Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia's Promising Tourist Destination
Ancient tombs carved from limestone cliffs, amazing natural rock formations as far as your eyes can see, ruins of a once bustling community and an oasis garden in the middle of a vast desert, aptly describe Al-Ula. This ancient city gone by is ready to satisfy your longing for an exceptional tourist destination that you do not usually see in Instagram photos of white beaches, concrete jungles and snow-capped mountains.
Illuminated by the bright moonlight on a clear sky, we were in awe by the magnificent rock formations as we traversed a narrow road. That was what welcomed us at past midnight when we arrived at the quaint old city trying hard to locate the villa we booked for a night’s stay. Much to our surprise, it was hidden behind the limestone cliffs.
Al Ula is located in Northwestern Saudi Arabia. It is a fortified city founded in 6th century BC near a desert valley with fertile soil and abundant water. No wonder thousands of palm trees dot the entire city offering a fresh contrast to the amber-colored mountain backdrop.
We drove the following day in the city and mesmerized by the beauty of its ruins, I can’t help but imagine that Al-Ula was once a lively city beaming with economic activity, not only from its flourishing agriculture but also from robust trading among its neighboring territories. In fact, the city is along the so-called “Incense Road.” It is a network of routes that allowed trading through Arabia, Egypt and India. Having a fascination of the things of the past, my imagination took me back in those days when caravans of camel would pass through Al-Ula carrying silk, spices, precious metals and other luxury items. It must have been a wonderful place for traders and their camels to rest and refresh owing to its date orchards and invigorating springs. For now all that remains are the ruins of traditional houses made of mud and straw as it was abandoned for safety reasons. The last family was reported to have left in 1983. Sadly, the once prosperous community is now fast becoming date plantations with oranges, lemons and other citrus trees as undercrops.
The outskirts of the city is simply amazing. Its geology is fascinating albeit interesting. It is dubbed as a living natural museum. There were hundreds of stunningly beautiful rock formations sporadically spread throughout the vast desert. It is where the famous Elephant Rock is located. The structure is about 50 meters high and resembles the figure of an elephant from where its name is derived. Not only there is an Elephant Rock, I also discovered a Chimpanzee Rock that seemingly kisses its baby eternally. You can name your own rock depending on your perspective and imagination. We marveled in the natural beauty and magnificence of the place.
The recently-concluded huge event dubbed as Winter at Tantora, commissioned by the Saudi Council for Tourism and Antiquities, signified that Al-Ula tourism is indeed on a full-swing. There were make-shift restaurants and tents beside the rock formations and they staged shows at night that ran until February 9, 2019.
For the first time ever, hot air balloons were seen in this architectural wonder’s skyline. Truly, a wonderful sight to behold. Helicopters were hovering above it, every now and then. The choppers carry Western tourists in the area, among them was the infamous boxer Floyd Mayweather, Jr. who visited the place a week before we came. The culmination of the activity had no less than the Italian tenor, Andrea Boccelli, taking the center stage with the Elephant Rock as the backdrop.
We may not have entered Madain Saleh, a UNESCO World Heritage site; however, we passed through Al-Bidea, a town within the Al-Ula governorate, with numerous tombs similar to that in Madain Saleh. It was obviously built by Nabateans, the same civilization that made the famous settlement in Petra, in nearby Jordan.
In a seemingly dry landscape of sandstone cliffs, numerous tombs were carved into the rock facing the fertile valley below. The tombs of different sizes and designs create a spectacular architectural masterpiece. It comes as no surprise as these monuments are an indication of social status of the people who commissioned them. The bigger and more elaborate, the better and the richer the owner was. I entered two of the most beautiful tombs. The interior can accommodate five bodies, four from the front and there is one bigger room on the side; perhaps, reserved for the elder member of the family. The not-so-beautiful tombs can house up to ten bodies and there are no elaborate carvings on the facade, just a plain hole. Interestingly, the burial customs during that day allowed bodies to be wrapped in three layers of fabric impregnated with resin. The closest to the body being tinted in red. They also put a collar of fresh dates around their neck. I was amazed by how rich their culture and traditions were.
We went home refreshed, satisfied with what we have taken away – “instagrammable” photos of the splendid city gone by.
Al Ula has a great potential for tourism. The Saudi government is in full support for its development as the country attempts to diversify its economy by massively developing its tourism sector.