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Discover Al Ula - Saudi Arabia's Forgotten Past


An Introduction to Al Ula

Al Ula, located in the Madinah region of northwest Saudi Arabia, is one of the most amazing cities in the Middle Eastern region. The Al Ula area is truly a testament to human endevour and natural beauty, with ancient historic cultural sites, gorgeous oasis valleys, and sandstone mountains. As a testament to its historical and cultural significance, the World Heritage Centre declared Al Ula a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008—the first in Saudi Arabia. 


The History of Al Ula

Al Ula's history dates back to the 6th century BCE when the walled city was first founded. It was considered ideal for a new township because of its perfect oasis location in the valley desert, making it one of the few areas with fertile land and ample water supply. Al Ula was built along what was then referred to as the "Incense Road," which was essentially a trade network for spices and silk throughout the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, and the Indian subcontinent. 

The area was once the site of the historic city of Dedan, but the Lihyan North Arabian kingdom built the city as we know it and presided over it for the next 400 years. In 100 BCE, the Nabateans took control of the region and made Hegra 22km north of Al Ula, the region's center. The region's center would also shift to Al-Mabiyat, 20 km from Al-Ula, and would stay that way until 1230 CE. After the 13th century, builders used the old stones from the Dadanite and Lihyanite ruins again. Al-Ula proper once again became the main center of trade and civilization in the area up to the 20th and 21st centuries. 


From the 19th century onwards, western travelers began to traverse the region. Charles Doughty was the first to write about the area in 1876, and French priests Antonin Jaussen and Raphael Savignac visited the site in the early 20th century. They collected many inscriptions and artifacts from the remains in Hegra and Dedan, and their work to this day forms the basis for research into the area. 
In the early 20th century, during the age of the Ottoman empire, the Hejaz railway was constructed to link Damascus, in modern-day Syria, to Medina on the Arabian Peninsula. The railway had stations in both Hegra and Al Ula and still exists to this day. Over the course of the 20th century, development in the area continued, and the local people established the new town center. As a result, people gradually abandoned the old town area. The last family probably left in 1983, and in 1985, congregants held the final prayer at the old mosque. However, both the medieval town ruins and the former Liyhanite ruins are still within the boundaries of contemporary Al Ula. 


What is Al-Ula like today?

Al Ula is one of the newest tourist development projects in Saudi Arabia. In April 2021, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman announced a sweeping development plan known as the "Journey through Time Masterplan." This has led to the expansion of Al Ula's airport and ultimately hopes to bring in more than two million tourists a year and create 38,000 new jobs. This Masterplan seeks to support the local communities while also applying a sustainable, "light touch" approach to tourism to protect the fragile archaeological treasures and the desert ecosystem. 
Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has even begun a Royal Commission for Al-Ula, marketing the city as "the world's largest living museum, where contemporary art coexists with ancient heritage." Al-Ula is home to many different sites that will become exciting tourist destinations in the coming years. Here are some of the other tours and experiences Al-Ula has to offer! 



Hegra is an fascinating place for visitors to experience and explore the location of Saudi Arabia's first Unesco Heritage Site. Here in Hegra, you are be able to see more than 110 preserved tombs situated in a picturesque desert landscape. Through the local tour with knowledgeable guides, you can learn about the history of the former inhabitants of the city and reflect over their eventual fate. 
People have inhabited Hegra since the first millennium BCE, but the site was the location of Nabatean trade from 100 BCE till 1 CE. Hegra's golden era was likely during this time of Nabatean trade. 
Along with the famous tombs where the former Nabatean royalty now lies buried, visitors can also find historic wells and stone water channels. These feats of engineering continue to exist as a testament to the expert craftsmanship of the ancient inhabitants, although they did not heed the guidance that came to them through their Messenger. A Roman presence is also rather apparent, with Roman architecture still visible on the defensive walls and towers that once guarded the city against marauding invaders. 


The Tomb of Liyhan

A striking and awe-inspiring structure to rival the tombs at Petra, the Tomb of Liyhan rises nearly 72 feet into the air. Long-ago Nabatean artisans carved one entire face of a sandstone monolith for Liyhan, son of Kuza. Also known as Qasr al-Farid, meaning "the lonely castle," this tomb stands apart from the others. Upon close inspection, visitors can see that artisans abandoned work before completion, as the lower portion is rough and unfinished. 


