Passing Through History

Our arrival in Al-‘Ula marked what felt like the beginning of an entirely new journey when compared to our time in the modern city of Riyadh. Here we would dive into the fascinating history of the Saudi peninsula, exploring many of the ancient ruins that the area is famous for, and learning more about the traditional Bedouin lifestyle. We would also discover a small and safe community built around sprawling date farms, and boasting a vibrant nightlife and more amazing food than I could comfortably fit in my stomach. Because there are so many amazing things to do and see in the Al-‘Ula area, we planned to spend four days there, and booked a host of tours to occupy our time.

I guess none of us were very concerned with saving the best for last, because we opted to start with the activities that all four of us were most excited for. We would spend our first day in Al-‘Ula visiting the ancient site of Hegra twice, once in the morning, and once again after dark for a flashlight tour. Hegra, or Mada’in Saleh, was the second city built by the Nabataens, the same people group who carved their capital city of Petra into the rose-colored cliffs in modern-day Jordan. Hegra is comprised of a collection of 111 tombs carved into the soft sandstone of the desert landscape. I have to admit that I saw it as a chance at a do-over after a case of food poisoning and subsequent dehydration put a damper on my day at Petra in 2019.

I didn’t need to worry about any of that now though. Saudi food seemed to be agreeing with my stomach, the weather was about 20 degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler than it had been on that day in Jordan, and our Experience AlUla tour was outfitted with an air conditioned bus and plenty of water. The bus ride from Al-‘Ula to Hegra took about forty minutes, and I spent the time switching between watching the beautiful landscape zoom by and dozing off since I was still battling with jet lag. Once we arrived, we were shown into a visitor center where there was coffee, tea, and snacks waiting for us to enjoy as our guide gave us some information about the site.

Then it was time to get back on the bus and head to the first stop of the tour, Jabal Ithlib, a narrow fault between two rocks that holds carvings of three Nabataean deities, and a large space that was used for dining. We got to walk into the passageway between the stones, which provided welcome shelter from the hot sun.

Next we were driven to the most iconic site in Hegra, Qasr al-Farid, which means “The Lonely Castle.” Contrary to what its name suggests, it is actually an unfinished tomb that was carved from a four-story rock. It is the only tomb in Hegra that stands alone, and is one of the most beautiful structures in the ancient city. It was actually a picture of Qasr al-Farid that made me want to visit Saudi Arabia. I first saw a photo of the tomb shortly after I got home from Jordan, and I immediately knew that it must have carved by the Nabataeans. It felt amazing to actually see it in person, and the experience was far different from the one I had in Petra.

While the tour was more controlled in Saudi Arabia (in Jordan we’d been able to freely roam around the ancient city), it was also much more private. There were only about fifteen people on our bus and we were the only ones around as we admired the stunning architecture. Our guides showed us the best vantages to get photos of Qasr al-Farid, and took a picture of all four of us in front of the tomb.

Our next and final stop was Jabal al Ahmar, a collection of tombs carved into one, much larger, rock.

We were able to walk right up to these tombs and see them up close, and we walked all along the cliff face, noticing how some carvings were more intricate than others.

After Jabal al Ahmar, the bus brought us back to Al-‘Ula, where we would have to find a way to pass several hours before the start of our next tour. Having skipped breakfast, it was an easy decision to get some lunch, and Jared picked out a restaurant called Alula Palace. We ordered a few dishes to share, and I was overjoyed to get some fresh vegetables along with a spicy vegetable stew. We’d been eating a lot of bread so far, and it was great to get some greens in.

By the time we left Alula Palace, we were stuffed, and we decided to go check out an intriguing looking market we’d driven passed on our way to the restaurant. It turned out that what we’d seen was actually the entrance to Old Al-‘Ula, an uninhabited area of old, mud brick homes that has been converted into a space for artisans and cafes. We wandered the street for a bit, but soon realized that afternoon was not the time to be there. A few people milled about, but almost none of the shops or restaurants were open, so we decided to check back after dark to see if things had livened up.

