CHARTING THE NIGHT SKIES:
NAVIGATING THE ANCIENT MYSTERY OF THE ALULA STARSCAPE
Throughout the pre-Islamic period, civilisations relied on empirical observations of the rising and setting of the stars – an astronomical study known as ‘anwa’. While little is known about the significance of the cosmos for the ancient kingdoms of Dadan and Lihyan - which ruled from the end of the 7th century BCE to around the early 3rd century BCE - it is certain that the night skies had an important part to play. With this powerful ancient kingdom forming the nexus of northern Arabia’s caravan trade, travellers across the region would have navigated the shifting desert sands by the stars alone.
While so much of today’s knowledge remains swathed in the historical mists, it is a fact that the modern starscape has shifted over time. As the Earth rotates, it shifts slightly on its axis - a process called precession of the equinoxes whereby its celestial poles trace a circle across the sky - causing its position to change over the centuries. Due to this, there was no North Star in the pre-Islamic Arabian night skies. Instead, to navigate after sunset, travellers were reliant on a trio of stars located in the North Celestial Pole. These were Polaris, today’s North Star, referred to in pre-Islamic times as ‘Goat Kid’, along with a stellar duo dubbed the ‘Two Wild Cow Calves’ – today known as Pherkad, from al-farqadān, and Kochab, from kawkab, meaning ‘star’.
Today’s celestial skies still bear names with etymological roots embedded firmly in Arabic; indeed, two-thirds of the common names for stars in star catalogues around the world are Arabic in origin. This includes the brilliant red star Aldebaran (alpha Tauri), which was attested during the pre-Islamic period, before 610 CE. The Arabic name of this star, ‘ad-dabaran’ translates to ‘the Follower’, so named because it follows on the heels of the most renowned celestial cluster in the ancient Arabian night sky, ath-Thuraya; a star so highly celebrated by the culture of the time that it was often simply referred to as the ‘star’ (an-najm).
Known today as the Pleiades, oral history tells us that ath-Thuraya was enamoured by the Follower but was thwarted by the presence of the star commonly referred to today as Capella, then known as the ‘Impeder’, which forever blocked their path to true love. Several additional modern star names point to the storied arms of ath-Thurayyā (kaff ath-Thurayya), including Caph (from kaff, meaning ‘hand’), Mirfak (al-mirfaq - from mirfaq, meaning ‘elbow’) and Menkib (al-mankib - from mankib, meaning ‘shoulder’). Other modern astronomical terms still recognised by their Arabic names include Alhidade, Azimuth, Almucantar, and the stars of the Summer Triangle- the Vega, Altair and the Deneb.
(1) Light and Shadows over Petra: Astronomy and Landscape in Nabataean Lands | SpringerLink
“I arrived haphazardly when ath-Thuraya, high overhead, was like an aquatic bird soaring, Its rear parts—the Follower—flying in her tracks, yet neither falling behind nor overtaking her, With twenty small stars as if they—and he in the sky if he could speak— Were camels that he led riding widespread, riding camels that were about to scatter away from him, Both connected and dispersed, and One Urging drives them to the water from the heart of the spacious desert on their first night of travel.” Dhu r-Rumma (d. 735 CE)
Experience AlUla’s night skies
In particular, the remote Gharameel area offers excellent stargazing conditions. Surrounded by mystical rock formations, Gharameel was once a large mountain that has slowly fragmented over time, now consisting of thin iron-oxide-rich spires that tower overhead to form a dramatic and alien landscape. Harrat Viewpoint is another prime location for stargazing, affording magnificent views from the top of Harrat Uwayrid across Dadan, AlUla Old Town, AlUla Fort, and the AlUla Oasis, and equipped with an outdoor seating area and telescopes with which to survey the terrain below and the stars above. Arrive just before sunset to watch the landscape transform as the setting sun gives way to a sparkling tapestry of stars.
Year-round experience Stargazing at Gharameel
Year-round experience Harrat Viewpoint