Al-Ula – Saudi Arabia’s version of Petra
Saudi Arabia is undergoing huge reforms in an attempt to move beyond oil and one of its trump cards most definitely is the Al-Ula region, home to the old Al-Ula town and the UNESCO World Heritage Site Mada’in Saleh. The kingdom hopes to attract both local and foreign tourists by making it a popular tourist destination.
Al-Ula is a county in Saudi Arabia, located 300km north of Medina. It is a place of extraordinary human and natural heritage. Its Valley of Villages – the Wadi Al-Qura, a lush oasis valley that runs through Al-Ula, sheltered by sandstone mountains, created a perfect environment for civilisations like the Dedanites, Lihyanites and Nabataeans to flourish.
The Al-Ula region was an important trading route used from at least the first millennium BC, while the walled city of Al-Ula was founded in 6th century BC, an oasis in the desert valley, with fertile soil and plenty of water. Due to its position on the ancient Incense Road – the network of routes that facilitated the trading of spices, silk and other luxury items through Arabia, Egypt and India, it became a hub of commercial and cultural exchange with its cities and oases important stopping-points for traders of precious commodities.
After undergoing reconstructions in the 13th century, the town was inhabited until 1983, when the last family left for a new town nearby, offering better living conditions and infrastructure meeting the 20th century standards.
The visit of Al-Ula town nowadays offers tourists an unforgettable experience whilst walking through narrow maze-like corridors, often completely alone. Once a bustling civilization, the 800 tightly packed mud-brick huts are now abandoned ruins and it is only left to the imagination what life in the winding streets would be like when there were hundreds of people living there.
However, this is not the centerpiece of the area. The archeological jewel not only of the region but of the whole Kingdom without any doubt is Mada’in Saleh, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a collection of more than 100 towering tombs, dating back two millenniums. This was the southern reach of the realm of the Nabateans, the the pre-Islamic Arab people who became wealthy through the caravan trade between Southern Arabia and the Jordan Valley. They are most famous for their capital city, Petra located in modern Jordan.
Without being as magnificent and grandiose as Petra, Mada’in Saleh is still one of the most enigmatic archaeological sites on the Arabian Peninsula. As in Petra, most of the structures that can be seen today were for funerary purpose only, including a total of 111 tombs that have been cut into the surrounding rocks.
Aside from the tombs, the site also features a cult place, called Diwan, and the Siq, a narrow passageway between two large boulders, dotted with a couple of small altars, marking the pre-Islamic nature of the Nabateans.
The rich history of the area and its’ archaeological sites have long captivated King Salman, the crown prince’s father, who, in 2017, established the Royal Commission for Al Ula. The commission is now responsible for the preservation of the site, as well as the organization of the concert series Winter at Tantora.
The music festival, featuring artists like the Egyptian Diva Umm Kulthum, Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, Greek singer Yanni and Arab stars Kadim al-Saher and Mohamed Abdo, began on December 20 and is planned to end on February 23, after being extended for two weeks. A few years ago an event like this would not have taken place in such a remote region of the conservative kingdom. However, Prince Mohammed’s efforts to loosen restrictions on entertainment and expressions of popular culture are changing the situation in Saudi Arabia. officials under his rule are trying to build up Saudi Arabia’s tourism and culture industries by promoting events like the music festival.
Backed by billions of dollars in state-led investment and a French cultural partnership, the kingdom expects al-Ula and its majestic rock-hewn tombs of Madain Saleh to turn into a global tourism destination as it tries to open up to the world and diversify its economy away from oil.