Al-Ula was a stop along the Hijaz Railway, which connected Medina with Damascus and eventually Constantinople. It was built by the Ottomans in the early 20th century to speed up the journey to Mecca during the pilgrimage season, but the railway was only in use for a short period. During WWI, Lawrence of Arabia and his Arab allies blew up the railway in their revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Since then, the railway has been dismantled with no plans to resurrect it. The attached photo is one of many late-Ottoman period constructions along the railway. It may have been the actual al-Ula station (it was hard to tell) and is located about 5 minutes north of the centre of town. Note that the site of Mada'in Saleh contains a small museum with the actual trains.
Located a short distance north-east of al-Ula, on the cliffs within the valley in an area known as al-Khurayba, these tombs are evidence of 2600 years of settlement in al-Ula, originally called Dedan. They are known as al-Aswad Tombs and were carved around the 6th century BC by the Lihyanites, the people who inhabited the oasis and created the powerful Kingdom of Dedan. The numerous tombs are mostly plain burial chambers carved into the rock, but a small number of them have lion sculptures above them, as seen in the attached photographs. These tombs have become a symbol of al-Ula's ancient past. When I visited in January 2011, I was disappointed to find that the entire area around the tombs had been fenced off for excavation work, which is expected to yield rich finds from ancient Dedan. I was thus only able to take the attached photos using a good zooming lense.
Note that it is quite difficult to reach these tombs by car as the road unpaved, uneven and very rocky (see attached photos).
Perched on a promontory 45 metres above historic al-Ula, the town's Castle commands strategic views over the entire valley. It is sometimes referred to as the Castle of Musa bin Nuseir, the Omayyad-period army general who ruled over North Africa and was involved in conquering Andalusia in the early 8th century AD. He is said to have died in this castle on his way from Damascus to a pilgrimage in Mecca in 715 AD. Although the castle was rebuilt more than once during its long history, its origins date back to the 6th century BC. In fact, some of the foundation stones are from the original 2600 year-old construction (according to signs posted). The castle is currently more of a bastion or watchtower once used to protect the town. It was built using blocks of sandstone extracted from nearby cliffs, with the same varying shades of red hues as the town's surroundings. A climb up to the top rewards the visitor with some amazing views of the valley, lush palm oasis, and the majestic red cliffs (see attached photos).
Although rich in history and natural beauty, al-Ula is mainly visited because of nearby Mada'in Saleh, the Nabataean city of Hegra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As the closest town, only 22 km away, al-Ula is the gateway to the archaeological site, which contains over 100 rock cut tombs from the 1st century AD. It would be inconceivable to visit this part of Hijaz (western Arabia) without seeing Hegra. For more on this mysterious and amazing site, check out the separate page on Hegra.
Abandoned by its inhabitants for more modern facilities only about 40 years ago, the old village of al-Ula, or al-Deera as it is locally called, is now all but a ghost town. It consists of a walled village of about 800 dwellings around the perimeter of the more ancient castle with narrow winding alleys, many of which covered to shield the people from the heat of the sun. Most of the foundations of the buildings are stone, but the upper floors are made from mud bricks, while palm leaves and wood are used for the ceilings. Although many of these houses were probably rebuilt over time, their foundation is likely to be from the original construction of the town in the 13th century AD. The stones used, however, were extracted from the ruins of a very ancient settlement elsewhere in the valley and some still carry Lihyanite inscriptions on them! The specific location of al-Ula around the ancient castle was chosen because of its slight elevation relative to the rest of the valley, not only for defensive purposes but also for protection from occasional flooding of the valley. Some work has been done to preserve the old town for tourism purposes, but much more is needed to protect the buildings from collapse. A walk through the town is most fascinating and gives the visitor a feel for what life might have been like in Hijazi villages for centuries before modernisation wiped out the traditional way of life. It is rather a shame that the town is not being redeveloped for use. Any forward thinking country would turn a section into a museum, another into a hotel, and convert part of town into a souk (bazaar) with an arts centre to promote local craft. But this is Saudi Arabia after all...
