Unveiling the Mysteries of AlUla

As once-reclusive Saudi Arabia slowly opens up to the world, one destination in particular is poised to become the kingdom’s main draw card: AlUla. Yet for all the desert region’s natural and archaeological attractions, Nicola Chilton finds equal inspiration in the hospitality of its people.

The AlUla region’s otherworldly geography includes the rock formations of Gharameel, where sandstone spires tower above the desert. (Photo: Nicola Chilton)

A few years ago, while indulging my habit of reading about places that are seemingly impossible to visit, I learned about the ancient Nabataean city of Hegra, whose rock-cut tombs pepper a remote plain in the Arabian Desert. It was a place barely anyone had ever seen or even heard of, despite its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. I wondered how its monumental beauty had escaped global attention.

But then, this was Saudi Arabia, a country that, at the time, wasn’t exactly eager to welcome tourists. Fast forward to 2019 and all of that changed with the introduction of the kingdom’s first tourist visas and a much-touted opening of borders that allowed visitors to catch a glimpse behind the veil of this mysterious and long off-limits land. It was a pivotal milestone in the rollout of Vision 2030, a bold blueprint for diversifying the Saudi economy and fostering cultural exchange with other nations. Then came Covid-19, and the doors closed again. But this past August the borders reopened to fully vaccinated travelers, and I decided to go and finally see for myself the tombs that had fascinated me for so long.

I caught my first glimpse of Hegra from the back of an open-top Land Rover as I bounced over soft sands with Amal Aljohani and Suleiman Aljuwayhil, two young guides who are welcoming some of the first international visitors to the AlUla region with a mix of warmth, excitement, and humor. As we drove, I could see the humps of sandstone outcrops rising from the desert plain, their surfaces etched by millennia of wind and rain into hollows and capillary-like channels. And then my eyes picked out more regular lines, the extraordinary handiwork of the stonemasons who left their marks on this landscape 2,000 years ago.

“We used to come and play hide-and-seek here as kids,” said Amal, who grew up in the town of AlUla some 25 kilometers south of Hegra. “We thought the tombs were people’s houses. It was like our playground.”

Now under the aegis of the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), a government entity established in 2017 to help develop the region, AlUla — a vast swath of desert and mountains some 200 kilometers inland from the Red Sea — is being positioned as the crowning jewel of Saudi tourism. Hegra is its centerpiece, with a collection of more than 100 monumental tombs that easily competes with the Middle East’s other big archaeological attractions. Yet the Nabataeans, a tribe of ancient Arab nomads turned merchants most famously known for the remains of their rock-cut capital of Petra in Jordan, weren’t the first to settle this area. The earliest evidence of human life here dates back 200,000 years, and the AlUla Valley has been continuously inhabited for seven millennia thanks to the presence of a fertile oasis that today is home to more than two million date palms.

The AlUla Valley’s verdant oasis has supported inhabitants and wayfarers for millennia. (Courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla)

From the eighth century BCE, the Dadanite and Lihyanite civilizations controlled the trade caravans on the Incense Route from southern Arabia to the Mediterranean and beyond, and they carved their own tombs and temples into the mountains. The Nabataeans came next, making Hegra their southern capital. The city flourished as a trade hub for 200 years until the Roman emperor Trajan annexed the Nabataean kingdom as the province of Arabia Petraea. With the advent of Islam, AlUla became a key staging post on the pilgrimage route to Mecca.

The archaeological sites are fascinating, and there’s a real sense of discovery as you explore them. But this is a country in flux, and I was equally as excited to meet the young Saudis, such as Amal and Suleiman, who are at the forefront of the birth of tourism in their town, and who are eagerly awaiting visitors.

“I honestly didn’t expect to be a tour guide, but I like to meet people and get to know them,” Amal told me, her gray eyes shining through her niqab. “No one knew about our city in the past, which is something I didn’t like because it’s a beautiful place.”

As we walked toward Jabal Al-Banat, one of the largest tomb clusters at Hegra, Amal told me how proud her mother is seeing her share their history with visitors from around the world. The sands around us were calm and quiet. There were no convoys of buses disgorging tour groups, no one hassling me to ride camels or hawking miniatures of the ruins. Aside from my travel companions and our accompanying guides, we were alone. I felt as if I was one of the first people ever to come here.

