Leaving Al-‘Ula

To end our stay in Al-‘Ula, the four of us had booked a morning tour through the ruins of Old Town. After a mix-up of the meeting location on our part, we managed to find our guide just in time before the group left without us. The guide was understanding, and quick to offer us refreshments before the tour started on a walk through the maze-like corridors of the old stone city, which was historically an important settlement along the pilgrimage route from Damascus to Makkah.

Al-‘Ula Old Town is a really interesting project that blends ancient history and modern culture. Within the city’s walls are a number of artisan shops, crafts vendors, and high end restaurants, situated right next to a fortress of mud-brick homes that were inhabited from the 12th century all the way up until the 1980’s. These homes stand in varying states of repair, and are actively being restored by the Saudi Arabian government as a part of Vision 2030. We were very excited to get to see the old town since Old Diriyah had been closed to visitors while we were in Riyadh. This was our chance to get a glimpse of some of Saudi Arabia’s more recent (relatively speaking) history.

Our guide led us into the city where he ushered us into a home that had been restored and explained that this is what the houses would have looked like when they were still occupied. Just a few meters down the corridor, we peered into homes that haven’t yet been repaired. This offered us some perspective on the massive amount of work that is being put into the project.

We grew ever closer to the center of the old city as we wound our way through narrow passages, peering into homes along the way. The guide pointed out several inscriptions in the mud walls, and when we came into an open-roofed courtyard, he showed us a tall spire that inhabitants of the city had used as a sundial. But this paled in comparison to our next destination, the Musa bin Nusayr Castle.

This citadel dates back to the 10th century, and still stands as a tall beacon overlooking the old city. It was impossible not to notice the castle standing on top of a jagged cliff that juts up from the center of town. We’d seen it every day as we drove past, but now was our opportunity to climb up to the top and get a view of the ancient buildings from above. The hill looked a little intimidating from below, but it didn’t take long to ascend its staircase to the castle where we could see a bird’s eye view of the disorienting corridors we’d just come from.

On our way back down the stone staircase, we asked our guide if it was possible to visit any of the date palm forests we’d been seeing throughout Al-‘Ula. He didn’t seem to know of anything official, but he said we could wander into the forest wherever we wanted, because the date farmers don’t mind. Then he showed us a few more points of interest as he led us on a different path back through the maze of mud brick that eventually returned us to where we’d started near the modern section of town.

It was late morning now, but our flight out of Al-‘Ula wouldn’t take off until that evening, so we made a quick plan for how to spend the rest of our day, first heading back to the Sahary to relax a bit before check out. We packed, and then hung out in their tea room for an hour or so, searching the internet for ways to fill the rest of the day. Vince found some spots where we could try to park and wander into a palm forest, and a short hike on the outskirts of the city. Then we loaded all of our luggage into the rental car, and set out on our mission to look at palm trees.

As it turned out, this wasn’t a difficult task. Vince parked the car in a soccer field that separated the main road from a lush palm oasis. We all hopped out and wandered into the forest, easy as that. Stepping into the shade of the trees felt like being instantly transported thousands of miles away. This was the most greenery we’d seen since leaving Michigan, and the temperature in the forest was considerably cooler than outside in the baking sun.

The ground was carpeted in a layer of rejected dates, making for a slightly sticky walk, and we also found a mountain of harvested dates piled up on a large tarp. Dates weren’t the only fruit in the area, there were also citrus trees interspersed through the forest. It was shocking to be somewhere so wet and green after spending days in the arid desert.

When we’d had enough of aimlessly wandering around the date farm, we returned to the Alula Palace, where we’d eaten on our first day in town. After lunch and dessert at a nearby Baskin Robbins (Saudi Arabia has all of the fast food chains we’re used to in the US), Vince drove us in search of the hike he’d read about earlier.

His search took us through a small neighborhood where stray dogs roamed the dirt roads and goats bleated from their fenced-in yards. Despite all of the animals roaming around, we didn’t see a single person outside of their homes. The neighborhood ended abruptly, giving way to a vast expanse of unforgiving looking desert canyons. A veritable graveyard of animal remains in various states of decay created a somewhat ominous atmosphere as we stepped out of the car and onto the sand.

My eyes scanned our surroundings and I took stock of a few odd goat legs protruding out of the dust, and an entire cow carcass in front of what was an otherwise attractive array of rocks.

Feeling somewhat less at ease than we had in the forest, we hiked up to the rock formation and admired the canyon view, continuing to encounter pieces of animals along the way. Vince suggested that the local dogs might have been responsible for all of the carnage. I agreed this was a possibility, but inwardly found it equally likely that this was just where people from the neighborhood left livestock that had died of illness or been used for food. As we stood in the shadow of the Goliath rock, we decided that we would call it Carcass Rock. Then we hightailed it back in the direction of the car, as we had all had quite enough.

Of course we couldn’t make it all the way back without getting distracted. We spotted a skeleton downhill a ways that appeared to be either a camel or a horse, so Vince, Rachel, and I went to investigate. Jared, who had actually had his fill of carcasses, returned to the car to wait for us. The rest of us picked our way downhill, trying our best to avoid stepping on bones. As we approached the skeleton, it became obvious that it was a camel by the S shaped curvature of its spine.

We returned to the car and filled Jared in on our findings, but for some strange reason, he seemed less than enthusiastic. This concluded our foray into the Carcass Rock Wilderness, and we promptly drove the hell out of there without looking back.

On a sadder note, this was also the conclusion of our time in Al-‘Ula. It was time to board a plane that would take us to the thriving port city of Jeddah, where we would spend the last two days of our trip immersed in the underwater world of the Red Sea.

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