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In a Land of Citrus and Moringa: The Reawaking of AlUlah, the Gem of North Arabia

Photo: Abdulmajeed Albalawi

Listen to the whispers of the canyons and the voice that calls from a far-off cluster of stars: they’ll lead you to the oasis of AlUla. Tucked away in Northwest Saudi Arabia, this valley of villages is brimming with the stories of a cultured past. Don’t be fooled by her age, though—AlUla is still full of life, and new memories are being cultivated there every day, along with citrus, dates, and moringa.

Because past and present are so intertwined in AlUla, the city has been dubbed “The World’s Largest Living Museum.” Just a couple of the remarkable “exhibits” in this open-air museum include the archeological sites of Hegra and Dadan. Both have been pristinely preserved in the sands of time, coming to life once again as visitors flock to marvel at their raw beauty.

Photo: Abdulmajeed Albalawi

Ancient Cities Live Again

Hegra was once a thriving hub of international trade within the Nabataean Kingdom, second only to the famous city of Petra. Although neither the Nabataeans nor Hegra are particularly well-known now, they were once at the pinnacle of society in sublime Arabia. Originally desert-dwelling nomads, the Nabataeans emerged as masterful merchants, controlling imminent trade routes of incense and spice. Precious cargo like peppercorn, cotton, and sugar passed through Hegra on a regular basis.

However, just as the Nabataean Kingdom was prospering, so was the Roman Empire. By the first century A.D., the Romans had overpowered and annexed large parts of Saudi Arabia, including Hegra and its palm-lined valley. With a new regime in place and few written records of their own, the Nabataeans faded from both memory and history.

Today, the elaborately carved tombs of Hegra (111 of them, to be exact) stand as a testament to this lost civilization, rejuvenating their long-forgotten past. These solemn structures are embedded seamlessly into the natural red-rock mountains, shining in the golden blaze of the North Arabian sun. Each tomb is graced with age-old inscriptions and stone-carved images of guardian griffins and sentinel snakes.

The Hegra necropolis is so much more than a sleeping beauty waiting to be awakened; “it could hold the key to unlocking the secrets of an almost-forgotten ancient civilization”once said. Because of its cultural and historical significance, Hegra is Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Photo: Abdulmajeed Albalawi

But it isn’t the only lost city to see in AlUla. There is also Dadan, the remnant of another civilization who took refuge in this beautiful, russet oasis of shifting sand and rustling palm groves. In fact, the old-town ruins of Dadan actually pre-date Hegra, showing how the history of AlUla practically stretches back to the beginning of time itself.

Like Hegra, Dadan was a center for trade and perhaps the most important oasis of its day. Evidence of the once-great Dadan Kingdom is woven into the landscape: temple columns, rock-carved tombs, intricate statues, and lines upon lines of Dadanite script scrawled across boulders. What did the Dadanites write about? “[K]ings and pilgrims, migrant communities, and daily life and death. And taxes,” it was once said.

3,000 years ago sounds a lot like today.

Photo: Abdulmajeed Albalawi

A Natural Wonderland

Another bit of Dadan daily life that remains the same in AlUla today is date growing. Date palms have thrived in AlUla for thousands of years, and now there are over two million of these fruit-producing trees. The continuation of AlUla date farming, which yields 90,000 tons of dates every year, is a deliciously sweet way in which the oasis’s agricultural heritage is honored.

Date palms provide more than just scrumptious snacks, though. They also provide palm leaves—a natural and traditional creative medium. Once dried, fronds are sometimes dyed, then beautifully woven into colorful fans, baskets, and even handbags. As palm trees themselves symbolize heritage and tradition, it seems only fitting that creating art from the leaves is also a time-honored tradition. Although palm weaving has decreased in popularity, the artisans of AlUla are eager to share and revive this gorgeous, natural craft.

With fertile soil and freshwater from the oasis, palm trees aren’t the only form of greenery in AlUla. Sweet lemons, oranges, and limes also grow here in abundance, just as they have for generations. In fact, these citrus roots go so deep, they’re actually some of the oldest plants in the entire Kingdom.

As an open museum, visitors to AlUla are welcome to tour the citrus farms, strolling in the dappled shadows of lush leaves and fresh fruit. In fact, it’s becoming an integral part of the nature-culture interface, as visitors are encouraged to plant seeds on the farm. The seeds are marked with a craft stick bearing their name, then cared for by the farmers long after visitors have traveled home. In this way, tourists and AlUla become irrevocably intertwined via land and heart.

Of course, no trip to AlUla would be complete without enjoying a moment in the shade of a moringa peregrina tree. With its blush-soft blooms and pleasantly mild scent, it’s no wonder the moringa peregrina tree has been continually cultivated since ancient times. Even thousands of years ago, moringa peregrina oil was being used for fragrances, cosmetics, and even health benefits. The moringa oil from Saudi Arabia was so excellent that it was exported throughout the world and even prized by royalty. Today, Saudi Arabians still cherish the moringa peregrina tree, nurturing an AlUlan grove of 90,000 trees and conducting further studies on the oil’s miracle-like properties.

Photo: Abdulmajeed Albalawi

One other natural wonder in AlUla is Elephant Rock. Perhaps one of the most unique geological formations in the world, this gigantic monolith—with the help of localized erosion—looks like an elephant with its trunk to the ground. Standing against a brilliant blue sky and towering 52 meters above visitors, this rather anthropomorphic mountain may very well become the world’s most popular rock.

A Trip to AlUla. . .

From time-forgotten cities to historically rooted produce, AlUla is absolutely brimming with raw beauty and astounding discoveries. It is an oasis of both nature and humanity, of creativity and culture. It is an undiscovered masterpiece finally being unveiled. But above all, it’s a valley echoing with the voices of the past.

What will they say to you when you visit AlUla?

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