The Tomb of Lihyan son of Kuza, at Hegra. (Photo: Jonathan Irish)

A bird’s-eye view of the region’s desert landscape. (Photo: Hubert Raguet)

The remarkably well-preserved tombs of Hegra were carved as symbols of power and wealth, and they reveal much about the other peoples that the Nabataeans came into contact with. Decorative elements include Greek columns, Egyptian lotus motifs, Roman eagles, and even a carving of Medusa with snakes emerging from her head to protect those entombed inside.

As the sun sank lower in the sky and the fine sand kicked up by our tires sparkled like gold dust in the late afternoon light, we approached Hegra’s largest and most evocative monument. The Tomb of Lihyan son of Kuza stands alone in the scrub-flecked desert, sculpted into the face of a rock that rises 22 meters above the sand. It was most likely created for a wealthy Nabataean army commander but was never finished, the perfect lines of its hand-hewn facade and pilasters contrasting sharply with the wind-smoothed curves and honeycomb texture of the rest of the rock. Amal explained that the facing pairs of steps above its upper cornice (a feature common to Hegra’s larger tombs) were meant to provide a stairway for the soul to ascend to heaven.

Until a few years ago, no one in Saudi Arabia really spoke of the pre-Islamic civilizations that once inhabited the peninsula. But that is changing with a new recognition of the importance of those who came before, and what can be learned from them.

The following morning, Amal’s friend and fellow guide Suleiman brought me to Jabal Ikmah, where thousands of petroglyphs and inscriptions cover the terra cotta–hued rocks of a desert canyon. He said it was his favorite place in all of AlUla. “You feel like you’re walking through history, through language, and through the ideas behind the civilizations here. For me, it’s fascinating,” Suleiman told me. “Hegra gives us huge monuments, but Ikmah gives us a record of shared life.”

Just one of the hundreds of pre-Arabic inscriptions at Jabal Ikmah. (Photo: Omar Alnahdi)

Mysterious prehistoric structures like this pendant-shaped burial site dot AlUla’s plains and uplands. (Photo: Omar Alnahdi)

Some of the inscriptions were etched by professional scribes, others by ordinary people to leave a record of their pilgrimage or petition divine protection for the journey ahead. Suleiman pointed out different scripts — Thamudic, Dadanite, Lihyanite, Aramaic — as well as images of camels, oryx, and a lyre-like instrument called a simsimiyya. “These civilizations needed water, food, and security to establish themselves. But to have musical instruments meant that they had become more advanced. They had the essentials, and now they had accessories,” he explained.

As we walked through the morning sun, the wall of rock towering above us, I asked Suleiman why he chose to become a guide.

“I love to look at people’s eyes when they’re seeing our heritage,” he told me. “We’re a young nation, but we have a huge legacy and we want to show it to the whole world. Saudi is not just sand dunes, it’s a lot of things.”

*            *            *

Heritage sites aren’t the only thing set to attract visitors to AlUla. British chef Jason Atherton’s new restaurant Maraya Social offers a menu of modern European cuisine made with ingredients from local farms. It’s located on the rooftop of Maraya, a mirage-like building clad entirely in mirrored glass sheets that simultaneously melts into the landscape while stopping you in your tracks. José Carreras, Lionel Richie, and Craig David have all performed in the concert hall housed inside.

Uber-exclusive Annabel’s, the private members’ club from London, is opening its second pop-up in AlUla this winter. And there’s a series of events planned through the cooler months to entice visitors who may feel that, once they’ve ticked off all the boxes of the heritage sites, there’s nothing else to see. Art, hot-air balloons, vintage planes, and wellness events are all in the calendar with the aim of promoting AlUla as more than a once-in-a-lifetime destination.

The natural sandstone arch of Jabal Alfil, or “Elephant Rock.” (Photo: Nicola Chilton)

Up to now, accommodations in the area have been limited to a handful of small hotels, camping options, and RV trailers. I stayed at Shaden Resort, where the rooms are nothing to write home about but the setting — between towering honey-colored rock pinnacles just a short drive from the pachyderm-shaped outcrop of Jabal Alfil (“Elephant Rock”) — is extraordinary. But upscale hospitality brands are on the way. During my visit, the Habitas group was just days away from debuting an eco-chic retreat in the Ashar Valley, not far from Maraya. Nearby, a new Banyan Tree resort will open next spring, taking over and upgrading the former Ashar Resort with 79 tented pool villas and a spa. Future properties by Aman Resorts and an ambitious plan by French architect Jean Nouvel to carve a hotel into the rocks in the newly established Sharaan Nature Reserve will add to the mix.

