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Al Ula: Dadan, Jabel Ikmah, Hegra

A step back in time

View Saudi Arabia 2022 on Grete Howard's travel map.

After a lovely breakfast buffet, we leave the hotel at 07:30 this morning, to drive the 20 minutes to the meeting place for today's excursion. The roadside is dotted with bizarre and fantastical rock formations.





Here in Al Ula, all visits are highly systematic and fastidiously arranged through the tourist office. The only way to enter the archaeological site is on an organised visit, via e-tickets. We arrive at the location indicated on our e-ticket, which is basically just a bus stop.


There is no-one else here, some ten minutes before the allocated meeting time. Bacha, our trusted driver, wanders around the area a little, chatting to various people. Suddenly he hurries back, urging “the bus leaves in 15 minutes”, and points to a parking area further away. Bacha heads for the buses, but the road is closed. We rush across on foot, panicking slightly that we might miss our slot. An official points to one of two buses, and we get on, breathless from the haste and the heat. There is no-one else on board, not even a driver.


As we wait, a number of other tourists turn up in cars and minibuses (with their drivers dropping them off right by the bus, not 'miles' away like we were) and get on the other bus. “Are we on the correct bus?” I have to admit that I am feeling a little edgy and irritated at this stage, as I would like to know what the arrangements are. I am so not into these sorts of organised tours.

A minibus arrives with an Explore group (a small group British adventure tour company, that we have travelled with on a number of occasions in the past), and their leader comes onboard our bus with them, explaining to his group what is going to happen. I am glad someone knows what is going on, as we are completely confused.

45 minutes after the allocated time, we leave, with the first stop some 15 minutes away.

We start the visit at the very new and modern visitors centre, devoid of any atmosphere, but quite clean and airy. A female guide starts explaining the history of the area, but she doesn't wait until everyone has got off the bus before doing so, so I miss the start of her commentary. Another reason to dislike group tours, and one of the main reasons we stopped doing them 10 or so years ago.





Rock tombs
From afar, these look like simple dark rectangles near the base of the cliff. A closer look reveals skilfully crafted funerary monuments, including the seated lion sculptures that mark the famous Lion Tombs. Lions symbolised power and protection and may have marked the burial of an elite member of society, perhaps even a member of royalty. These tombs are up to 50 metres above ground level, spurring the imagination of how they were carved without modern construction equipment. It is said that the reason for constructing them so high above the ground, was to ensure an easy passage to heaven by being part way there already.


This, a photograph in the museum, is the nearest we cat get to the tombs

When I feel a sudden urge (the Saudi version of Delhi Belly), I rush to the toilets back in the visitor's centre. Thankfully they are beautifully clean, with proper western seats, soap and water. When I get out, I find that everyone else is back on the bus and just waiting for me. Someone is in 'my' seat at the front of the bus (which I chose especially as it is easier to get in and out of with my poorly leg). I probably sound as grouchy as I feel when I 'apologise' as I lean over them and grab my water bottle that I left on the shelf in front of the seat. They hastily get up, mumbling “sorry, we didn't know anyone was sitting here”. Really? This is yet another reason why we don't travel on group tours!

Another short bus journey takes us to see one of the most important discoveries in the area – the city of Dadan, dating back to between the late 9th and early 8th century BC. Due to the proximity to frankincense trade routes, Dadan was one of the most developed 1st-millennium BC cities in northern Arabia.


Dadan was first mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel (27:20) in the Hebrew Bible, where it was described as the “beating heart of the kingdom and a trading partner of the city of Tyre” (in modern-day Lebanon, which we visited in 1999).


No one is allowed into the actual excavation site, and the guide explains that it is still very much a 'work in progress', and if we come back again in two years, it will be much more interesting.

Jabal Ikmah
We get back on the bus for another short ride to another visitors centre. Here we have a bit of time to lounge around in some funky furniture before continuing with our explorations. A hospitality desk offers dates, sweets, and very welcome drinks. I try beetroot juice, which I enjoy more than I expected to, as I don't generally care for the taste of beetroot.


Tourists travel to the site in golf carts, while the guides walk.


This whole area is described as an open library of inscriptions, with rock art and petroglyphs set in a stunning desert canyon.



Messages and notes are left by those who lived here, as well as passing traders. Hundreds of inscriptions and carvings line the cliff faces and rocks, thought to date back as far as the 1st millennium BC, giving a glimpse into the daily lives of people in the Dadanite, Lihyanite and other civilisations of Al Ula.


The main petroglyphs are associated with two different tribes that came through here around 900 BC and 600 BC


This is the end of the morning tour, and the bus drops us back to visit the site on a group tour, and still suffering from the Saudi Surge, I rush to the toilet in the bus station, which thankfully is modern, clean, and fully equipped.

