Once the southern capital of the Nabataean Kingdom and Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, the archeological site of Hegra near AlUla is stunning location and an open air museum for desert and heritage lovers.
Hurry to be among the lucky firsts to discover this soon-to-be-busy tourist site.
A Nabatean Kingdom in the Sand
Remember a time when going to Petra in Jordan was the height of exciting travell? Hegra in Saudi Arabia, also Nabatean site, contains more than 100 carved tombs in red rock, far fewer than the more than 600 at the Nabataean capital of Petra. In Hegra, many of the toms are in better condition, allowing visitors to get a closer at a forgotten civilization.
Desert in this area is stunning, with huge rocky formations emerging from the sand. Driving, cycling or riding through this scenery is an ever- changing wonder in northwest Saudi Arabia. It was a major stop on the ancient incense route and later on the pilgrims’ road to Mecca. For centuries, Bedouins have been living here, growing palm trees and citrus fruits. But long before them, Nabateans built a kingdom on this vast desert land and have left us with a fantastic record of their passing in the form of this unique archaeological site.
Nabatean tombs in Hegra
Hegra & Dadan
Since the early 2000s, a French-Arabian cooperation has been allowed to carry out extensive excavation work in Hegra as part as the Arabia Vision 2030. The Nabatean city of Hegra that is only 15 miles away from the oasis is the centre of interest of this vast region. Several civilizations are known to have occupied the site for its strategic value in this remote desert area. It is the first Arabian one to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are over 100 tombs sculpted into high rocks covered with funeral inscriptions.
The place has long been seen as a holy land and seldom visited by local tribes. It was thus miraculously preserved and when French archaeologist Laîla Nehme – a world-renowned specialist of Nabatean civilization- first arrived the tombs were partly buried in the desert sand but intact.
Ancient rock inscriptions in various languages
Of course, Nabateans are the most famous inhabitants of AlUla since they enlarged their territory from Petra, their capital city in the first century BC. But the rich history of the site dates back over 200,000 years. In Jabal Ikmah many inscriptions written in Aramaic, Greek, Latin and Arabic on cliffs, ruined walls and fortifications create an authentic open-air library. It actually was a religious site, a holy path maybe leading to a temple where pilgrims engraved petroglyphs, prayers or requests.
The iconoic Lions Tombs of Dadan
Close by, Dadan is the stone testimony of an ancient civilization that occupied the site from the 6th to the 2nd centuries BC. Impressive tombs with lions cut into the red rock have been found. The excavation works that started in 2019 are already full of promises and we will soon learn more about this lost kingdom. It is believed that Dadan will be an even more important site than Hegra since Dadan was the capital city of all northwest Arabia in the first millennium BC when Hegra was just a border town of the Nabatean kingdom.
This is only the beginning and soon the ruins of a whole city could emerge from the sand. Recently, exactly four months ago, ruins of an ancient temple have been discovered and beautiful man-size god’s statues were found there.
The ruins of the Lihylianite Temple recently discovered at Dadan
Strolling AlUla’s Old Town Village
The old town of AlUla, built next to the oasis, dates back from the 13th century. Its inhabitants left it in the 1980s to live in a new town that offered them “modern” comforts. Recently, local clay deposits have been used again to restore these typical houses that are well adapted to the local climate. A good way to give work to local people and preserve ancient know-how.
The main street, called “The Incense Route”, has been totally restored in the traditional way and a few shops and restaurants welcome tourists. It actually is a pleasant walk through the oasis and the maze of little streets lined with no less than 900 crude brick dwellings.
AlUla old-town at night is a place for strolling and shopping
A Tourist Attraction Grows in the Desert
An important crossroads of the incense-trading routes, AlUla has always drawn travellers, who came to rest and rejuvenate among its fertile oases and hospitable people. And the oasis where over 80 different species of palm trees were grown, things are changing.
Experts in archaeology, architecture, culture, farming, botany and hospitality have been called to create a touristic destination in the middle of the desert, and a welcoming place to stop, commune and recharge.
Farms have been built and long forgotten crops such as citron, orange, limequat lemon or sweet lemon are planted again. Prosperous, sustainable and organic farming provides jobs for locals in parallel with the touristic development that will take visitors to this remote area.
Arabian perfumes are also part of the project and more moringa trees will soon be planted. These trees grow fast and love a dry climate. Their leaves and seeds produce a richly perfumed oil known since Antiquity for its moisturising properties. A very promising project!
This mirrored building known as Maraya Concert Hall plays tricks one the eyes
Close to the oasis, is the world’s largest mirrored building. Or is it a mirage? Known as the Maraya Concert Hall. Despite its size, more than 100,000 square metres, you won’t see it before you almost hit it as it is completely covered with mirrors, playing tricks on the eye as it reflects the surrounding landscape.
AlUla should soon be an interesting cultural hub. Before leaving AlUla don’t miss
A luxury villa at Habitas Hotel in AlUla
Where to Stay?
The Habitus AlUla Luxury Hotel is set in one of the many canyons of AlUla desert and looks like something out of a fable. Private villas look like Bedouin tents with large awnings made with local craft material have been set along a long path going through high rocky cliffs. Guests can use e-bikes to ride from their villa to the restaurant, bar, spa or infinity pool and enjoy the spectacular setting that’s unlike anywhere else in the world.
AlUla Habitas swimming pool and restaurant
Sustainability rules here and only local materials and know-how were harnessed to build the villas. At Tama Restaurant, fresh ingredients sourced from local farms dominate the menus, and even the spa treatments favour local products.
The desert is omnipresent, arousing meditative experiences. This journey in AlUla and its surroundings will definitely not leave you untouched, and it won’t be untouched for long.
BeSeeingYou In: AlUla, Saudi Arabia
Good to know: Saudi Arabia launched tourist visas for the first time in September 2019, allowing casual visitors to enter the country without a business or religious purpose
WOW! Factor: Hegra contains 111 carefully carved tombs, far fewer than the more than 600 in Petra, Jordan. But the tombs at Hegra are often in much better condition
Tip: Go up to the top of the hill next to the old town for an unforgettable view
Author bio: Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Photos: ©Frederic de Poligny