In the middle of Alula’s desert canyon is the old town, where older civilizations once thrived. Today, the empty tottering mud structures are now being restored to tell tales of their architectural legacy. In one corner of this heritage city is a single-floor building that nurtures Saudi’s creative potential.
In 1964, this building was Saudi’s first girls’ school. Today, Madrasat Addeerah is an arts and traditional crafts hub. Taken over by the Royal Commission for Alula in 2019, the school is now a thriving art space, with over 70 students perfecting their skills in spaces including ceramic, jewellery, pottery, wicker making and more.
These students are local women.
Women At The Wheel
A few years ago, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia allowed its women to drive, propelling a change in mindset and stirring hopes for a brighter future for this gender. In the desert city of Alula, this hope burns brighter than ever.
To revive and promote traditional crafts of the region, Madrasat Addeera school collaborated with Turquoise Mountain Foundation, an NGO established by Prince Charles to protect traditional crafts and historical areas, and the Royal Commission for AlUla to teach women craftswork, in June 2020. Ever since, there has been a renewed focus on women independence and empowerment, through vocational training in different courses, ranging from a period of 2-3 years.
In the first room we enter, I can instantly smell the sweet fragrance of desert sand. A dozen women are hard at the wheel, sculpting pots and bowls from clay. This clay is picked straight from the desert and used to create utensils and artwork with creative designs that also take their inspiration from the architecture and culture of the city.
Hamad, the supervisor at the centre, and also our guide for the day, takes us around, introducing us to the artisans, while teaching us more about the archaeological gems that have been unearthed in Alula. Before we move to the next room, I take a few pictures, with a few artists requesting that I keep their faces out of the purview of my lens. I gladly obey.
Each room at Addeera is a marvelous example of the leaps that Saudi is taking to promote its heritage, while not blindly giving in to tourism plot holes. The initiative here does not just promote tradition; each artisan here is paid a stipend, for many women run their own homes with the money earned here, which acts as an incentive to draw more talent into the fold.
In the subsequent rooms, we meet women engaged in making jewellery from metals like silver and gold. Some are learning how to weave wall art from palm leaves. The best part? This is a focus on sustainability, with students using different coloured earth from the various mountains of AlUla to make their own unique pigments. “We hope one day, our products get global recognition. I hope to start my own brand one day,” says a stitching student, who is currently working on handbags that feature designs inspired by the old town itself. In Alula, modernity and tradition go hand in hand.
RCU is also taking stock of the international fine arts market, educating people in traditional and contemporary crafts. They had launched Alula’s first art residency program, which saw six artists work in the area for 11 weeks, exploring the theme ‘rebirth of the oasis’. There are great plans for the future for the school, says Hamad, which include a residence for artists, a boutique store and cafe. Currently, the products made by the students are sold at a small store in the Old Town market. The Artisans Workshops in AlUla will also eventually be offered to visitors too.