Imagine being a spice trader in ancient times: You spend your days travelling along the incense, spice and silk trading routes that stretch from Mediterranean ports, across Egypt and Arabia to India and beyond. As you traverse the seemingly endless desert, your camel laden with frankincense and myrrh, you spot a vibrant explosion of green in the midst of the wind-patterned sands of what is now north-western Saudi Arabia. Welcome to the AlUla Oasis.
The lush oasis must have seemed surreal to weary traders and religious pilgrims, and it’s possible these historic trade and pilgrimage routes would have never been established without the refuge of the oasis. But along with the welcoming haven offered to travellers, the oasis has provided the civilisations of AlUla with water, sustenance and shelter for thousands of years. To this day, the verdant canopy of date palms shades inhabitants from the elements, a variety of crops flourish in the fertile soil and the oasis continues to nourish life in the middle of the desert.
The Evolution of the Oasisة
According to local folklore, there are 80 natural springs in the AlUla oasis. They have provided water — the essence of life — to the region over the millennia. Before civilisations cultivated the region, indigenous plants, like juniper bushes and acacia trees, grew around these sources of water.
Over the years, the oasis evolved as successive civilisations developed increasingly sophisticated agricultural systems for cultivating crops. The area’s inhabitants found great success with their three-storey gardens, which mirrored the natural ecosystem of the oasis.
Using this method, the taller date palm trees sheltered the more delicate trees, like Moringa Peregrina and citrus. Beneath that second level, smaller plants, such as fragrant mint, basil and other herbs thrived on the oasis floor. Throughout the ages, the crops grown in the second and third storeys have evolved depending on the needs of the reigning civilisation; however, the top layer of date palms has remained a constant.
Below, trace the legacy of farming in the different civilisations that have established roots in AlUla.
The Dadanite Oasis
Modern-day AlUla stands on the site of the ancient city of Dadan. Prosperously set along the oasis and trade routes to Mesopotamia and Egypt, Dadan was the wealthy capital of the North Arabian Kingdom of Lihyan, which ruled from the 6th to the 3rd century BCE. During this era, the date palm tree was introduced to the oasis and water management systems were implemented. Thus, agriculture came to Dadan.
Beneath the cover of the date palms, Dadanites grew olives, grapes and figs on the second level, while their third-storey gardens consisted of barley, wheat, oats and millet.