Hegra, Al-Hijr (modern Mada’in Salih)
Dating to pre-Islamic times, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site is the largest preserved site south of Jordan for the Nabataean civilization, making it a site with global significance. Recent excavations have pushed its origins back even earlier than believed, with the discovery of a Bronze Age tumulus and a bone carbon-dated to as early as 1892 BCE. Its tomb facades represent some of the best examples of Nabataean architecture and the many inscriptions provide important clues to its peoples and languages.
As the principal southern city of the Nabataean Kingdom, it was second only to Petra as a place for the elite to bury their dead, and current research suggests it was the most southerly known outpost of the Roman presence. Excavations continue to unearth ancient mysteries, and today you can tour more than 100 well-preserved tombs with elaborate facades cut into the rock.
Elephant Rock (Jabal Al-Fil)
This natural sandstone outcrop has eroded over time to create the unmistakable likeness of a giant elephant with its trunk touching the ground. Towering more than 50 meters tall and surrounded by hundreds of nearby monoliths, this spectacular example of AlUla’s geomorphological wonders has become one of the region’s iconic images and top tourist attractions.
Perhaps one of Saudi Arabia’s most significant epigraphic sites, Jabal ‘Ikmah contains hundreds of etched and relief inscriptions acting as an “open library” for the Dadanitic and Lihyanic cultures as far back as the 6th through 3rd Centuries. These writings shed light on the origins of the Arabic language, beliefs and practices. Located 5 km north of Old Town AlUla, this location is believed to have been a highly spiritual place due to its secluded location in a canyon valley and inscriptions recording offerings and giving thanks.
Dadan (modern Al-Khuraybah)
Dating between the 2nd and 6th Centuries BCE and possibly earlier, this site was the capital of the Dadan and Lihyan kingdoms. As the capital, it was considered one of the most developed cities on the Arabian Peninsula during the first millennium, owing its prosperity to being at a crossroads of the long-distance incense trade. Excavations by King Saud University recovered colossal human-figure sculptures, possibly from inside a temple. The necropolis of the Lion Tombs is the standout feature of this site.
Old Town of AlUla (Al-Dirah)
Once the home of nearly 900 houses, 400 shops and 5 town squares, the Old Town of AlUla still contains remnants of some of the original stone and mudbrick buildings constructed here. A citadel dating to the 10th Century is still accessible via a restored staircase. Those interested in history will be delighted to discover that this site was occupied within recent memory, offering unique opportunities to gather and share oral histories surrounding a disappearing way of life.
The Hijaz Railway ran from Damascus to Madinah and is named after the Hijaz region of north-western Saudi Arabia. An ambitious project with an aim to run all the way to Makkah, construction halted as a result of the First World War and the line to Makkah was never completed. Nonetheless, this ambitious project succeeded in greatly improving travel for Hajj pilgrims at the time -- and later played a key role in the Arab Revolt that led to the formation of modern Saudi Arabia.
AlUla has several distinct environmental regions within and amongst its valleys and mountains. The centerpiece is Wadi al-Qura — today the AlUla Valley — where the oasis was created and thousands of date palm trees are cultivated. There are also basalt uplands to the west; the Harrat ‘Uwayrid, created by volcanic lava flows; Al-Raqqasat, an area with narrow sand-drifted canyons; and Wadi Rum, an expansive valley framed by impressive mountains, fine sand and white saxaul trees.
This mountain north of the AlUla Valley along a historic pilgrimage route contains more than 450 Arabic inscriptions dating to the early Islamic period. Other inscriptions remain to the east at Naqsh Zuhayr — including one of the oldest of the Islamic era, dating back to 24AH — making Al-Aqra’a and the surrounding mountains a valuable place to study the development of the Arabic language.
Fort of Hegra
Constructed on orders from the Governor of Damascus, this fort was designed to protect travelers making their way to Makkah. Featuring two levels, the structure included a prayer hall, a well in the courtyard, a large reservoir, and was the only place pilgrims could purchase items like dates, lemons and oranges on their journey. Together with the Hijaz Railway, this site is key to illustrating the area’s importance in trade and pilgrimage travel. Later restored, the building now houses the Hajj Museum.
Qurh (modern Al-Mabiyat)
Located in the southern part of the AlUla Valley, this city built on a flat plane surrounded by a rampart overlooks the ravine of Mugayra, where several valleys and gorges meet before running towards Wadi al-Jizi. Excavations in 1983 and 2004 have helped make this a key site to understanding the continuity and evolution of the historic trade and pilgrimage routes AlUla is known for.