The ancient city of AlUla in Saudi Arabia is quickly becoming a sought-after travel destination. On a whirlwind trip, our writer unearths the many legends that hide in its vast desert landscape. By Adila Matra
Discovering AlUla and its many legends
The Tomb of Lihyan, son of Kuza, stood tall in front of me: 22 metres tall to be exact. Surrounding it were sandy outcrops, a few desert shrubs, giant boulders, and the vast expanse of the orange desert. The Hegra Archaeological Site, or Mada’in Salih, is the first UNESCO World Heritage Site to be inscribed in Saudi Arabia, and is known to be the second city of the Nabataean civilisation (the first being Petra in Jordan), which flourished here from the end of the first millennium BCE into the first millennium CE. It is located around 22 kilometres from the ancient city of AlUla—a crossing point for caravans on the incense trade route—that was unveiled to visitors in 2019. As my sneakers scrunched the gritty sand of the land that had been left practically undisturbed for almost 2,000 years, I recalled the first time I had heard the name Mada’in Salih.
It was a few years ago, long before Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud announced his vision of turning AlUla into a global hub of culture and tourism—and a destination for bucket lists. I was on a date with my partner, one where tales of colourful exploits and bizarre encounters were exchanged in an attempt to make a grandstand play. And just when I thought I had one-upped him, he pulled out his trump card—a story set on the very grounds that I stood now. It began with his family taking a road trip from Jeddah to Mada’in Salih in the early 2000s, when the place was a hidden city and the infrastructure minimal. A bus carrying around 20 friends and family members had ambled down nonexistent roads. The Nabataean tombs had just begun to appear at a distance when there was a bang and a loud hiss. The bus rattled and came to a halt. There was one flat tire, and the rest had sunken into the sand, making it impossible to move the vehicle. As the sun inched dangerously close to the horizon, the elders in the bus had begun whispering about an ancient curse on the city. They believed that the flat tire was not a coincidence. And even though the tires were fixed soon enough, they turned the vehicle around and never looked back! “Maybe I will go back one day,” my partner had ended the story on a note of hope.
I looked at the tomb in front of me. It definitely did warrant a trip. Chiselled out of a rock, the tomb is one of hundreds in Hegra that were used to lay the Nabataean elite to rest. Nabataeans were originally nomads, who, upon finding water in the desert of AlUla, built wells and water channels to store it. As the community grew rich from the taxes levied on the spice caravans that stopped at these wells, they made AlUla their home. Today, the region attracts visitors with its luxury resorts, unique chalets, and RV parks nestled amid stunning rock formations.
Lihyan’s tomb, unfortunately, was never completed, said the guide who was taking me around Hegra. At the top of the tomb is an eagle motif and the face of a god. “It could be the Egyptian deity Humbaba,” said the guide. “The Nabataeans were an elusive bunch. There is very little record of them. We think the face of god was carved to protect the tomb from looters,” she added. I also noticed motifs of urns and snakes. Nearby, on an outcrop called Jabal Alahmar, are 18 tombs, smaller in stature and similar in design. Maybe Lihyan was a leader of some kind, I thought to myself.
I continued my journey east, in an open-top jeep. Another colossal structure arose on my right—a natural fault in the rocks allowing passage through a mountain called Jabal Ithlib. It resembles the main entrance to Petra in Jordan. I spotted votive niches for Nabataean deities and many stone carvings to the left of the passage. On the other side is a large hall cut into the rocks, called Diwan. On moonlit nights, against the backdrop of the white desert, many a tallow torch may have burned in various corners of this dining hall offering light and warmth to the Nabataeans as they hosted religious rituals and lavish banquets. “They had two girl singers for each banquet, and no more than 11 drinks,” my guide quoted the classical scholar Strabo, having to yell over the howling wind that was blowing sand into my ears and mouth.
I pulled my scarf over my face and trudged along the sand to the jeep. Leaving Hegra behind in all its glory, we made our way to AlUla Old Town, which was a significant settlement along the pilgrimage route from Damascus to Makkah in the 12th century. The last inhabitants left as recently as 40 years ago, my guide’s grandfather being one of them! The Old Town has around 900 houses, 400 shops, and five town squares constructed out of mud and stone. These are connected through the roof for fortification. I peeked inside one of the locked doors to get a glimpse of what the houses looked like, but most of the structure had caved in. The layout becomes more comprehensible when seen from the top of the adjacent Musa bin Nusayr Castle, a red sandstone fort that dates back to the sixth century BCE. I also took a stroll along the nearby Old Market Street, which houses shops selling traditional arts and crafts, as well as modern cafes. A Starbucks sign around the corner instantly funnelled me back to the 21st century.
Not for long, though. Just 15 minutes from the Old Town is Jabal AlFil, or Elephant Rock, a monolithic sandstone structure that rises three storeys high. Shaped by the erosive forces of wind and water, this formation resembles an elephant with its trunk touching the ground as if in prostration to the extraordinary land. When I arrived, there was soft music playing from the restaurant parked on the ground—SALT. The seating at SALT is arranged in numerous sunken sand pits made cosy with couches and cushions. A group of girls blew hookah smoke against the rock. Twinkling lights were strung along thatched tents, the canvas roofs of which flapped in the wind. I sank down into one of the beanbags and watched the place come alive with conversation and laughter.
Soon, it was time for some stargazing. So, I bid the big guy adieu and made my way to the mystical rock formations of Gharameel. To beat the chill, I huddled beneath the cushions of the majlis set up in the middle of the desert. A couple of battery-operated lamps flickered around the seating area. I threw my head back to look at the sky. Clouds were drifting apart to make way for a waning moon and few stars. But AlUla’s stargazing is not just about science, it is also rife with legends. “There was a father star who was killed by a South Star called Suhail. But Suhail accused the North Star of being the killer,” narrated the star guide. “The daughters swore to avenge the death of their father. So every night, they spin around the North Star. Suhail, meanwhile, ran out to the south and became the second brightest star. His arrival meant the end of summer for the residents of AlUla, and the end of the date-ripening season for the farmers. If Suhail shows up, the weather will be good, they used to say,” he went on.
I looked up but couldn’t spot Suhail in the sky. My fellow stargazers, on the other hand, were listening in rapt attention. AlUla had won them over. And just like the Nabataeans, a part of us felt at home on this foreign land.
Saudia offers connecting flights from Delhi and Mumbai to AlUla via Jeddah or Riyadh.
The villas at Habitas AlUla are sustainably designed to embrace the natural surroundings of the Ashar Valley, and offer scenic canyon views. Doubles from INR 59,030
Somewhere, tucked into an oasis farm, has beautiful outdoor seating and modern dishes fused with authentic Mediterranean flavours. SALT is located at Elephant Rock and serves juicy burgers and creamy softies. experiencealula.com
Okto is a contemporary Greek restaurant set on the Harrat Viewpoint. It offers beautiful seating, telescopes, and a gorgeous view of AlUla. okto-sa.com