Bacha spent some time working here in Al Ula a few months ago and knows of a viewpoint he wants to show us. We head for the hills, driving up a winding road that clings to the desert hillside, with great views of the flat plains below.





At the top is a large plateau, with a road leading to the popular lookout point. Unfortunately, like so many tourist spots here in Saudi, it is closed, with barriers across the road and uniformed men standing guard. All we can do is turn around and head back down again.


At least I manage to get a few photos while hanging out of the window as Bacha negotiates the hairpin bends.

We pop back to the hotel for lunch – as we have full board here in Al Ula, with a midday meal included. Unfortunately, they don’t start serving food until 13:00 and it is now 11:50. Waiting until the restaurant opens is not an option, however, as it will not leave us enough time to eat and get down to the centre of town for our next organised excursion. Another reason to dislike organised tours, as if I needed any.


David pops back to the hotel room for some snacks, and we drive down to the bus station car park where we share a packet of Doritos. The Howards sure know how to live!

On the huge 50-seater bus, there are only an Arab family, a French couple and us, as we make our way to the highly anticipated historical site of Hegra.

Visitors’ Centre
The open-air visitors’ centre looks more like a holiday resort than a museum, with plenty of seating, clever use of ropes for shade, and a bar.



Once a thriving international trade hub, the archaeological site of Hegra (also known as Mada'in Saleh) has been left practically undisturbed for almost 2,000 years. Between the 1st millennium BC and the 1st millennium AD, Hegra was an important trading place for the Nabataens and was considered the sister city to the much more famous Petra in nearby Jordan.


Like Petra, Hegra is a metropolis that has turned into a necropolis: most of the remaining structures that can be seen today are tombs, with much of the architectural remains of the city waiting to be excavated or already lost, quite literally, to the sands of time. One theory is that the cities are buried under the desert surrounding these tombs.


To some locals, however, the site has a more sinister reputation for being inhabited by jinns, or evil spirits. According to the Islamic text, the Thamudis who made their home here were punished by God for their idolatry, struck by an earthquake and lightning blasts. Thus, the site has earned a reputation as a cursed place.

Carvings above the entrance to the tomb feature steps to guide the deceased to heaven

Visitors are shown around the site by guides known as Rawis – ancient storytellers and reciters.


The site is extensive, with seven distinct areas of rocky outcrops, some with as many as forty tombs carved from it.


The bus takes us from one important cluster to another, to see some of the more important of the 131 tombs discovered to date. Only 86 of them have monumental façades, however.


There are a further 700 simple holes in the mountains.


Natural water pipes were built around the tombs to protect their facades from erosion, which, along with the dry conditions in the desert, have kept them well-preserved thousands of years after their construction.


It always saddens me when I see graffiti on ancient sites.


This one looks like it has bullet holes in it!


Hegra’s largest tomb, measuring ca 70 feet high, is the monolithic Tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza, sometimes called Qasr al-Farid. Its name means the “Lonely Castle” in English, because of its distant position in relation to the other tombs. It was left unfinished, with rough chisel marks showing in the lower parts of the tomb.


At the end of this fascinating and educational tour, one of the highlights of the trip so far despite the overly-choreographed group visit, Bacha is waiting for us at the bus station. I ask him if we can go via the famous Elephant Rock before he takes us back to the hotel.

Elephant Rock
Before I left home, I spent a lot of time looking at Google Earth and The Photographer’s Ephemeris website to establish the best place to be for sunset photos of the rock. Not only is it a little too early in the afternoon for sunset, but more importantly, the site is closed. I have to make do with taking a quick photo from the car park before the security guard notices us.


Alternatively, I could turn to my friend Photoshop to create the photo I was looking for.


After ten days with no alcohol, David inspects the antiseptic hand wash with great interest.


Desperate measures for desperate times.


Disclaimer, no hand gel was consumed in the making of this image.

Sahary Resort
We return to the hotel for a shower, dinner and overnight.


Arabian Oryx in an enclosure within the resort

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this amazing trip to Saudi Arabia.


Posted by Grete Howard 21:36 Archived in Saudi Arabia Tagged desert canyon rocks tombs necropolis petroglyphs petra alcohol archaeology rock_formations arabia archaeological_site ancient_history middle_east oryx saudi_arabia breakfast_buffet rock_carvings excavations inscriptions ksa undiscovered_destinations upset_tummy elephant_rock al_ula sahary_resort dadan nabataeans rock_tombs hebrew_bible jabal_ikmah golf_carts desert_canyon rocky_outcrop dadanite lihyanite alula hegra dadain_saleh jinns qasr_al_farid arabian_oryx

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Haha, I would probably feel the same about the hand wash after ten days with no beer.

by irenevt

Funnily enough Irene, we do not drink much at home, but travel is associated with relaxing with a beer at the end of the day.

by Grete Howard

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