There are a few other activities and sites in al-Ula which I regrettably did not get to see or do, mainly due to time constraints. First of all, the archaeological museum of al-Ula, located in the modern town, is supposed to be excellent, if small, exhibiting ancient artefacts found in the area (it was closed when I tried to visit in the early afternoon). Second are the ancient ruins of Umm ad-Daraj, situated up the cliff a short distance north-west of Old al-Ula, which contain the remains of a Lihyanite temple and inscriptions dating to the 6th century BC. A little further away, about 10 km north-east of town, lies Elephant or Mammoth rock, a strikingly beautiful rock formation that resembles a giant elephant. Lastly, the viewing point on the cliffs above al-Ula is a popular and exceptional place to watch sunset, with views over the entire valley. These four things I missed are reason enough to return to al-Ula sometime in the future...
A rare sight in Arabia, the green oasis of al-Ula is a welcomed change from the harsh desert scenery. The valley's geographic situation graced the area with many natural wells that have been well-utilised since ancient times to irrigate the oasis. This has made the valley an indispensable stop along the important ancient trade routes from Yemen to the Levant, which brought great wealth to the various tribes who inhabited the area at different times over the course of history. What a relief the sight of the endless palm groves must have been to the ancient traveller after traversing harsh desert landscape for days. Nowadays, the oasis is an important producer of dates, and provides al-Ula with its exceptionally breathtaking setting made up of natural red cliffs, evergreen palm groves and near permanently blue skies.
The mountains surrounding al-Ula are of extraordinary beauty. Many of them have unusual natural rock formations that make a striking backdrop to any photo. For more photos, take a look at the travelogue: "Mountains of al-Ula."
The modern town of al-Ula spreads across the entire valley from north to south. Its architecture is typical of modern Saudi Arabia and not particularly attractive. Still, with the breathtaking cliffs and oasis as a backdrop, modern al-Ula is a scenic town. The modern town also contains the noteworthy museum, a handful of restaurants, and a few other necessities for travellers. The two hotels in the area, however, are located just outside the modern town.
Of a modern construction, this gateway is the symbolic entrance into the new town of al-Ula. It is located at the southern edge of town in the middle of a roundabout and signals your arrival when approaching from Medina.
Many of the abandoned houses of Old al-Ula are open for inspection. Entering any of the houses gives an eerie feeling that the owners may have abruptly left only a day before. Although no furniture remains, many of the details are still in place, including some painted wall designs, stairs, fire places and decorative door locks. Attached are a few photos.
Located just below the castle of al-Ula, this stone structure is an old Mosque with foundations probably going back to the establishment of al-Ula in the 13th century AD. It seems to have been restored and still in use (judging by the loud speaker above the minaret). It shows the simple mosque architectural style of the town, built using irregular red sandstone and having a square minaret. A handwritten sign states that its name is Mijeb Mosque, but I was unable to verify it.
The streets of Old al-Ula consist of a maze covered narrow winding alleys, designed to confuse the intruder and to shield the local from the sun. The mix of stone and mud brick architecture, wooden beams and lanterns creates a very charming atmosphere, despite being a ghost town. Attached are a few photos.
An absolute MUST on your trip to Al 'Ula.
Go inside the old-town and see how the provincial urbanised Saudi population lived until the late 1970.
This visit offers you an excellent opportunity to compare the previous and nowadays Saudi lifestyle under critical aspects.
In my opinion people of both genders lost a lot with the modern lifestyle. What do you think?
See also my Travelogue for details.
The Elephant Rock, 5km south of the Mada’in Saleh site gate, a natural beauty produced in the sandstone by the regular sandstorms over thousand of years.
We were told that this place is now off access to campers. Tourists need to stay in one of the Al Ula's hotel.