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Unveiling AlUla’s Enigmatic Past: Visiting Hegra, Dadan, and Jabal Ikmah

During my recent trip to Saudi Arabia, I stepped into the kaleidoscope of time, where whispers of ancient civilizations echo through the golden sands of AlUla. This timeless land holds within its embrace the enigmatic allure of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Hegra, Dadan, and Jabal Ikmah – all of which have recently opened to the public. Join me on an immersive journey through history, culture, and the remnants of a glorious past.

AlUla: A Cultural Oasis

Nestled amidst the captivating landscapes of northwestern Saudi Arabia, AlUla emerges as a jewel adorned by nature’s grandeur. Enveloped by sandstone cliffs, verdant palm groves, and vast expanses of desert, the region boasts a surreal beauty that captures the imagination. The location is shaped by the winds of time and sets the stage for an awe-inspiring journey through history and culture.

AlUla’s historical significance spans millennia, rooted in its strategic location at the crossroads of ancient trade routes. As the confluence of civilizations, this oasis served as a pivotal hub where cultures converged, interacted, and left a mark on the region’s identity. The lush oasis, nourished by natural springs, drew nomads, traders, and settlers, giving rise to a vibrant mosaic of cultural diversity.

The historical context of AlUla traces back to antiquity, with evidence of human habitation dating back thousands of years. Its geographical position along the incense and spice routes fostered exchanges between the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Mediterranean, facilitating the flow of goods, ideas, and cultural practices. This convergence of cultures contributed to the richness and diversity ingrained in AlUla’s heritage.

The region’s geographical features, characterized by sandstone cliffs and rock formations sculpted by the elements over eons, serve as natural canvases showcasing ancient art, inscriptions, and archaeological marvels. From the towering cliffs of Hegra to the enigmatic engravings of Jabal Ikmah, these geological formations house stories of civilizations that flourished amidst this breathtaking backdrop.

Unveiling AlUla's Enigmatic Past: Visiting Hegra, Dadan, and Jabal Ikmah 1

AlUla’s significance as a cultural oasis lies not merely in its architectural wonders but in the amalgamation of traditions, languages, and belief systems that coalesced within its boundaries. It stands as a testament to the resilience of human endeavor, a testament to the enduring legacy of interconnectedness, and a sanctuary where the echoes of ancient civilizations reverberate through time.

Today, AlUla embraces its past while charting a path towards the future. Through meticulous preservation efforts, sustainable tourism initiatives, and a commitment to honoring its heritage, the region continues to be a beacon, inviting global explorers to unravel the mysteries and embrace the timeless allure of this extraordinary cultural oasis. Saudi Arabia opened up to foreign tourists at the very end of 2019, only to be struck by covid for the next two years. Finally since 2022, the first real tourists started to find their way into the marvelous country, and more specifically to the awe-inspiring region of AlUla. There, the two luxury resorts Banyan Tree AlUla and Habitas AlUla lie in the beautiful Ashar Valley, serving as your gateway to the region. I had the pleasure of being among the first to re-discover the cultural gems of AlUla.


A private tour of Dadan and Jabal Ikmah in a vintage Land Rover Defender



At the heart of AlUla’s historical legacy lies Hegra, a testament to the flourishing Nabatean civilization. This ancient city, carved between 1st century BC and 1st century AD and often referred to as the “Saudi Petra,” stands as a monument to human ingenuity amidst an arid landscape. Carved into the russet sandstone cliffs, the monumental tombs of Hegra loom large, each an architectural masterpiece that served as a final resting place for the Nabatean elite.

Beyond their imposing facades lie stories of a sophisticated society deeply rooted in trade, artistry, and cosmopolitanism. The intricate rock-cut tombs, blending Hellenistic, Egyptian, and Assyrian influences, stand as tributes to the craftsmanship and architectural prowess of the Nabateans. These structures not only housed the deceased but also reflected the societal status and wealth of those interred within.

The allure of Hegra extends beyond its architectural grandeur. Tombs, inscriptions and petroglyphs, scattered across the site, speak volumes about the Nabatean culture, their language, beliefs, and interactions with neighboring civilizations. These inscriptions serve as a palimpsest of history, unraveling tales of commerce, spirituality, and cultural exchange that permeated this ancient city.

