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The secret oasis city that’s just waiting to be discovered

If AlUla reminds you of Petra, you’re not alone. And there’s a good reason for that. 

AlUla in Saudi Arabia was once part of the Nabatean kingdom and Petra was the capital.

The Nabatean’s amassed enormous wealth trading on the intense route which stretched from Qataban in modern-day Yemen through to Saba and Gaza. The 1931km route took about 65 days to travel and traders would stop for one night in a city.

In modern-day AlUla, Saudi Arabia, that city was Hegra.

From both Hegra and Petra, the Nabateans could monitor caravans trading on the incense route and hit them with taxes.

While Petra has been on my people’s bucket lists (including my own) for years, you’d be forgiven for not knowing anything about AlUla or Hegra.

Abandoned city

In 106 AD, the Romans annexed the Nabatean kingdom. The Hejaz, which encompasses Hegra, became part of the Roman province of Arabia.

In months, trading switched from east to west to north to south. And the city of Hegra was abandoned. Or almost. The history of Hegra from the decline of the Roman Empire to the emergency of Islam is hazy. But it was mentioned sporadically by travellers and pilgrims who recorded their journey to Mecca.

The Nabatean’s weren’t only skilful traders, they were also skilled at finding and preserving water sources. They built complex irrigation systems that created oasis cities. Both Hegra and Petra have this in common. Hegra appears to have served as a water station along the Hajj route.

In the 14th-century, traveler Ibn Battuta, noted the red stone-cut tombs of Hegra, known then as “al-Hijr.”

Why Hegra has been kept secret

The first mention of westerners visiting Hegra didn’t come until the 1800s. Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt mentioned it in 1812. By the 19th century stories of wells and oasis agriculture around the region now known as AlUla were becoming more common. It’s fame grew after the Saudi government added a railroad through the region and explorers and archeologists came to see the incredible red tombs and water wells. 

The site was proclaimed an archeological treasure in the 1970s. But soon after Saudi Arabia’s revolution, a law on the prohibition on the veneration of objects/artifacts resulted in “minimal archaeological activities”.

Hegra and AlUla would become a secret oasis until the early 2000s.

Hegra in AlUla Saudi Arabia
Hegra in AlUla Saudi Arabia

A unique destination

Saudi Arabia is currently undergoing a transformation. The Kingdom wants to diversify its economy away from oil, increasing investment in tourism and trade.

AlUla is a key part of that plan. It hopes international travellers will want to see the incredible secret desert oasis.

After years of planning, AlUla reopened to tourists in 2019.

The walled city
The walled city from above. Credit: Tourism Saudi Arabia

Things to do in AlUla

AlUla has a lot to offer for those seeking adventure, history, luxury lifestyle, and renowned cuisine.

The remote desert landscape is one of the best places in the world for stargazing. About an hour outside of the city centre, at the rock formation AlGharameel, tourists can enjoy a traditional Bedouin set-up with an expert guide on hand to learn about the stars and constellations, and how they relate to AlUla’s culture and history.

AlUla
Stargazing in AlUla. Credit: Saudi Arabia Tourism

Just like in Petra, you can also explore Hegra on a bicycle.

The city offers a breathtaking 14km bike tour that crosses through sand dunes, sandstone mountains and AlUla’s unique landscapes. You will need a certain fitness level to book.

One of the best ways to see AlUla’s seven most famous landmarks and heritage sites is from above. A 30-minute helicopter tour includes the monumental Jabal AlFil (Elephant Rock), AlUla’s most famous natural geological rock formation. You will also see Hegra, The Hijaz Railway, Jabal Ikmah, Dadan,  AlUla Old Town and Maraya, the Guinness World Record holder for the world’s largest mirrored building.

Maraya Saudi Arabia
Maraya is the world's largest mirrored building. Credit: Saudi Tourism

Luxury hotels dominate AlUla’s accommodation options and the well-heeled will be well-catered for with world-renowned fine dining restaurants.

If Petra has been on your bucket list, you may need to make room for AlUla too.

Getting there: 

AlUla is a city of the Medina Region in north-western Saudi Arabia. Qatar Airlines, the world’s number one airline, operates regular flights from Doha to Medina.

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