Condé Nast Traveller Middle East
AlUla in Saudi Arabia has reopened for the season with new experiences that bring a fresh perspective to ancient lands
There’s a certain time of day in Jabal Ithlib when the sun filters through the narrow, 40m-high Siq corridor between towering sandstone rocks, laying out a light-filled path and creating a starburst effect that imbues this already majestic spot with an otherworldly glow. Perhaps it was this ethereal appeal that prompted the ancient Nabataeans to establish the area as their centre of religious life thousands of years ago. Walking along the illuminated pathway, there’s a sense of embarking on a journey back in time.
Jabal Ithlib is one of a number of breathtaking historical areas visitors can now explore in ancient Hegra – the principal southern city of the Nabataean Kingdom and Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site – though it’s arguably not the best-known one. Many will be more familiar with the naturally shaped formation called Elephant Rock for its resemblance to the pachyderm, or with what has become the iconic image of AlUla: Qasr al-Farid, “the lonely castle” – a tomb carved into a domed rock standing sentinel on its own in the desert.
This marvellous ruin is, of course, worth visiting, but ending there would be like going to the Louvre and seeing only the “Mona Lisa” while ignoring all the other spectacular artworks filling the galleries. Indeed, there are more than 100 tombs to discover in the open-air museum that is Hegra alone. Plus areas like Jabal Ithlib, where carvings of Nabataean sanctuaries, betyls and altars can be seen along the rock face – and within, through that narrow pathway, lies al-Diwan, a stony chamber where sacred feasts were once had.
The stories of antiquity are probably best told by a Rawi (Arabic storyteller), who can lead tours around the sites of note at Hegra. And to give visitors an even more interactive way to understand the ancient civilisations that once inhabited these parts, a handicraft pavilion is planned, which will host activities bringing history to life, such as the making of necklaces using date stones (replicating an actual necklace archaeologists discovered in 2015), as well as live theatre performances and workshops.
Just as al-Farid is Hegra’s most recognisable ruin, so Hegra is AlUla’s most talked-about ancient site. Yet, encompassing 22,561sqkm – a landmass larger than some countries – AlUla is home to several other ancient settlements, some of which reopened to the public for tour bookings at the end of October ( experiencealula.com). Among them is Jabal Ikmah, home to thousands of ancient rock-art and inscription sites, and Dadan – capital city of the Dadanite and Lihyanite Kingdoms and one of the most developed cities of 1st millennia BCE – which is currently being excavated, an activity that visitors can simulate via a new “Archaeology for Everyone” workshop that will see families digging together for artefacts.
Perhaps most exciting, next month AlUla’s Old Town opens for visitors for the first time ever, allowing explorations of a labyrinth of over 900 mudbrick homes dating back to at least the 12th century. The site will be brought to life through tours with a Rawi as well as a bazaar for handicrafts and other items that will recreate the energy of an old souk. Visitors will also be able to walk a trail through the neighbouring oasis and take in views from on high at AlUla castle.
While heritage is a key part of discovering and appreciating AlUla, new experiences have been created to appeal to a variety of guest interests. Introduced this year, the Adventure Canyon area is designed for more adrenaline-laced adventures. Hikers can take off on the Adventure Hiking Trail, with half-day excursions led by experienced guides through the AlMadakeel landscapes, offering views across the desert and oasis. Also being launched, a two-hour Cycling Trail through palm and citrus-tree groves, and a Horse Riding Trail through the oasis. Kicking things up another notch is the option to speed around these largerthan-life landscapes in a three-person dune buggy and, for the truly adventurous, a zipline is in the works.
More leisurely pursuits include a star-gazing tour at AlGharameel rocks with a Bedouin-inspired setup and an expert guide doling out insights about the important role constellations and stars played in the lives of AlUla’s ancient cultures. The Fresh Farm Visit is another low-key option, involving fruit-picking, animal-feeding and seedplanting alongside a lesson on how farming contributes to the economy and daily life around these parts. Arts and culture continue to be a key component of the AlUla experience, and new arts hubs are being established near Old Town and will run not just workshops and classes but also contribute to the revival of traditional handicrafts such as ceramics, weaving and glasswork.
With so much to take in, it’s worth spending some time here. Thus far, accommodation has included self-catered RVs and tented desert options Sahary AlUla Resort and Shaden Desert Resort, both comfortably appointed. In early
2021, sustainability minded eco-luxury resort Habitas AlUla will begin operations, bringing its community-focussed ethos to the Ashar Valley. Also in the neighbourhood will be the Kingdom’s first Banyan Tree resort, with a rebrand and high-end expansion of the existing Ashar Resort. (Three Aman properties will eventually join the fray a few years’ down the line, bolstering the robust resort offerings and suggesting that wellness will undoubtedly be a focus of the overall experience of AlUla.)
The new resorts will, naturally, bring with them gourmet dining – and plans for more upscale cafés and restaurants by the heritage sites are in the works. In the meantime, visitors can immerse further in their surroundings via local cuisine from cafés Barzan and AlMakher. And through the winter, pop-up food trucks will provide a casual grab-and-go option – ushering a very 21st-century trend on to land dating back to 100 BCE. Though, considering that travelling caravans passed through this area along the all-important incense trade route in days of yore, perhaps a mobile food dispenser is a concept not that far removed from the past after all.
“PERHAPS MOST EXCITING, ALULA’S OLD TOWN SOON OPENS TO VISITORS FOR THE FIRST TIME, ALLOWING EXPLORATIONS
OF MORE THAN 900 CENTURIES-OLD MUDBRICK HOMES”