At sunrise, I took a private tour in a Vintage Land Rover Defender, and private you can take quite literally. We were one of only two Defenders so basically we had the enormous UNESCO World Heritage Site all to ourselves. During our tour we were accompanied by a rawi (local guide), a driver and a Saudi official.


the tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza in Hegra, a Unesco World Heritage site in AlUla Saudia Arabia


Hegra’s strategic location along crucial trade routes, connecting southern Arabia with the Mediterranean world, facilitated a vibrant exchange of goods, ideas, and cultures. It stood as a beacon of multiculturalism, where traders, nomads, and scholars converged, fostering an environment conducive to intellectual exchange and innovation. Temples dedicated to local deities dot the cityscape, indicative of the religious fervor that permeated daily life.

The UNESCO recognition of Hegra as a World Heritage Site not only preserves its physical remains but also honors the legacy of the Nabateans. It invites modern-day explorers to uncover the mysteries held within its sandstone walls, urging us to contemplate the resilience and sophistication of ancient civilizations that once thrived amidst these desert landscapes. If you want to explore Hegra yourself, have a look at the website of Experience AlUla.


Al Diwan in Hegra AlUla



Not too far from Hegra, one can find the archeological site of Dadan. Between the lush palm groves and verdant landscapes of AlUla, Dadan emerges as a compelling testament to the historical legacy of the Lihyanite Kingdom (6th century BC – 3rd century BC) dating before the Nabateans. As the capital city of this ancient kingdom, Dadan stands as a witness to centuries of trade, cultural exchange, and urban development.

The layout of Dadan, meticulously planned and fortified, reflects the strategic importance of the city. Its well-defined city walls, constructed from locally sourced stone, encircle the urban center, providing protection and delineating the boundaries of this bustling oasis. The architectural remnants serve as a testament to the sophisticated planning and defensive prowess of the Lihyanites.

Be aware that archeologists are still uncovering Dadan, so until today accessibility is rather limited. However being escorted by three officials for just my wife and I, it felt as a very exclusive experience.

The Unesco World Heritage Site of Dadan in Saudi Arabia

The economy of Dadan thrived on its strategic position as a crossroads for trade routes, fostering a bustling marketplace teeming with merchants from diverse backgrounds. Archaeological excavations have unearthed remnants of ancient markets, warehouses, and commercial quarters, offering insights into the vibrant economy fueled by caravan trade, agriculture, and craftsmanship.

Societal norms and cultural practices within Dadan reveal a community structured around principles of governance, religious beliefs, and social hierarchies. The inscriptions and artifacts found within these religious sites provide glimpses into the spiritual practices and belief systems of the Lihyanites. Archaeological finds such as pottery, tools, and household items paint a vivid picture of domestic life, revealing culinary habits, craftsmanship, and artistic expressions that characterized Lihyanite society.

archeological artefacts at Dadan, a Unesco World Heritage Site in AlUla Saudia Arabia

The oasis city of Dadan served not only as a center of commerce and governance but also as a melting pot of cultures, welcoming traders and travelers from distant lands. The archaeological discoveries continually unearthed within its boundaries serve as a window into the interconnectedness of ancient civilizations, highlighting the city’s role as a hub for cultural exchange and intellectual dialogue.

The recognition of Dadan as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is pivotal in preserving the remnants of this ancient metropolis, ensuring that its rich history and cultural significance endure, inviting contemporary explorers to unravel the mysteries of the Lihyanite Kingdom and its vibrant oasis city.

Visiting Dadan, in AlUla Saudi Arabia


Jabal Ikmah

The private Land Rover tour that includes Dadan also brings you to Jabal Ikmah. Nestled amidst the undulating sandstone formations of AlUla, Jabal Ikmah stands as an enigmatic sanctuary steeped in spiritual mystique and intellectual pursuits. Often regarded as an open-air library – or as our skilled rawi dubbed it: ‘Ancient Twitter’ – this sacred site unveils uncountable inscriptions, petroglyphs, and rock art that serve as a testament to the spiritual, scholarly, and cultural endeavors of ancient civilizations.

The towering sandstone walls of Jabal Ikmah bear witness to a vast array of inscriptions and carvings, a cryptic language etched in stone by generations past. These inscriptions, some cryptic and others more decipherable, paint a canvas of diverse languages, scripts, and motifs. They encompass not only religious invocations but also scholarly discourse, poetry, astronomical observations, and records of pilgrimages, hinting at a thriving intellectual community that once congregated here.

Petroglyphs at Jabal Ikmah, AlUla Saudi Arabia

The petroglyphs adorning the rock faces provide a glimpse into the spiritual beliefs and rituals practiced by ancient societies. Intricate depictions of celestial bodies, animals, human figures, and abstract symbols offer a visual lexicon that invites interpretation. These enigmatic carvings are believed to have held religious significance, serving as markers for sacred spaces or narratives depicting mythological tales and cosmic visions.

