A Gem in the Desert: Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia have archeological treasures which have long been hidden from plain sight. But 5 recent UNESCO World Heritage Site designations have highlighted the universal value of the country’s material legacy. Among these is Al-Ulah, the first destination to earn UNESCO recognition (in 2008) and the most spectacular.

Situated in desert heartland 200 miles north of Medina, Al-Ulah is mentioned in the Bible, the Torah and the Qu’ran, with a history dating back 7,000 years in the Neolithic period when people settled in the valley and built funeral structures, including remarkable tombs with drawings of animals such as camels, ibex, and ostriches. From the 8th century BC, Al -Ulah became an important place on the famous incense road that linked the south to northern Arabia and remained so for the next eight hundred years. The area is huge: 8600 square miles of arid landscape, relieved by lush acquifer-fed oasis and littered with centuries-old mud-brick towers and houses now laying in various states of ruins.

Fourteen miles north of Al-Ulah town is Mada’in Saleh (aka Hegra), once an urban center of the mysterious Nabateans, a people believed to have originated from Jordan whose wealth came from the incense trade until the Roman annexation of the region in 106 AD. The region is home to over 100 well-preserved monumental tombs (dating to 100 BCE-100 CE). The real jaw-dropping tombs here are the elaborately cut rock tombs with their ornamental facades. The richer you were, the more elaborate tomb you could afford. Some are incredibly ornate and beautiful, especially when cut from a single freestanding rock in the desert.

Throughout the al-Ula area there are countless graffiti and rock-carved inscriptions in Lihyanite, Aramaic (a dialect which the Nabateans used for writing) which formed the origins of today’s Arabic language.

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