Saudi Arabia - Al Ula - Part 1

a desert scene with a building in the middle of the desert
Photo by KHAWAJA UMER FAROOQ / Unsplash

Continuing north from Medina, we travelled once more through a desert landscape for about 3 hours following what had been the Hijaz Railway, intended to link Damascus with Mecca, however interrupted by WWI the line only ever reached Medina.

Our destination the oasis of Al Ula - its water and fertile valley sustaining human occupation for thousands of years. Among this expansive land are outcrops and giant boulders the size of buildings, reminding me of our Australian outback, but here many are beautifully carved, with classical-style pediments and columns - Nabataean tombs!

Known as Hegra - this was also a key city for the Nabataeans - a thriving hub for trade across the Arabian Peninsula between 100BCE and 200CE, located around 500 kms from their capital of Petra in Jordan. What an extraordinary find in the vast deserts of Saudi!

Unlike all (but one) of the tombs in Petra, more than 30 of (the 100 or so discovered so far) Hegra’s tombs include inscriptions etched into the rock - legal texts that give the name of the owners and sometimes their role in the community, written in Nabataean script, a variety of Aramaic, which later developed into Arabic.

Top - Like Petra, we entered through a narrow but short gorge also known as The Siq, which lead into a secret area lined with inscriptions, shrines, altars and sanctuaries; the road to Al Ula; Centre: the expanse of the desert around Al Ula; Bottom - a row of tombs hewn into the rockface; one of our guides; A huge room carved into the rockface was used by Nabateans for rituals, feasts or political discussions. Photos: Jane

Very exciting for archaeologists, as the site remained undisturbed for almost 2,000 years, today unlocking the secrets of this almost-forgotten ancient civilization.

Exciting for us too as Saudi Arabia only recently opening to tourism; we were fortunate to visit now - hardly any tourists and thoughtful planning with hop-on-hop-off buses dropping us at seven locations, spread across this expansive area, where enthusiastic Al Rowah (storytellers) told us of the discoveries, tales of the city and how the tombs were carved - from the top down!

We hopped back on the bus to our next stop, where again passionate guides showed us details on a row of tombs hewn into the vertical rock faces as you can see below. It’s still an active archaeological site, but we were allowed to enter one tomb - lined with horizontal niches, where the bodies of the dead were laid to rest.

Photos: Jane

Prior to the Nabataeans, the city was capital of the Dadanite and Lihyanite Kingdoms. Several theories exist on the difference between the two - possibly successive kingdoms or perhaps Dadan refers to the place and Lihyanite, the people. Lihyanites worshipped many gods and attained great skill in architecture and sculpture, including rock cut tombs - the most famous the Lion Tombs.

Top and centre - the hidden gorge of Jabal Ikman, filled with inscriptions on the rocks; bottom: the lion tombs, close up of the lions. Photos: Jane

Dadan is also an active archaeological site. We had a chance to be an archaeologist digging for an artefact and then documenting our discovery. Later we also had a go at chiselling out our name onto a piece of rock - it was hard work(!) gaining an appreciation of the skill and time it must have taken to complete the hundreds of inscriptions and writings we viewed.

I am an archaeologist and stone mason for a day. (Well, more like 15 mins!). Guides explain and assist. Centre: Nabataean script, a variety of Aramaic, which later developed into Arabic. Photos: Jane

The guides made us so welcome, eager to chat and share their knowledge. At the Visitor Centres, juice and cookies handed out - this is the Saudi way - hospitality is an integral part of Saudi society.

This 1 min video give you an idea of the size of the site, with the guides explanations

In shops we were often offered a small bottle of water, while hotels and other places Arabic coffee and dates - both ubiquitous with Saudi life. We passed many date palm farms, a key crop here. It’s a dry country, mostly desert and little rain.

Join me tomorrow to continue exploring the delights of Al Ula.