Arabia’s hidden treasure
IT’S not very often that you get the chance to be one of the first people to travel to a brand new destination, let alone one that is as beautiful as AlUla, writes Sarah Beyer.
AlUla is a city in the north west of Saudi Arabia and for the first time is open to travellers, revealing 200,000 years of human history to discover. Tourism is at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision to create a thriving economy through diversification, and the Kingdom is encouraging travellers to come and visit.
AlUla is one of the first destinations to be opened up, and travellers to the city can discover an ancient landscape where time has stood still. The heritage and culture of this destination is fascinating, and visitors to the city will be warmly welcomed by the people, the elders, the rawi (Arabic storytellers) and tour guides.
AlUla was once at the crossroads of the Silk Road and the Incense Route. Recent archaeological investigations have revealed 3,000 years of continuous habitation in the city, meaning there is a rich history for travellers to discover.
One of the most well-known sites of AlUla is Hegra, which is also Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hegra is an ancient city once part of the Nabataean Kingdom which ruled this region for around two hundred years from 100 BCE to 106 CE. The civilisation’s name may be familiar to travellers, as the Nabataeans were also the people who lived at the more widely-known Petra in Jordan. Hegra was an important trading post and travellers can visit over 100 well preserved tombs in the city, each with elaborate facades cut into sandstone outcrops.
Go further back in time when you visit Dadan, which was one of the most developed 1st millennium BCE cities in the Arabian Peninsula. Nearby to Dadan, the site of Jabal Ikmah is sometimes referred to as ‘the open-air library’ for its centuries-old rock inscriptions which give insight into the beliefs, rituals and practices of the inhabitants who once lived there.
Another heritage highlight of AlUla is the city’s Old Town. Dating to around 12th century, the Old Town features old mud brick buildings and a labyrinth of streets which continued to be lived in until as recently as 40 years ago. Today you can stroll along Incense Road, lined with fruit and produce market stalls, as well as arts and crafts, fashion and souvenirs, or else join a tour with a rawi and discover the connection the residents of AlUla have with the Old Town.
As well as incredible history, AlUla is a place with stunning natural landscapes. The oasis runs like a river though the centre of town, with 20km of palm trees and local farms with citrus and fruit trees where you can visit and enjoy a long leisurely lunch of local produce.
The desert surrounds of the city are also full of natural wonders. Rock formations like Elephant Rock, Face Rock and Dancing Rocks are a photographer’s dream. You can book a walking, cycling or horseback riding tour to best appreciate these canyons and mountains.
Those looking for a wildlife encounter should visit Sharaan Reserve where you might spot an ostrich, ibex or gazelle, and you can learn about conservation efforts to restore native gazelles and the Arabian leopard to their natural habitat.
At night head to Al Gharameel for a spot of star-gazing, a must-do humbling experience, and hear from the locals about the importance of the constellations to daily life over the years and up until today.
Arts and Culture
AlUla plays host to both natural and man-made art on a monumental scale. One of the major art attractions of the city is Maraya, an architectural spectacle with over 9,000m2 of mirrors covering the exterior walls of a cube-shaped structure which reflects the desert scenery.
Artwork by international artists is placed throughout the landscape showcasing the rock formations with stunning results.
As well as modern art, AlUla has a rich heritage of traditional arts and crafts which travellers can get an insight into in the Old Town at the handicraft pavilion.
AlUla’s heritage doesn’t mean you can’t experience the city in a modern way, with plenty of adventure activities which interact with the backdrop of the area’s landscape. Travellers of all fitness levels can hike and bike around various sites, and vintage car transfers between attractions is a great novelty. Getting an aerial view of AlUla is a fantastic way to experience the city and visitors can head to the skies in a vintage aircraft or helicopter, or even a hot air balloon in season.
AlUla’s International Airport is a short flight (only 1.5 hours) from Riyadh or Jeddah which are serviced by many airlines flying from Australia. If you’ve had enough of flying once you get to the Middle East, you can road trip from Petra in Jordan in 6 hours, from Jeddah in 7 hours and Riyadh in 10 hours.
When it comes to accommodation, there are a range of options available in AlUla from self-catered RV resorts to eco-hotels and luxury desert suites, with more coming online between this year and 2023.