The City of Dadan

The city of Dadan is one of the most notable areas of Al-Ula and was the former site of both the Dadan and Lihyan kingdom capitals. Ancient architects constructed Dadan with stone along the valley's fruitful oasis, and structures date as far back as the late ninth century BCE during the Kingdom of Dadan. 
The key site all tourists should plan to see in Dadan is the site containing more than twelve tombs. Crafters carved into the faces of red-colored cliffs towards the city's east end to create the breathtaking tombs. If viewed from a distance, the tombs resemble small dark rectangles. However, on closer inspection, the intricate burial grounds crafted thousands of years ago become apparent. Some of these funeral monuments have small lion sculptures, marking the historically significant lion tombs. At the time, lions represented power and protection, so artisans carved them over societal elites and royalty burials. Considering these tombs are roughly 50 meters above ground level, it is truly incredible how they could carve them out without any of the modern construction tools we have today. 


However, the exploration at this site does not stop just there. There are many exciting remnants of former defense structures and evidence of former agricultural systems to explore. Several inscriptions describe agricultural designations such as seasons, types of produce, water, and land divisions. These inscriptions are a fascinating insight into the daily lives of the former inhabitants and tell us a lot about the religious and social lives of everyday people and the Dadanite system of government. 
Numerous discoveries of sculptural artifacts across Dadan imply some sculpture schools' existence at some point in the past. There are also many life-sized statues as much as 2.7 meters in height. They all deonstrate strong, well-built men with chiseled features. These are a fascinating sight, but no one is quite sure what—or whom—they depict. However, most historians believe them to be representations of Dadan's former elite. 


Jabal Ikmah

Jabal Ikmah is one of the most notable areas of the Al Ula valley and contains so many remarkable inscriptions in Aramaic, Dadanitic, Thamudic, Minaic, and Nabataean languages, indicating the diverse set of kingdoms that all left their mark in the area. 
However, the city is perhaps most significant because the inscriptions show many signs of pre-Arabic scripture, making it a critical sight for Arabic linguistic experts. Just north of Al-Ula at the Al'Aqra valley, there are over 450 old Arabic inscriptions. Jabal Ikmah, as such, is believed to be the world's most extensive open library and is a crucial site in the linguistic development of the Arabic language as we know it today. 
As outlined above, Al Ula was believed to be a center of influence for many civilizations, and Jabal Ikmah is one of the key signifiers of that. Along with the world-famous inscriptions, tourists can view some of the striking rock art depicting people, musical instruments, and animals. 


Ekma, The Open Air Library

From Al Ula, far into the distance, visitors can catch a glimpse of Ekma. It is worth getting closer for a look. Carved into the rock is an incredible historical 'document' that includes inscriptions dating back to the Liyhanite kingdom. Since Saudi Arabia has only been open to direct tourism for a short time, visitors to Ekma Mountain are among the very few to witness the intricately carved inscriptions in the red rock. 


Al-Ula Old Town

Contemporary Al-Ula encompasses one of the most globally remarkable heritage sites, Al-Ula Old Town. Unlike some of the other sites here, people actively lived there until the 1980s. It is one of the narrowest parts of the Al-Ula valley and is home to the famous Musa Bin Nusayr Citadel, built in the 10th century CE. 
This site is vital to history lovers because it was the main settlement for those looking to travel from Damascus (now in contemporary Syria) to Makkah. The city was a replacement for Qurh, which was the previous center for travel. 
The housing system in Al-Ula was unique, with all of the homes interconnecting with one another. Many historians believe this was a defense mechanism against potential invaders. Visitors will see 900 mudbrick houses, 400 former shops, and five town squares of "rahbas." While walking through the town, tourists may also notice the Masjid Al-Izam, the restored Jumma mosque that some believe Prophet Muhammad (Peace & Blessings of God Be Upon Him) himself once visited. 