Beyond its artistic expressions, Jabal Ikmah served as a crucible of intellectual exchange and spiritual contemplation. Scholars, philosophers, and religious devotees likely congregated at this site, engaging in philosophical discussions, sharing knowledge, and debating theological concepts. The inscriptions and rock art act as a silent witness to the vibrant exchange of ideas that once thrived within these sandstone walls.

Inscriptions on a rock at Jabal Ikmah, AlUla Saudi Arabia

The interplay between spirituality and knowledge exchange within Jabal Ikmah underscores its significance as a center for enlightenment and communal introspection. The diversity of inscriptions and petroglyphs serves as a testament to the plurality of thought and belief systems that converged in this sacred space, fostering an environment conducive to intellectual growth and spiritual exploration.

The UNESCO recognition of Jabal Ikmah as a World Heritage Site is pivotal in preserving this repository of ancient wisdom and spiritual significance. It invites contemporary explorers and scholars to decipher the cryptic messages and unravel the ideas that once permeated through these rocky corridors, offering a glimpse into the profound spiritual and intellectual legacy of ancient civilizations.

Famous ancient rock art and petroglyphs at Jabal Ikham, a Unesco World Heritage Site in AlUla, Saudi Arabia


Shared Heritage and Cultural Significance

The UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Hegra, Dadan, and Jabal Ikmah stand not as solitary vestiges of the past but as interconnected chapters in the vibrant narrative of AlUla’s rich history. These archaeological treasures, though distinct in their architectural styles and purposes, bear witness to an era of cultural exchange, trade, and mutual influence that shaped the region’s identity.

Hegra’s legacy as a Nabatean marvel resonates not only through its towering tombs but also through its role as a crucial link in ancient trade routes. The city’s strategic positioning fostered a cosmopolitan atmosphere that welcomed diverse cultures, ideas, and commodities. Hegra’s architectural finesse and cultural practices influenced not only nearby Dadan but also distant civilizations through trade and cultural transmission.

Dadan, the oasis city and capital of the Lihyanite Kingdom, drew inspiration from the cultural influx facilitated by trade networks. The architectural styles, religious practices, and artistic expressions found within its walls bear traces of the cosmopolitan nature of AlUla, forged through centuries of interaction with neighboring civilizations. Hegra’s Nabatean influence is evident in Dadan’s urban planning, while the Lihyanites’ unique societal norms and beliefs permeate the cultural fabric.

Jabal Ikmah, a site revered for its spiritual and intellectual significance, acted as a melting pot where diverse ideologies converged. Its inscriptions and rock art bear testament to a shared tradition of spiritual contemplation, intellectual discourse, and cultural synthesis. Scholars, religious pilgrims, and traders traversed the region, exchanging not only goods but also ideas that resonated within the corridors of Jabal Ikmah and beyond.

The interconnectedness of these sites goes beyond mere physical proximity; it is a testament to the dynamism and adaptability of ancient societies. The cultural exchange, trade networks, and intellectual pursuits forged connections that transcended borders, influencing not just these sites but the wider region’s sociocultural landscape.

The UNESCO recognition of these sites as World Heritage treasures underscores their universal value and significance. Preserving and understanding their interconnected histories is crucial not only for honoring the past but also for fostering cultural appreciation, global heritage awareness, and the celebration of shared human experiences across civilizations.

As contemporary explorers stand amidst the ruins and inscriptions, they bear witness to the legacy of interconnectedness, cultural diversity, and the enduring spirit of exchange that define these UNESCO World Heritage Sites in AlUla.


AlUla Today

In the embrace of the shifting sands of time, AlUla embarks on a transformative journey that meticulously weaves together the preservation of its ancient treasures with a vision for sustainable progress. Efforts to safeguard the region’s cultural and historical legacy stand at the forefront of a multifaceted (and also multi million dollar) approach aimed at fostering a harmonious coexistence between the past and the future.

Preservation endeavors in AlUla are a testament to the unwavering commitment to safeguarding the invaluable archaeological wonders that dot this landscape. Collaborative initiatives between local authorities, international experts, and heritage conservationists aim to restore, protect, and meticulously preserve the architectural marvels of Hegra, Dadan, and Jabal Ikmah. These concerted efforts ensure that these ancient legacies remain intact for generations to come, employing cutting-edge technology and meticulous restoration techniques. With the creation of two luxury resorts – Banyan Tree AlUla and Habitas AlUla – and more to follow, along with direct flights from Europe (Paris) to AlUla’s brand new international airport during high season, AlUla is set to boom in the years to come.

