataeans was Dushara, an eagle who guarded the entrance to several tombs in Hegra. The bird is now headless, with a theory suggesting that the Romans beheaded it as a way to claim the land and ensure that the god of the Nabataeans perishes with them.


The French orientalist Charles Auguste Huber, who came to AlUla when he was commissioned by his country to explore the Arabian Peninsula between 1878 and 1884. (Supplied)

On the other side of Hegra’s tombs, between two jagged sandstone mountains, is Al-Diwan (the courtyard). Carved into the side of the hill to protect it from the wind, it is a large square room containing three stone benches that served as a meeting room for the Nabataean rulers, who gathered to discuss the affairs of the city and its people. It is one of the rare examples of non-funerary architecture in the city.

As part of Saudi Vision 2030, the Journey Through Time master plan was launched in April, which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, chairman of the Royal Commission for AlUla, described as “a leap forward to develop AlUla in a sustainable manner. and responsible, and share our cultural heritage with the world.

The Sharaan Nature Reserve, one of the strategic projects carried out by the commission, covers an area of ​​1,500 km², with varied terrain, mountains and valleys covered with wildflowers and desert areas, home to a variety of of wild animals.


Drawing by Charles Auguste Huber of the south facade of Rawdat Al-Naga, found in the Sharaan reserve circa 1878-1884. (Provided)

French orientalist Charles Auguste Huber designed the southern facade of Rawdat Al-Naga, in the Sharaan reserve, between 1878 and 1884 when he was commissioned by France to explore the Arabian Peninsula.

As he crossed the Rakab Mountains, he said: “We crossed mountains, and if they were in Europe they would have become overcrowded with tourists. “


Crossing the Rakab Mountains, Huber said: “We crossed mountains, and if they were in Europe, we would be overcrowded with tourists.” (Provided)

One of AlUla’s most important landmarks is the Tantora Sundial, which can be found in the Old Town. The Winter at Tantora festival started last week to coincide with the traditional planting season in AlUla, known as Al-Marba’aniya.

The six-week festival is named after the sundial because of the vital role it has played in people’s lives and the annual event is a key date on the calendar. It is also part of the three-month AlUla Moments, which is back for its third edition and allows visitors to experience a range of activities and engage in cultural exploration.

Tickets can be booked through the official website, Experiencealula.com.


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