Hegra and AlUla: Rebirth of Arabia’s ancient crossroads

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Time: December 19, 2019

A view of the ruins of the ancient city of AlUla and the new city that stands adjacent to it. (Supplied photo)
  • KSA’s Winter at Tantora festival will last over 12 weekends, drawing the world to AlUla from Dec. 19, 2019, to March 7, 2020
  • The archaeological sites of Hegra, the ancient Nabataean city in Saudi Arabia’s northwest, will be opened to the public next year

RIYADH: Hegra, ancient city of the Nabataeans in Saudi Arabia’s northwestern AlUla Valley, is emerging from the mists of time to take its rightful place as one of the wonders of the world.

Few have been privileged to visit Hegra, hewn from the rocks of the Hijaz in northwestern Saudi Arabia two millennia ago and lost for centuries.

The unveiling of the spectacular rock-cut tombs of Hegra is part of an initiative to transform the wider AlUla region into one of the world’s greatest cultural tourism destinations.

In 2020, the archaeological sites of Hegra will be reopened to the public, which had its first glimpse in many years through the 2018 Winter at Tantora festival.

The celebration of art, music and heritage will draw the world once again to AlUla from Dec. 19 to March 7. Over 12 weekends of festivities, visitors will be treated to an eclectic mix of performers, including the Gipsy Kings, Lionel Richie, Enrique Iglesias, Craig David and Jamiroquai.

Also returning to Winter at Tantora will be Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, Greek pianist Yanni and Egyptian composer Omar Khairat. In the New Year, the music of Beethoven will be heard in celebration of the German composer’s 250th birthday.

Saudi Arabia’s move to open up Hegra and the AlUla Valley restores a missing chapter in the history of the region and the entire world.

Mada’in Salih was the post- Islamic name for Hegra, a lost city in the AlUla Valley. Like its famous twin Petra in Jordan, Hegra was built by the Nabataeans, who from about the fourth century BC to 106 AD controlled the profitable trade routes that crossed the Arabian Peninsula from east to west and north to south.

AlUla is full of archaeological treasures from the Dadanite, Nabataean, Roman and Islamic civilizations, nestled among beautiful desert landscapes. (Supplied )

Few people know as much about Hegra and the Nabataeans as Laila Nehme, a faculty member of France’s prestigious National Centre for Scientific Research and co-director of the Saudi- French Hegra archaeological project since 2008.

The first comprehensive survey of the Hegra site was undertaken between 2002 and 2005 by a team of French archaeologists under Nehme’s direction, in collaboration with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities.

The survey laid the groundwork for the archaeological exploration of the site that began in 2008 and has continued ever since.

Recognizing that tourism and heritage would become increas- ingly important economically to Saudi Arabia, in 2000 the Kingdom established an organization that over the years has evolved into the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH), as it was renamed in 2015.

The SCTH, under its Secretary- General Prince Sultan bin Salman, nominated Hegra for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007.

The application was accepted, and Hegra became the first World Heritage property to be inscribed in Saudi Arabia.

The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), established in 2017, is working in partnership with the French Agency for AlUla Development (Afalula), on “the transformation of the AlUla region into a worldwide cultural and touristic destination.”

In the core area, by far the biggest category of finds is rock art and inscriptions. So far, archaeologists have identified inscriptions in nine languages, whose use spans millennia: Thamudic, Aramaic, Dadanitic, Minaean, Nabataean, Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Arabic.

In an interview with Leaders magazine in February 2019, the RCU’s CEO Amr Al-Madani said that AlUla is “full of archaeological treasures from the Dadanite, Nabataean, Roman and Islamic civilizations, nestled amongst the staggeringly beautiful desert landscapes.”

A cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 blueprint for the nation’s sustainable development, the project aims to create opportunities for the community and boost the local economy in AlUla.

Afalula will support the growth of infrastructure, archaeology and tourism in the area, with the aim of attracting 2 million visitors a year to the site by 2035, in the process creating 35,000 jobs for residents of AlUla.

The RCU’s task is to contribute SR120 billion ($32 billion) to the Kingdom’s gross domestic product by 2035. It currently employs 374 people, of which 134 are based in AlUla.

The RCU is also engaging the local community through programs such as Hammaya, in which 2,500 residents will train to be advocates for AlUla’s natural and human heritage.

The emphasis on local identity and heritage is unmistak- able. About a 45-minute drive from Hegra is the Sharaan Nature Reserve, a territory of 925 sq. km within AlUla that features some of the region’s most striking rock formations and desert habitats, managed by local rangers trained by international specialists.

“We’ve reintroduced Idmi gazelles, Nubian ibexes and red-necked ostriches into the reserve, and they’re thriving and doing well,” said Dr. Ahmed Al-Malki, head of the reserve.

The Arabian leopard may soon follow. In April this year, two cubs were born as part of a breeding program to preserve and eventually reintroduce the critically endangered species back into the wild in northwest Saudi Arabia.

“Our aim is to create a healthy ecosystem,” said Al-Malki. “When we started the operation, we employed rangers from the local communities trained by the Saudi Wildlife Authority and our partner, the Mweka Wildlife College in Tanzania.”

Nabatean-era tombs carved on limestone formations are a common feature in AlUla. (Supplied)

Once again, engaging the local community with the project is key to its success. The reserve will also be home to several luxury resorts, including one designed by renowned French architect Jean Nouvel, whose creations include the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Another luxury hotel operator destined for AlUla is Aman Resorts, which will open three eco-focused resorts in the region by 2023.

One will be a luxury tented camp, another an interpretation of a desert-style ranch, and the third will be situated close to AlUla’s heritage sights.

The Maraya Concert Hall, which was designed by Gio Forma Studio and opened in December 2018, will also be revamped, with an increase in the number of seats and the addition of a restaurant, rooftop terrace and new exhibition spaces that will host art events.

To better serve the antici- pated flood of visitors to the region, Prince Abdul Majeed bin Abdul Aziz Airport in AlUla will be modernized and expanded, increasing its capacity from 100,000 passengers a year to 400,000.

Last year’s Winter at Tantora festival brought inter- national guests and world-class musicians to the area, culminating in the unveiling of the vision for the area by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in February this year. The RCU commissioned artists to create public artworks inspired by AlUla in the Old Town.

This time, the attractions include the multimedia theatrical production “Jameel Buthainah,” a Nabataean-inspired Caracalla dance performance, the AlUla Balloon Festival, vintage car and aircraft experiences, and the Fursan endurance horse race.

Central to AlUla’s vision is the incorporation of art and cultural initiatives. The RCU’s cultural manifesto says: “AlUla will become known worldwide as a place to dream, where the greatest artists and thinkers of our time gather to stretch their creative capabili- ties and realize some of their most ambitious artworks and arts experiences — an evolving cultural crossroads for today and the future.”

Just as the caravans of antiquity once came to trade in this land, so AlUla, with an ancient Hegra reborn, will once again attract travelers from all corners of the world.

This article was first published in Arab News

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