Left Untouched For 2000 Years, This Old City Is Now Saudi's Tourist Hub

Left Untouched For 2000 Years, This Old City Is Now Saudi's Tourist Hub
Hegra was once a thriving city under Nabataean rule,
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The necropolis of Hegra, in the desert town of AlUla, is Saudi's first UNESCO World Heritage Site

Mallika Bhagat
April 02 , 2022
06 Min Read

After a brisk walk, with only a scarf to protect me from the blazing sun, I stood in the shade of a towering mountain, home to a mausoleum that had been left untouched for 2000 years before we found it.  Its sandy colours flare high in the harsh summer sun, and the carvings come to life against the rocky boulders and shrubbery of the desert, spread as far as the eye can see. Mountains large and small rise out of the flat landscape, as the sand begins to fill my eyes. Hegra, an ancient city that pokes out of a desert just north of AlUla in Saudi, takes travellers on a journey to a civilisation that once thrived, before it was lost in the sands of time. 

AlUla

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Elephant Rock in AlUla

Perfumes and itar today may be regular commodities, but many centuries ago too, they were used across cities and temples galore. There was a small problem though - these sources of incense were scarce, with a few regions including Arabia being the primary suppliers. This supply and demand forms the genesis of the Incense Road, a trading route that connected a network of major ancient trading regions. On the back of this, a civilisation, wealthy and prosperous, emerged in the deserts of Jordan. They were called the Nabateans.

Largely a nomadic tribe, their hold on this Incense Road allowed them to settle and build a kingdom that spanned nearly 800 kilometres. Petra in Jordan was their capital, but in the south, Hegra, also known as Mada’in Salih, was the base of their life. We drove down the same arid landscape that once facilitated camel-drawn caravans to ply spices and aromatics like frankincense and myrrh across the desert land. We came to a halt in the city of AlUla, one of the oldest cities in the Arabian Peninsula where Hegra is situated, and after a quick breakfast, headed off to explore the city’s past and present.

AlUla's Old Town

Narrow bylanes in Alula's Old Town

AlUla’s old town area is an archaeological trove. With nearly 900 houses, 400 shops and 5 town squares, the old town is an exceptional relic of the civilization that flourished here. The houses, connected at the roof, allow light to filter in as we walk through a small maze of lanes, to reach the foot of the Musa bin Nusayr Castle. From the top of the castle (and it did take us some time to scale this beast) the entire old town unfolds on the desertscape. 

View of the old town from the ramparts of Alula Fort

The city was an essential settlement along the pilgrimage route from Damascus to Makkah, and I find it almost astounding that this crumbling structure was home to people not too long ago, with the last residents having left the old town only 45 years ago. The Royal Commission for AlUla is undertaking massive research programs to paint a picture of what life really was like for the people that inhabited this region, we are told by our rawi (guide). The usually quiet town also doubles up as a lively market in the evenings, ideal for trinkets and perfumes. 

For a city of its size, Alula has much to offer. We spend an evening sipping on coffee and sheesha at the Elephant Rock, naturally carved over thousands of years. Next on our itinerary is a stargazing night, which takes us 100kms from the city to the mystical rock formations of Gharameel, where under a blanket of stars and bedouin stories, we feast on traditional Arabian dinner. 

A night of stargazing at Gharameel

 

The Ruins of Hegra

In the humid and arid desert canyon, Hegra stands tall, a symbol of human ingenuity and craftsmanship. An important city at the junction of the incense and spice trade routes, it flourished under Nabatean rule. Today, this necropolis is a shadow of the bustling metropolis it once was, with over a hundred well-preserved tombs with decorated facades and inscriptions that now draws travellers to its land. 

Hegra is the sister city of Petra in Jordan

On an open jeep tour of the vast area, we make our first stop at Qasr Al Farid, the iconic symbol of Hegra. On one face of the mountain is a carved tomb, said to be of Lihyan son of Kuza who belonged to a prominent Nabataen family. The structure is gigantic, and under its shade, we see that the tomb’s construction is incomplete, with rough chisel marks at its base. “It means that the individual who commissioned this never got to be buried here,” our guide Alhanouf tells us.

While Petra has been on the map for years, thanks in part to movies that have been shot there, Hegra affords tourists a closer look at the artistic carvings and even the tombs themselves. We visit a few structures, and also enter a tomb with horizontal and vertical spaces made to hold the dead and their belongings. “The size of the tomb speaks about the status of the buried individual. The elite carved out whole mountains, adorned with crown symbols and columns, with sphinxes, eagles and griffins perched at the facade for protection. The poor, they could only get small pit graves high up in the mountains,” Alhanouf muses as we walk around the shrubs, closer to the tombs. 

The inscriptions at Jabal Ikmah

Much more than the structure themselves, it is important to know about the civilisations that stayed here for thousands of years. At Jabal Ithlib, east of Hegra, we find a spacious diwan carved inside the mountain, meant for feasts and meetings. There are wells and stone-lined water channels that speak of Nabatean architectural and agricultural prowess. They were traders, administrators, farmers. It is no wonder then that this rocky outcrop, a treasure trove of history, was chosen as Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

At the souvenir shop in Hegra, we feast on dried fruits, dates and qahwa, as Waleed, one of the proprietors, edges us towards the counter, hoping to make a sale. As we speak amongst ourselves, he overhears us and jumps with happiness. “You from India!” he goes and starts waxing eloquent about his love for Bollywood and the Khans. And just like that, I am home.

AlUla is truly what it hopes to be: a journey through time.

 


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