AlUla is ready to lay bare its treasures to the world for the first time. Before it lifts the curtain, we took Bollywood beauty Pooja Hegde on an exclusive-access pass to marvel at the sacred sites, virgin landscapes, and unknown history of this Saudi Arabian gem. By Rashima Nagpal
Producer Aindrila Mitra
Photographer Rohan Shrestha
Assistant Photographers Sheldon Santos & Homyar Patel
Stylist Divyak D’Souza
Assistant Stylist Riddhi Vartak
Hair Akgun Manisali
Makeup Savleen Manchanda
Location AlUla, Saudi Arabia
Three flights over one day. That’s all it took to land in the middle of nowhere. But when the destination is as remarkable as AlUla, the travails of travel mean nothing. Add to that the scent of landing on a fresh new airport, which is still getting its finishing touches, and you know you’ve arrived at a destination largely untouched by humanity. A convoy of five luxurious SUVs carried us into the heart of the city. As the landscape of AlUla—brimming with sandstone—took over, flight fatigue and jet lag lost all meaning.
If this article made you look up AlUla, don’t be hard on yourself. Most people hadn’t heard of it until recently. It was only in the last couple of months that the name began to appear in headlines. Many articles called it ‘Saudi Arabia’s Petra’. But it’s more than a little unfair to compare one marvel to another. It’s time to recognise AlUla for its uniqueness. But before we get to its present alluring state, it bodes well to delve into its rich, captivating history.
BACK IN THE DAY
It was in AlUla that the ancient Dadanite and Lihyanite kingdoms thrived from the ninth century BCE to the first century BCE. An oasis in a desert valley, the walled city was blessed with fertile soil and plenty of water. It was located along the Incense Road, the network of routes that saw caravans of traders carry spices, silk, and other luxurious items through Arabia, Egypt, and India. Though most of the original houses of the Old Town were rebuilt over the centuries, there are many remnants of traditional Arab architecture among the ruins. In fact, some old stones used in the foundations of buildings standing today have Lihyanite markings on them. The abandoned city has a religious significance as well. Muslims believe that Prophet Muhammad passed through Wadi al-Qura in AlUla—located about 380 kilometres north of the holy city of Medina—at least thrice, including on his journey to the Battle of Tabuk in 630 CE. The Old Town of AlUla was founded around the 12th century and remained inhabited until around three decades ago. They say that the last family left town in 1983, and the last mosque service was held two years later, in 1985.
Now popular for housing the archaeological site of Hegra, the first one in the kingdom to be recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, AlUla is being positioned as the crown jewel of Saudi Arabia’s tourism. Hegra was once an important trading hub for the Nabataeans; today, it is dotted with ancient ruins, tombs that date back several centuries, date farms, and sandstone boulders. This became our cover girl’s favourite site in the ancient city.
Hegra is dotted with over 100 Nabataean tombs carved into gigantic rocks. “If I have a God named after a mountain, I will bury myself inside the mountain, to be closer to the God.” Hamed, a young guide from the Royal Commission of AlUla (RCU), explained the theory behind the awe-inspiring structures we were looking at. The God here was Dushara.
If the deity sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve been to or read about Jordan. Within the temple of Al Deir, the largest and most imposing rock-cut temple in Petra, is an unworked block of stone that represents one of the most revered deities of the Nabataeans—Dushara. The term Dushara (‘Lord of the Shara’) refers to the Shara mountains, which lie north of Petra. That belief in Dushara permeated AlUla too, back in the day. Today, Hegra is the largest preserved site of rock-cut tombs of the Nabataean civilisation south of Jordan.
We proceeded inside one of the rocky chambers in Hegra to observe the ancient burial site. The size of the tombs suggested the wealth of those who were buried there. Complying with our guide’s instructions, we spent no more than 10 seconds observing the surfaces, made painstakingly with hammer and chisel, their primeval simplicity being “the most beautiful detail inside the tomb.” No wonder each one took anything between nine months and two years to carve!
A 20-minute drive away from Hegra, the mountainous Jabal ‘Ikmah is another cultural treasure. Regarded as one of Saudi Arabia’s largest ‘open libraries’, it features rock inscriptions as old as 2,000 years. These writings shed light on the origins of the Arabic language, beliefs, and practices. The site is also believed to have been spiritually relevant due to its secluded location in a canyon valley, and the inscriptions being a medium of praying and giving thanks.
Across the city of AlUla, one can find hundreds of ancient inscriptions—in scripts including Safaitic, Aramaic, Thamudic, Minaic, Greek, and Latin. Inscriptions that inform specifically of the three kings of the Dadanite kingdom can be found at the site of Dadan.
A different kind of historical wealth can be found in archaeological sites such as Al-Khuraybah, once known as the legendary Dadan. The metropolis at the centre of the Dadanite and Lihyanite kingdoms, Dadan was one of the most developed cities of the Arabian Peninsula in the first millennium BCE. It is here that King Saud University recovered colossal human-figure sculptures, which are now placed in the Louvre Museum of Paris.
Once the site of 900 houses, 400 shops, and five town squares, the Old Town of AlUla today features some preserved remnants of the original stone and mud-brick buildings. A citadel dating back to the 10th century is still accessible via a restored staircase. It might be interesting to note that this site was inhabited until very recently, and hence, offers unique opportunities to share oral histories of a fast disappearing way of life.
A chance meeting with a couple of archaeologists in the Old Town helped me understand the nuances of conserving a heritage site better. “Except the corridor that we’re standing in, nothing of the Old Town has ever been restored. It is as it was thousands of years ago.” When asked about the factors such sites need to be protected from, I was told, “sun, sand, and weather.” As it turns out, there’s nothing more powerful than nature.
The city’s most iconic landmark, or should I say ’grammable one, Elephant Rock is a natural formation that looks like an elephant with a long trunk. It lies 11 kilometres northeast of the province, at a height of 52 metres. It is surrounded by hundreds of other rock monoliths. If you are creative enough, feel free to lend your own nicknames to some of these and find them on your next visit.
WINTER AT TANTORA
AlUla’s rich history comes alive in a mesmerising series of events at Winter at Tantora, an annual festival that will run each weekend from December 19, 2019 until March 7, 2020. The ancient cities of Hegra and Dadan boast activities inspired by the knowledge of how ancient civilisations lived. The desert offers a cultural oasis as well, with a variety of performances and immersive experiences. Enjoy weekly concerts, a sculpture garden, multiple art exhibits, and an open market featuring local arts and crafts.
Bathing in a Lihyanite basin, recreated using the same techniques that went into making
the ancient basins found at Dadan, is another unique experience found at the festival. Other attractions include luxurious boutiques and pop-ups, amid surreal surroundings.
During Winter at Tantora, AlUla also unveils its adventurous side. You can hike diverse nature trails and tour an ancient volcano that serves up a chiaroscuro of hot lava. One can enjoy vintage aircraft flights, or take a helicopter tour over the Red Sea to see virtually unexplored areas of Saudi Arabia. Soar on a hot-air balloon over sand-swept landscapes, and watch one of the most-exciting horse-races in the world. If you love to explore the outdoors, AlUla is a playground unlike any other.
When you come all the way to this ancient city of Saudi Arabia, don’t just see the rocks and tombs of past civilisations, use them as portals to another world. I know I did. I could almost hear the boulders whisper their secrets to me. It was a language I did not know, and yet understood.