Al-Ula: Saudi Arabia’s Cultural Heritage Destination
Al-Ula in the northwest corner of Saudi Arabia boasts an extraordinary wealth of cultural heritage sites and natural beauty. The city is located between two large mountains and the lush Wadi Al-Qura (Valley of Villages) runs through it, providing fertile soils where palm trees and citrus fruit flourish.
The location in the desert valley with its fertile soil and underground water resources created a perfect environment for civilizations to prosper. Small villages existed throughout the valley, and their inhabitants were a mix of several Arab and Jewish tribes of farmers.
Al-Ula's archeological sites include rock cut tombs, ancient rock inscriptions, ruins of a walled city with its mud-brick houses; and the town also contains one of the principal stations of the Hijaz Railway, which carried the Hajj pilgrims to Makkah.
Al-Ula Heritage Village
The Al-Ula walled city was founded in 6th century BC. The town enjoyed a strategic location along the ancient incense and spice route and it played a major role in the history of the Arabian Peninsula.
The mud-brick Al-Ula Heritage Village with its 800 structures is the traditional Arabian village and it was inhabited until the 20th century. At its peak, the town had over 1,000 houses, surrounded by a wall to defend its population.
The city has religious significance—Muslims believe that Muhammad passed through Al-Ula in 630 AD on his way to the Battle of Tabuk between the Arabs and the Byzantines.
Unfortunately the mud huts of Al-Ula are becoming increasingly decayed, but efforts are made to reconstruct this ghost town.
Inscriptions in Ekmah mountain
Ancient inscriptions are abundant in the Al-Ula area and represent social, religious and economic information from the pre-Islamic eras. Most of the inscriptions can be found in the Ekmah Mountain.
Built between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD, Madain Saleh is an architectural wonder and a testimony to the skill and craftsmanship of the Nabataean people. 131 tombs were finely carved into solid rock with elaborately ornamented façades. The merchants of Madain Saleh decorated their tombs with carvings of lions, gazelles, rabbits, mountain goats, leopards—even a hedgehog. The interiors are simple with recessed shelves carved into the walls where the bodies of the deceased were placed.
The Nabateans left no written history and the tomb inscriptions, unique to Madain Saleh, have provided extraordinary insight into the names, relationships, occupations, laws and gods of the people who lived here.
Read our post Madain Saleh: Saudi Arabia’s Hidden Treasure to learn more about Madain Saleh.
Jebel Ithlib is the Nabatean holy mountain with a natural passageway between two large boulders. The slit measures 40 m (131 feet) and is called the Siq, after a similar corridor in Petra. At its entrance is a square chamber with three stone benches that served as a place for sacred feasts. The chamber is known as al-Diwan, or the court.
Walking through the Siq, one enters a larger, natural alcove—a sanctuary where a canal channeled water into a cistern.
In this unusual structure in a ruined fortress city, over 40 tombs are carved into the face of a mountain, including three royal tombs.
The most impressive tomb is the "Lion Tomb" with lion-headed statues carved on either side of the entrance.
The mountains surrounding Al-Ula are very distinctive—natural erosion has shaped them into an extraordinary landscape. The Elephant Rock (Jabal al Fil) is a natural sandstone rock and a spectacular example of Al Ula's shapely natural rock formations.
Hijaz Railway Station
Between 1901 and 1908 the Ottomans built a railway across the Hijaz in order to link the capital of the Ottoman Empire at Constantinople with Makkah to facilitate the Hajj pilgrimage. The construction halted as a result of World War I and the line to Makkah was never completed.
The section that was completed ran between Damascus and Madinah, about 1,300 km. A restored WWI-era locomotive is displayed at the Madain Saleh station, which is now a museum.
Al-Ula has been hosting travelers for centuries. Truly a hidden treasure, efforts are being made to make Al-Ula a key part of Saudi economic future. Even though most of the sites are closed for the general public, the kingdom’s 2030 vision aims to lessen dependence on oil and one of its focuses is increasing tourism.