At the heart of AlUla’s transformative journey lies the blueprint for sustainable tourism initiatives that celebrate the region’s heritage while ensuring responsible and respectful visitor experiences. The AlUla Charter, an embodiment of these sustainable tourism principles, focuses on preserving the authenticity of the sites, promoting community engagement, and fostering environmental stewardship. Guided by this charter, initiatives for visitor management, educational programs, and infrastructure development aim to strike a delicate balance between accessibility and preservation.

Unveiling AlUla's Enigmatic Past: Visiting Hegra, Dadan, and Jabal Ikmah 2


The visionary AlUla Vision 2030 stands as a beacon guiding the region toward a future that embraces progress without compromising its cultural and historical essence. This forward-thinking roadmap envisions a diversified economy, thriving on sustainable tourism, cultural industries, and heritage-based enterprises. It emphasizes the importance of nurturing local communities, empowering them through heritage-related employment opportunities, and integrating their wisdom into the fabric of AlUla’s sustainable development.

The integration of modern amenities and infrastructure within AlUla is meticulously planned to complement its ancient wonders without overshadowing their significance. Thoughtfully designed visitor centers, eco-friendly accommodations, and immersive experiences curated around heritage and nature celebrate the past while embracing the innovations of the present.

AlUla’s commitment to balancing progress with heritage conservation echoes through every facet of its transformation. By fostering a sustainable ecosystem that harmonizes economic growth with cultural preservation, AlUla aims to become a global model for responsible tourism, community engagement, and the conservation of cultural treasures.

As AlUla evolves, it does so with a reverence for its past and a vision for its future, inviting travelers to witness the delicate dance between tradition and modernity while preserving the timeless allure of this historic land.

Ancient rock art trail at Ashar Valley near Banyan Tree AlUla and Habitas AlUla


As the hot desert sun sets over the timeless sands of AlUla, casting an ethereal glow upon the ancient monuments of Hegra, Dadan, and Jabal Ikmah, one cannot help but stand in awe of the magnificence that transcends centuries. These UNESCO World Heritage Sites, woven into the very fabric of AlUla, resonate with the echoes of civilizations long past, each a testament to the resilience and cultural richness of humanity’s shared history.

Hegra, with its towering tombs and rock-cut architecture, stands as a testament to the ingenuity of the Nabateans. Beyond its stone facades lie stories of trade, artistry, and societal evolution, leaving its mark on the landscape and influencing civilizations far beyond the horizon of its sandstone cliffs.

Dadan, the oasis city, and capital of the Lihyanite Kingdom, offer insights into the interconnectedness of ancient cultures. Its fortified walls, bustling marketplaces, and religious sanctuaries bear witness to the vibrancy of a society shaped by trade, cultural exchange, and the convergence of diverse traditions.

Jabal Ikmah, ‘ancient Twitter’, an open-air repository of wisdom and spirituality, invites contemplation amidst its inscriptions and petroglyphs. It serves as a testament to the intellectual exchange, spiritual introspection, and diverse beliefs that echoed through its rocky corridors, fostering an environment conducive to cultural synthesis and enlightenment.

The interconnectedness of these UNESCO treasures underscores not just the historical significance of AlUla but also the global importance of preserving our shared human heritage. Through preservation efforts, sustainable tourism initiatives, and a vision for balanced progress encapsulated in the AlUla Vision 2030, this ancient land navigates a delicate dance between honoring its past and embracing its future.

Unveiling AlUla's Enigmatic Past: Visiting Hegra, Dadan, and Jabal Ikmah 3

AlUla’s commitment to cultural preservation, community engagement, and sustainable development serves as an inspiration, not just for the region but for the world. It stands as a testament to the harmonious coexistence of tradition and modernity, where the whispers of ancient civilizations continue to resonate, guiding us to cherish and safeguard our collective heritage for generations to come.

AlUla is a region that truly has it all: luxury, culture and nature. Luxury resorts serve as a gateway to exploring the cultural heritage sites and the natural wonders of the desert rocks. I recommend flying from Paris with Saudia and doing a layover in Jeddah or Riyadh. Getting around by car is surprisingly easy, and the Royal Commission for AlUla is putting in tremendous effort in making the various sites more accessible to tourists, all with respect for the environment.


The tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza at Hegra in AlUla Saudi Arabia