At the peak of the city's use, there were about 14 gates open for use for visitors and traders during the day and then subsequently closed at night. Since inhabitants occupied the city until fairly recently, researchers collected oral recollections of life in the city to outline life in the former trade hub. Any visitor who visits the Old Town can immerse themselves in detailed recollections of life at this stunning historical site.   
While here, visitors will want to check out the Suhail restaurant, which offers a unique approach to Saudi Arabian cuisine with spices from the Medieval era mixed with some modern culinary elements. 


The Elephant Rock

Al-Ula is home to many fascinating historical sites and archaeological finds. However, Jabal Alfil is a natural wonder that may even rival the appeal of the historic areas. For millions of years, natural wind and water erosion shaped this beautiful geological site, known as Elephant Rock. Red sandstone, centered along the golden desert sands, rises over four stories into the air. Sunken seating allows visitors to relax and view Elephant Rock against the backdrop of a clear, sunny sky. 


The Treasures of Rainbow Rock

Another unique rock formation that visitors should not miss is known as The Arch, or Rainbow Rock. Located about 90 minutes from Al-Ula city center, Rainbow Rock is a sandstone arch that looks like a rainbow rising from two flanking clouds. While there, those explorers with keen sight might spot a few desert diamonds—bits of multi-colored quartz—embedded in the arch itself and also sprinkled around on the ground. 


How to get to Al Ula 

Saudi Arabia recently opened its borders to international tourists, enabling travelers to resume visiting these incredible sites. The first step to creating an enjoyable and memorable trip is securing a visa if you are travelling from outisde of Saudi Arabia. Forty-nine countries offer an e-visa, and travelers should check the Visit Saudi website for guidance on the travel requirements from the country of origin. 
Once travelers have secured the correct documents, the next step is to establish the best method of travel to Al Ul. 


Since Al Ula is over 1,100 kilometers from Riyadh, foreign travelers can find it more challenging to visit. However, due to Saudi Arabia's recent infrastructure project within the Journey Through Time Masterplan, workers are currently revamping the local airport and will soon route more and more flights there. Saudia Airlines and Flynas both currently fly in and out of Al Ula's airport, and the slick, newly renovated airport is only a 30-minute drive from the city center. 
Saudi Arabia is an excellent place for travelers who prefer to drive since car rentals and petrol are very affordable in the country. Also, the road and highway infrastructure are top of the line and can connect drivers to all of Saudi Arabia's major cities. If drivers are coming from an international location, they will need proof of an international driver's license or, at the very least, a driver's license from the country of residence. However, we recommend a guided tour.


Al-Ula is roughly a 3-hour drive from Madinah and Tabuk, both cities with busy airports and several rental car companies to choose from. Those looking for an adventure can try out the longer road trips from Jeddah and Riyadh and explore all of the beautiful scenery along the way. 
How to get around Al Ula 
There are several options for getting around Al-Ula during the trip. Besides renting a car, visitors can also take a taxi from one of three taxi companies in the city: Al Safwa, Al Wefaq, and Daleel Al Ula. 


Great Hotels and Accommodation in Al Ula

There are tons of attractive accommodation options across Al-Ula. Travelers can find private suites near the sandstone mountains for unbeatable views or even luxury villas near the Elephant Rock. Additionally, tons of resorts and hotels are currently under construction to revitalize the area for future tourism so that visitors will have even more options in the future.  One of our top recomendations is Banyan Tree Al Ula. There are many comfortable hotels to choose from, but we recommend the following places for travelers planning a visit. 
Shaden Resort 
This resort has over 120 luxury rooms and villas, all with a private balcony to enjoy the view in comfort. Some rooms even come with a private pool, allowing guests to cool down and relax with a swim after a long day touring in the desert heat. Large families and groups can also take advantage of the Royal Suite, which has six rooms, four bathrooms, and tons of extra space for the ultimate in de-stressing and relaxation. 


Top Hotel & Resorts in Al Ula


Al Ula Awaits

Al Ula is one of the most extraordinary locations in the Middle East. Its historically significant architecture and artifacts and beautiful landscapes make it an ideal place for an unforgettable vacation. Al Ula offers incredible treasures and memories for those who love Middle Eastern history, Medieval architecture, or natural beauty.  
Book your stay in Al Ula today and experience all it has to offer! 


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