This still left us with a bit of time before our evening tour, so we drove out of town to check out another iconic landmark, Jabal AlFil. By now, I was getting the picture the Jabal must be Arabic for rock or mountain because the English name for this place is Elephant Rock. True to its name, it looked very much like an elephant, but we were surprised to find a stylish cafe with seating dug into the sand at its base. Again, this looked like the kind of place to come back and check out after dark.

Now we’d managed to kill enough time and we could go back to meet up with our next tour. We’d also accidentally found ways that we could spend at least two of our upcoming nights in Al-‘Ula. The sun was setting quickly and it was completely dark outside by the time our bus arrived. This time we found ourselves completely alone on the fifty passenger bus as it carried us back to the ancient city of Hegra, but we did end up picking up a family of four when we arrived at the park gate.

None of us were quite sure what to expect from this tour because it had only been operating for a couple of days, but it didn’t get off to the best start when our guide informed us that most of the flashlights had been stolen right as we stepped off the bus. This left us with one flashlight between the whole group, and whatever light we could produce with our phones. This didn’t bother me too much and I was still interested as our guide pointed out different kinds of beetles along the sandy trail, and eventually led us up to a rock carving that depicted a caravan of camels.

He showed us a few other carvings, but before twenty minutes had passed, he informed us that the tour was over and now we would go back and wait for the bus. Everyone seemed a little surprised that the experience was over so abruptly. I was admittedly disappointed, but I tried not to get too disgruntled because we’d only paid something like fifteen USD a person, so our expectations hadn’t been too high. As we waited for the bus, Vince started asking our guide for more information about things to do in the Al-‘Ula area. We were specifically hoping to find some trails that we could hike without a guide. After a few minutes of giving Vince suggestions (none of which involved unguided hiking trails), or guide got a text. Apparently the bus was running an hour late to pick us up. A deliberative look crossed his face, and then he motioned for us to follow him.

What came next, exceeded my wildest expectations, and fully met all of my Indiana Jones dreams. Our guide led us to a collection of tombs that we hadn’t seen during the daytime, and started to shine the flashlight on them as he told us many stories, some historical facts, and others local legends about the tombs and the Nabataeans. An endless array of stars shone above the cliffs, and it felt like we were making our own brand new archeological discoveries every time the flashlight illuminated a feature we hadn’t seen yet.

© Jared Hauck

Just when I thought there was no possible way the night could get any better, the guide led us inside of a tomb, showing us the different cavities where noble families would have been interred. A bat fluttered over our heads, and a lizard skittered away from the beam of the flashlight, punctuating the feeling of exploration and discovery.

© Jared Hauck

After this, we got to walk along the row of tombs, wandering into them as we pleased. I could hardly believe how suddenly this tour had gone from underwhelming and mildly disappointing to one of the coolest things I’d ever done. By the time our bus finally did arrive, we had all but forgotten our feelings of dissatisfaction, and we instead talking animatedly about what an amazing time we’d had.

Back in Al-‘Ula, we returned to Old Town and did a bit of souvenir shopping before settling in to eat an excellent meal at Merkaz. We couldn’t stop reviewing how amazing our evening had been as we ate some of the most unique food I’ve ever tasted. I had a dish called fatteh eggplant, which was eggplant with pita, feta cheese, mouth watering spices, and pomegranate seeds. Rachel and Jared got shwarma, but it was unlike anything any of us have ever tasted before. It had so many layers and textures of flavor that I actually said “Wow” twice upon trying a bite. I’m not usually one to get overly excited about food, so you know it’s good when I talk about a dish like this.

On our way back to our Airbnb, we stopped along the roadside to buy some mint tea, and then drank it under the stars in our house’s yard, recounting everything we’d done that day, and planning ahead for the next one.

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