Another ongoing project is the restoration of AlUla’s Old Town, a crumbling labyrinth of mud-brick houses, shops, and mosques that the last of its inhabitants abandoned in the early 1980s for the comforts of modern-day AlUla, a few kilometers to the south. Over a lunch of stuffed grape leaves and jareesh porridge at Suhail, one of the first restaurants to open in the district, I was joined by Dr. Ingrid Périssé-Valéro, the director of archaeology and heritage at Afalula, a French government agency created to support the RCU. Périssé-Valéro has a team of 120 international archaeologists working on different excavations, including the sites of Dadan and the Old Town, which dates back to the 12th century. And she believes there is still plenty to discover.

An aerial view of AlUla’s 12th-century Old Town, sections of which have been recently restored. (Courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla)

Millennia of wind and rain have sculpted the soft sandstone of AlUla into fantastical shapes. (Courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla)

“I’ve worked as an archaeologist in Lebanon and Syria, but here I have the same feeling that travelers and archaeologists maybe had in the 19th century in Mesopotamia and Greece,” Périssé-Valéro told me. “There is amazing heritage here, and almost nothing has been revealed yet apart from Hegra.”

Neolithic and Bronze Age artifacts have been found in AlUla’s oasis. Excavations haven’t started yet, but she expects that when they do, they will uncover ancient settlements. “We’re just at the very beginning here,” she added.

Looking down from the restaurant over a walking street lined with shops and market stalls, I could see locals out for a stroll, drinking coffee at the cafés, children playing.

“One year ago, this street was in ruins like the rest of the Old Town,” Périssé-Valéro said. “What’s nice is that it’s bringing life back to this part of town.”

*            *            *

On my last night in AlUla, I sat with Amal next to the infinity pool at Habitas, sipping mocktails and nibbling canapés as a sliver of a crescent moon rose over the surrounding rocks. In her mid-20s and bursting with confident energy, Amal has been guiding visitors since 2019. We talk about music, her love of Selena Gomez and Adele, how she learned much of her English from movies, and about how excited she is to welcome more overseas tourists to AlUla.

Amal joined the guide-training program organized by the RCU, which involved stints in Paris, Abu Dhabi, and the Arizona town of Sedona. “We went to Paris to work at our exhibition on AlUla in the Arab World Institute,” she told me. “I was so happy and proud as a woman there in traditional Saudi dress, telling people about my town, wanting them to see it. It was an amazing feeling for me.”

And while Amal is keen for the world to discover the wonders of AlUla, she wants visitors to see something else as well. “I want them to see what it’s like to be an independent woman in our city, and that we have smart women, beautiful women here,” she said. “We have a lot to share with the whole world.”

I asked what’s next for her. “A lot of things,” she laughs. “You’re gonna see!” And I sense that this same attitude of excitement, optimism, and drive sits at the heart of AlUla. While its roots may lie in millennia of history, it’s the new generation that will put this remarkable region on the map.

Nabataean tombs at Jabal Al-Banat. (Photo: Hubert Raguet)

The Details

Getting There

Saudi low-cost carrier Flynas recently launched thrice-weekly direct flights between AlUla and Dubai. Visitors of nationalities eligible for tourist e-visas (which currently include China/Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia) can apply online at visa.visitsaudi.com.

What to Do

Tours and activities—including scenic helicopter flights—can be booked at the Royal Commission for AlUla’s Experience AlUla website, which also lists upcoming events and festivals.

Where to Stay

Just-opened Habitas AlUla (doubles from US$720) comprises 100 super-stylish and sustainably designed villas with terraces that look out to the sandstone cliffs of the Ashar Valley. Slated to debut in the second half of 2022, the nearby Banyan Tree AlUla (doubles from US$1,000) will feature such indulgences as private pools and the area’s first Thai restaurant.

 

This article originally appeared in the December 2021/February 2022 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Shifting Sands”).

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