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In one of the most rapidly developing countries in the world, there is a monument carved into sandstone, surrounded by date farms and dusty two-lane roads.
This is Hegra.
Also known as al-Hijr or Mada’in Saleh, Hegra is the crown jewel of Saudi Arabia’s archaeological attractions and was the first place in the country inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Built between the first century BCE and the first century CE, this ancient city includes an impressive necropolis, with tombs carved into sandstone set against the sweeping desert landscape of northwestern Saudi Arabia.
Petra, the famous site in Jordan, was the capital of the Nabatean people, while Hegra was the kingdom’s southern outpost until it was abandoned in the 12th century.
But while Petra is one of the seven wonders of the modern world and welcomed more than one million visitors per year before the pandemic, Hegra has only been accessible for most international visitors since 2019, when Saudi Arabia first began issuing tourist visas.
Although Hegra doesn’t yet have the same widespread name recognition, that is changing thanks to AlUla, the nearby oasis town that has developed into an arts, culture and tourism hub and now boasts a small but well connected airport, with regular flights from Jeddah, Riyadh, and Dubai.
Out of history’s shadows
The Nabateans are believed to have traded aromatics, like incense and spices, many of which are used in religious rituals.
Two of those were frankincense and myrrh, which many Westerners will recognize as gifts brought to the infant Jesus in the Christian Bible.
But most of their culture has been lost to history. Now, increased investment in archeology from the Saudi government means that more and more information is coming out of Hegra and other Nabatean sites.
“We’ve all heard of the Assyrians, we’ve all heard of the Mesopotamians,” says Wayne Bowen, professor of history at the University of Central Florida. “But (the Nabateans) stood up to the Romans, they stood up to the Hellenistic Greeks, they had this incredible system of cisterns in the desert, controlled the trade routes. I think they just get absorbed in the story of the growth of the Roman Empire.”
Though the Nabateans didn’t leave much behind in the way of historical documentation, one of their culture’s achievements continues to play a huge role in the region – the Nabatean alphabet laid the foundations of modern Arabic.
Recently, some historians literally put a face to the Nabateans.
In early 2023, they revealed “Hinat,” the reconstructed face of a Nabatean woman whose remains were found in the desert. Now, travelers can see her in the Hegra visitors’ center.
On the sandy ground
Upon arriving at the visitors’ center, guests are welcomed with dates and cups of Saudi coffee, which is very lightly brewed and often mixed with cardamom. It’s poured out of a traditional silver urn with a curved spout.
From there, they can jump into a vintage midcentury-style Land Rover (with or without a roof, depending on the weather) with a guide and set off to explore.
Like many places in this sun-soaked part of the world, AlUla and the surrounding region is best to visit early in the morning or evening. That goes even more so at Hegra, which doesn’t have trees or structures to block out the scorching midday sun.
The Nabateans were a nomadic people, so there’s not much left of their daily lives. What remains, though, are their incredible final resting places.
In total, there are around 115 known and numbered tombs.
The most famous of these is Qasr al-Farid (Arabic for “the lonely castle”) which stands proudly alone, its 72-foot structure dramatically set against an expanse of sand. The contrast makes for an excellent photo backdrop, especially just before sunset as pinkish-orange light sets off the desert tones.
One tomb at a time is open to visitors who want to take a peek inside. These open tombs are rotated through so that no single one gets too much foot traffic.
However, they’re much more intricate and interesting on the outside.
The area around the door frames can show names of the people buried there. Design details give clues about where the residents may have traveled from. Images of phoenixes, eagles, and snakes imply familiarity with cultures as far away as Greece and Egypt.
Expand your search
Many visitors combine their Hegra trip with visits to the smaller nearby historic sites of Dadan and Jabal Ikmah.
In the valley of Jabal Ikmah, which the Saudis refer to as an “open-air library,” you can see a range of carved inscriptions in Aramaic, Dadanitic, Thamudic, Minaic and Nabataean, all of which provide glimmers of insight into the rich history of this region. Translations are shown in Arabic, English, and sometimes French, as French monks were early visitors to the area.
Dadan, meanwhile, was once home to a key pre-Islamic trading city, where spice vendors mingled with religious pilgrims.
Its most notable site is the “Lion Tombs,” a group of mausoleums decorated with – as the name indicates – carvings of lions.
It’s simple to visit all three of these sites in a single day. The easiest way to book is via the website of the area’s official government-run tourism body, Experience AlUla. Travelers in a hurry can book a two-hour tour, but there are also afternoon- and day-long options.
Don’t miss the covered outdoor station near the Hegra visitor’s center, where you can practice using a small chisel to carve your name or initials into pieces of stone.
The amount of effort involved will make you really appreciate how much work the Nabateans put into creating these masterpieces. Miniature versions of Hegra’s most magnificent structures, made by the women who run this workshop, are available for sale as well.
These days, Petra is focused on preservation and combating over-tourism, which gives Hegra the opportunity to grow and attract more visitors.
According to David Graf, professor emeritus of Middle Eastern History at the University of Miami, many of the archaeologists who formerly led excavations at Petra are relocating to Saudi Arabia, which likely means there will be new discoveries in the years to come.
It also means that more people around the world will learn about the Nabateans and their contributions to history.
“The Nabataeans were a very cosmopolitan, sophisticated culture, and I’ve been trying to emphasize that,” says Graf, who continues to publish articles and give talks in his retirement.
“We didn’t know a lot about the Nabataeans. I’ve been on the mission to see that we know more about them. That we see them as not backward and primitive, but really engaged and involved, and dynamic people who were interacting with Rome and the Greek world and other cultures.”