Coming to AlUla, especially Hegra, is like traveling back in time to this once busting and now nearly forgotten Nabatean city where archaeologists are still busy piecing together its obscure past. AlUla has been settled for over 7,000 years and was an important stop along the Silk Road, the Incense Route, and the Road to Mecca. The Nabataeans not only supplied spices such as frankincense and myrrh, they also had control over the trade routes enabling them to tax traders contributing to the prosperity of their cities. The Nabataean Kingdom prospered from the 4th century BC to the 1st century AD when it was conquered by the Roman Emperor Trajan. They were forgotten until the rediscovery of Petra in Jordan in 1812. Not much is known about the Nabateans as they left very little behind. One of the only places where their written word can be found is in the inscriptions above the entrances of several tombs at Hegra. Otherwise it is only second-hand information from ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian documents. But what we do know is that they were ancient pioneers in architecture and hydraulics, building pipes, channels, and aqueducts to direct and store water in large cisterns in the arid desert environment.
The highlight of AlUla is no doubt Hegra (also known as Mada’in Saleh), Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site inaugurated in 2008. Hegra, left largely untouched for the last 2,000 years, is the second largest Nabataean city after Petra and has only started welcoming tourists in 2020. Once an important center for the ancient spice and incense trade routes, what remains now is just the necropolis. Unlike Petra with its one million visitors a year, Hegra has seen few visitors, even local ones. It is said that Hegra (or Mada’in Saleh), mentioned in the Qur’an, is cursed. The Prophet Saleh asked the Thamud tribe to accept the existence of one God but instead the tribe chose to believe in their own idols. As a sign from God Allah, a pregnant camel appeared, but the tribe killed it. Three days later, the city of Hegra was destroyed by earthquake and lightning. Perhaps that is why some Saudis still refuse to visit the area.
I chose to visit Hegra twice during my trip, first in a horse carriage at dawn and again in a vintage Land Rover. Unlike Petra, you have to join one of the arranged tours (group or private) so the only option to enter the site at daybreak is by horse carriage. But the horse carriage covers less ground and you don’t get to see the siq and Diwan, hence the revisit in a vintage Land Rover.
The isolated monolith of the Tomb of Lihyan, Son of Kuza, also known as Qasr Al Farid or “The Lonely Castle” is the iconic symbol of Hegra. The giant tomb, over 21 meters high, intended for the son of a prominent Nabataean family was left unfinished and abandoned for unknown reasons. The tomb is carved with classical columns with a stepped crown. The crown consists of two sets of five stairs for the soul to attain heaven. You can see rough chisel marks at the lower third as compared to the top, showing that the Nabataeans built these tombs from the top down.
Tomb of Lihyan, captured from my helicopter ride. I chose to do my helicopter ride at 4pm when the sun shines onto the facade of the giant monolith.
There are a total of 111 carved tombs here in Hegra. Though fewer than in Petra, they are better preserved and some even have inscriptions with dates from as old as 1 B.C. to 70 A.D. Medusa-like masks, snakes, sphinxes, eagles, griffins with spread wings hover above the tomb entrances to protect from intruders. Most tombs also have curses etched into the facade to warn of punishment for trespassing. The interiors are simple and bare compared to the more elaborate exteriors.
Jabal Al Khuraymat, on the southwest part of Hegra, is a cluster of about 53 tombs. Tomb 100, one of the largest and most significant Hegra tombs, is found here.
Jabal Al Alamar is a cluster of 18 tombs, many of which have yet to be excavated.
Jabal Al Alamar. The moringa flower represents the continuous circle of life and the stairs at the top of the facade symbolise the stairs to heaven.
Jabal Al Alamar. Each tomb has a “certificate” carved on its facade, sort of like a headstone, some even have curses written on them to punish trespassers.
Jabal Al Banat is a cluster of 29 tombs covered in carved facades on all sides. These tombs are all owned or commissioned by or for women. Some of the tombs are dedicated to local leaders, while others are dedicated to healers and military figures.
The interior of one of the larger family tombs at Jabal Al Banat. They are actually quite small with no decorations.
Jabal Al Banat. The eagle on the facade comes from Egyptian mythology.
The medusa face comes from the Greek with two snakes on each side. it is said that the Nabataeans might have worshipped a snake god.
In the eastern part of Hegra, where a natural fault in the rocks create a passage, is Jabal Ithlib. It is believed that Jabal Ithlib was the religious center for the ancient city as sanctuaries and betyls (vertical stone carvings representing Nabataean deities) were found here. Also found here is the largest Diwan of Hegra. The Diwan, also known as the triclinium, was a dining area where important banquets and meetings were held. Benches were carved into the rock and the open front suggests that the activities held there were public events. Similar to the Siq in Petra, there are water channels here leading into a cistern for collecting and storing rainwater.
Jabal Ithlib from above.
Between 9-11am, the sun will illuminate the narrow passageway at Jabal Ithlib.
It was surreal driving through the vast golden landscape surrounded by giant boulders dotted with ancient tombs. This is the closest thing to time travel. Since tourism is still new here and remains relatively unknown, come before it becomes another Petra.
Next up will be AlUla Old Town and the Oasis. Stay tuned!
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