Maraya Concert Hall alula
The Maraya Concert Hall in the middle of the Ashar Valley desert, AlUla. Image: Almozinisaleh

AlUla, Saudi Arabia: Inside the ancient city that’s finally welcoming luxury travel

14 May 2024 | |By Charlie Thomas

Until a few years ago, AlUla was ‘haram’, or forbidden, despite being home to a profusion of jaw-dropping ancient sites. Now, visitors are welcome at the Saudi Arabian city

There is a certain buzz around AlUla at the moment. Despite being one of the oldest cities in the Medina Province, it seems as though something new is opening there every week. You’ve already seen the mirrored Maraya building flooding your Instagram Explore page. Dune-like resorts by the likes of Azulik and Marriott are being developed, and, when I visit, it is confirmed that Ye (formerly Kanye West) is recording his new album in the otherworldly five-star Banyan Tree resort. 

But AlUla isn’t interesting for its multi-million-pound hotel openings, or because famous people are now visiting. It is a place of ancient history, where landscapes that belong on Mars are marked by centuries-old rock inscriptions. There are sweeping desert vistas, limestone tombs to rival Petra, and some of the most welcoming people you’re likely to meet. AlUla is believed by many to be one of the world’s oldest inhabited lands, with civilisations living here as far back as 200,000 years ago. Its rocks and canyons may have been shaped over millions of years, but it is only recently that the wider world has begun to learn about the region. 

As the luxury hotels are constructed, archaeologists are presented with a unique opportunity to uncover AlUla’s secrets. Scientists recorded over 37,000 potential sites for discovery during a 2018-2021 survey, one of which is Dadan, an ancient city which is currently a live archaeological dig site. The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), along with the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), have discovered huge stone structures, staircases and meticulously carved figures dating back to the late 9th century BC. The task of uncovering Dadan is still in its early stages, with only around five per cent of the area believed to be excavated. 

To discover AlUla, visitors can arrange tours with rawis, or local storytellers, hired by the RCU as tour guides. The team that I meet, which consists of both men and women, were all born in and around AlUla; one young rawi, Atif, leads the tour of Dadan. Donning the traditional white thobe and a red-and-white shemagh, he discusses the impact of the site’s discovery: “We didn’t know anything about our history in the past – the real history that is sitting beneath the ground. The scientists are studying it, giving us a chance to know more – that’s valuable to us. When we know our history we can apply it to visitors, and this gives us a chance to connect with the rest of the world. In the past, in AlUla, not a lot of visitors came here. Today, we have an opportunity.” 

Before tourism, AlUla’s residents mostly made money through farming – growing dates and fruit and raising camels and sheep. While sites such as Hegra were globally recognised, even being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, the city was considered ‘haram’, or forbidden, having been cursed by the Prophet Muhammad as a pre-Islamic city. This changed when Saudi Arabia opened to global tourism in September 2019 under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ‘Vision 2030’ plans; now, AlUla, and the country’s other historical areas, are open to the world.

Atif grew up as a Bedouin nomad, living in the desert and working as a shepherd. He spent his childhood learning to hunt and ride. But he sees his new job as being just as important: “My future has become brighter. I’m also excited for the new generation – they will have a better chance to deliver for their children.”

Another rawi, Wedad, is among a number of women leading the charge. “Our role is basically to present our history to the people. In Saudi, it’s a role that we didn’t have in the past, but storytelling is one of the oldest forms [of communication] here in the Arabian Peninsula.” Like Atif, Wedad’s background is in farming. “Farming is in my family, but my father is the only one who has continued,” she says. “Our farm is just in front of Dadan. It’s really funny because, in the past, the tombs were our playground. Now it’s become like my office – I didn’t realise it had this deep history.”

Chief tourism officer for The Royal Commission for AlUla, Phillip Jones, understands the importance of getting locals on-side in the regeneration of the region, and makes sure that the incentives are there for them to take up roles in the RCU. “We make sure that we’re providing opportunities – we’re doing a lot of hospitality training and education as part of trying to encourage local residents to embrace the tourism industry,” he says. “AlUla is the size of Belgium, with only 40,000 people living here, and, unless you were a date farmer before, there weren’t a lot of opportunities. Now look around. You see all these young Saudi men and women who are part of the tourism industry – part of the transition of the country.” 

I do look around, and once again scratch my head over the fact that the world’s travellers have only just cottoned on. AlUla’s Old Town is a labyrinth of mud and stone houses dating back a millennium. The earliest inscriptions and carvings in the Jabal Ikmah canyon go back to the second half of the first millennium BC; a precursor to modern graffiti, these drawings depict musical instruments, animals and handprints, hinting at what the Dadanite, Lihyanite and Nabateans deemed important.

And then there’s Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the second-largest conserved civilisation of the ancient Nabataeans, losing out to Petra. Hegra has over 110 preserved tombs, which have been carved directly into the sandstone rocks – some are small and discreet, whereas others, like the Qasr al-Fard, or ‘lonely castle’, loom large on the horizon, its intricate carvings becoming more impressive the closer you get. The tombs were built for the Nabataean elite, and many still have the original inscriptions signalling for whom they were intended. 

Habitas AlUla
The sandstone canyons that surround Habitas AlUla. Image: Shutterstock

As I stroll among the wind-battered limestone rocks on a warm November evening, I can’t think of a more beautiful place on Earth. There is a distinct lack of people on my visit, meaning I get to explore landscapes that are conspicuously free of selfie sticks and Instagram poses – but it is impossible to feel truly alone among the inscriptions. They’re a reminder of those who have gone before, who left their mark as they passed through.  There are many projects opening up in AlUla, but the most captivating reasons to visit have been here for thousands of years. 

Read more: The holiday hot list: Where to travel in May