Stone Library

With no scheduled tours until the afternoon on our second day in Al-‘Ula, the four of us were free to take our time as we packed up our bags and checked out of our Airbnb. We were moving out because we had splurged on a resort called the Sahary for our last two nights in the area. The Sahary was not our first stop of the day though. Vince, Rachel, and Jared had agreed to humor me by visiting the Maraya Concert Hall, the world’s largest mirrored building.

Vince drove us north of Al-‘Ula until we found a turn-off to a dirt road that should lead us to Maraya. I was excited to see the illusion created by the mountainous desert reflecting on the building’s walls, but nobody else seemed to care much about going out into the desert to look at a building. That was until we were stopped at a guarded gate. After some back and forth with guard, involving a lot of Google Translate, Vince turned the car around in defeat. The guard had told us that if we wanted to see Maraya we had to go back to Winter Park (the meeting hub for Experience Al-‘Ula tours) and book a tour.

I wasn’t interested in doing this at all because the only tours on offer at the time were after dark, meaning we wouldn’t get to see the mirrored spectacle of the concert hall. I quickly shrugged it off and said that I was ok with not getting to see Maraya, but the rejection had sparked something deep inside of Vince. Suddenly, a man who cares next to nothing for architecture was determined to find a way to go look at a building. Even Rachel and Jared’s interest seemed more piqued than before, leaving all four of us with opposite opinions than we’d started out with.

Thus began an epic two-day long quest to look at a building. We tried to get to the Maraya through another entrance further north, but again were told to book a tour at Winter Park. Between these exploits and grabbing lunch at a nearby restaurant, we really had to get back to Al-‘Ula to check into the Sahary before our tour. So we put the Maraya mission on hold for the time being, and drove down dusty, desert roads until we came across a sign that we had almost arrived.

Literally, it was a giant sign that said “SAHARY.”

The resort was a secluded oasis nestled between jagged cliffs. You couldn’t ask for a more beautiful place to stay, and my excitement doubled when I found out that Vince and I would have a mountain view chalet. We got our keys, and a porter helped us with our bags as we scanned our surroundings, taking everything in.

The chalets were made of a brown stone that seemed to visually melt into the mountains in the distance. The room itself was as beautiful as its surroundings with plenty of space, comfortable furniture, and a fancy waterfall shower that I couldn’t wait to try out. But best of all was the view I got upon pulling back a wall-length curtain at the back of the chalet. The entire wall was a massive window with a door leading out to a patio where Vince and I would be able to relax and enjoy the scenery.

We lavished for a while in the resort’s AC until we had to reconvene and head to Winter Park. This time, our bus would take us to the archeological site of Dadan, and a place with hundreds of stone inscriptions called Jabal Ikmah.

The bus was less crowded than our morning tour of Hegra had been, and Vince and I got to talking to a Canadian woman who was living in KSA. She made some recommendations that we took note of for later that evening, and before long we had arrived at Dadan where we were greeted with drinks and snacks, and got our first look at a series of tombs that were carved into the sandstone far above us.

When our guide arrived, she passed around some binoculars so we could get a better look at the tombs as she explained that the lion carvings above them were meant to protect the people buried inside. The inhabitants of these tombs were most likely nobles in Lihyanite society. Then we loaded into a vintage jeep that took us to an active dig site where archeologists are working to learn more about the ancient cities of Dadan and Liyah. There were no archeologists there at the time, but we could see the area they were excavating, which stood in between us an a lush palm oasis.

Next was another short bus ride to Jabal Ikmah where we were met by a new pair of guides. They led us on a short hike alongside a towering cliff that provided cool relief from the intense sun. The path took us to an alcove that on first inspection looked like nothing more than a beautiful, shaded canyon. When we looked closer, we could see that the rocks around us were completely covered in inscriptions. Some of the writings were carved into the stone, and other more elaborate ones stood out as reliefs.

We learned that Jabal Ikmah contains the largest collection of ancient inscriptions in all of Al-‘Ula, and that it was such an inviting place for people to carve these inscriptions because it is shaded for most of the day. These writings offer archeologists important information about the ancient civilizations of the area, and the 450 inscriptions are carved in several different languages.

By the time we arrived back at Winter Park, the heat of the day had broken, which meant that Al-‘Ula would soon become vibrant with night life. We took some advice from the woman we’d met on our tour, and drove out to the Waterfall Tourist Resort. This hotel was a ways out of town, and along the way we were surprised to have to stop to allow a caravan of fifty to a hundred wild camels cross the road. Off course, I was happy to get out of the car and watch them plod along at their own pace, unconcerned with hogging the road.

When the caravan had moved almost out of sight, we got back in the car and continued on our way to the resort, where we paid a small entry fee so we could go into their cafe. In order to get there, we had to walk through a long and narrow slot canyon, ducking from time to time and maneuvering through narrow restrictions. The canyon ended in an alcove that was protected by cliffs on all sides, and had comfy seating arranged around the sandy ground. We ordered some drinks and desserts, and enjoyed the ambiance as evening quickly became night.

Darkness engulfed the canyon by the time we hiked back out, and it was now illuminated with colorful lights that guided the way back to our car. To finish the day, we went to the Al-‘Ula Dates Festival, which was in a large building that we’d seen near Elephant Rock. We had no idea what to expect from the festival, and we ended up having a really good time just wandering around and in taking in the sights.

There was a huge central room filled with vendors selling dates and crafts. Outside, there was live music, food carts, and an art show filled with paintings inspired by Al-‘Ula. After hanging out and watching the musicians for a bit, we went back inside and noticed a crowd gathering in the center of the room, and excitedly taking samples of something that we couldn’t identify. I wanted to buy some souvenirs, so we asked the woman running the booth I was shopping at if she could explain what was going on. She said that the people in the crowd were sampling dates that had been aged for a month inside of a goat skin, and that dates aged this way are very delicious.

While it had been an unexpected way to end the day, we all were glad we’d stopped because we got to see how important date farming is in Al-‘Ula, and got to experience an event that was off the tourist track. It was cool to get to experience a modern cultural event in addition to all of the history we had learned about the area. We returned to the Sahary with another amazing day in Al-‘Ula running through our minds, excited to see what the next day would bring.

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