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Learn about Al Hajar, Saudi Arabia’s archaeological gem that was recently opened to tourism

(CNN) – In one of the world’s fastest developing countries, there’s a monument carved out of sandstone, surrounded by date plantations and dusty two-lane roads.

It’s about Hegra.

Also known as Al-Hijr or Madain Saleh, it is the crown jewel of Saudi Arabia’s archaeological attractions and was the first site in the country to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Also called Madain Saleh and Al-Hijr, it was the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Saudi Arabia. Credit: Matthew Starling/iStockphoto/Getty Images

Built between the first century BC. AD and the first century AD. Jim, this ancient city is home to an impressive cemetery with tombs carved out of sandstone in the middle of the desert landscape of northwest Saudi Arabia.

Petra, the famous site of Jordan, was the capital of the Nabataean people, while Hegra was the southern outpost of the kingdom, until its abandonment in the 12th century.

But while Petra is one of the Seven Wonders of the modern world, receiving more than a million visitors a year before the pandemic, Hegra has only been accessible to most international visitors since 2019, when Saudi Arabia began issuing tourist visas.

This is a tomb for the Nabateans who built Petra in Jordan. Photo credit: Fayez Noureddine/AFP/Getty Images

Although the name Hegra is not yet recognized, that is changing thanks to Al-Ula, a nearby city of oasis that has become a hub for arts, culture and tourism and now has a small but well-connected airport, with regular flights from Jeddah, Riyadh and Dubai.

Step out from the shadows of history

It is believed that the Nabateans traded in aromatic items, such as incense and spices, much of which was used in religious rituals.

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Two of these were frankincense and myrrh, which many Westerners regard as gifts given to the baby Jesus in the Christian Bible.

Nearby Elephant Rock, named for its resemblance to a pachyderm, is a popular spot for movie screenings and light shows. Credit: Matthew Starling/iStockphoto/Getty Images

But most of their culture is lost to history. Now, the Saudi government’s increasing investment in archeology means more and more information is coming out of Hegra and other Nabataean sites.

“We’ve all heard of the Assyrians and Mesopotamia,” says Wayne Bowen, a professor of history at the University of Central Florida. “but [los nabateos] They faced the Romans, they faced the Hellenistic Greeks, they had this amazing system of cisterns in the desert, they controlled the trade routes. I think they are immersed in the story of the growth of the Roman Empire.”

Hannat greets travelers at the Stone Visitor Center. Source: The Royal Commission for Al-Ula / Bulletin / Reuters

Although the Nabataeans did not leave behind many historical documents, one of the achievements of their culture still plays a huge role in the region: the Nabataean alphabet laid the foundation for the modern Arabic language.

Recently, some historians have literally put face to face with the Nabataeans.

In early 2023, they reveal “Hannat”, the reconstructed face of a Nabataean woman whose remains were found in the desert. Now, travelers can view it at the Hegra Visitor Center.

on the sandy ground

Upon arrival at the visitor center, guests are greeted with dates and cups of Saudi coffee, which is brewed very lightly and often mixed with cardamom. It is served in a traditional silver teapot with a curved spout.

The best times to explore the sprawling complex are early in the morning or at sunset. Credit: Noushadali Kalathil/Alamy Stock Photo

From there, they can hop into a mid-century vintage Land Rover (with or without a roof, depending on the weather) with a guide and head off to explore.

The most popular option for exploring Hegra is in a Land Rover. Credit: Eric LaForge/Corbis/Getty Images

Like many places in this sunny part of the world, it is best to visit AlUla and its surroundings in the early morning or late afternoon. And even more so in stone, where there are no trees or structures to block the scorching midday sun.

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The Nabataeans were nomadic people, so not much remains of their daily life. What remains, however, are their stunning final resting places.

Although incomplete, Alfred Palace is one of the most impressive monuments in stone. Photo credit: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

In all, there are about 115 known and numbered graves.

The most famous of these is the Alfred Palace, which stands proud and alone, its structure more than 20 meters high on a stretch of sand. Contrast provides an excellent photographic backdrop, especially just before sunset, when the pinkish-orange light accentuates the desert’s hues.

Grave visits are rotated so that none of them suffer serious damage. Credit: Eric LaForge/Corbis/Getty Images

The site opens one tomb at a time to visitors who want to take a look inside. Visits to these open graves are rotated so that no one receives many visits.

However, outwardly, it is much more complex and interesting.

The area around the door frames could display the names of the people buried there. Design details give clues as to where the residents come from. Images of phoenixes, eagles, and snakes suggest familiarity with cultures as far away as Greece and Egypt.

The inscriptions give an idea of ​​what life was like for the people buried here, with occupations and family names. Credit: Eric LaForge/Corbis/Getty Images

Expand horizons

Many tourists combine their trip to Hegra with visits to nearby historical sites such as Dadan and Jebel Ikma.

Two smaller but interesting architectural sites, Dadan and Jebel Ikma, are worth adding to the visit. Photo credit: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

Dubbed the “Open Library” by the Saudis, in the Jebel Ikma Valley you can see a series of inscriptions carved in Aramaic, Dadian, Talmudic, Minoan, and Nabataean, offering insight into the rich history of this region. Translations are displayed in Arabic, English, and sometimes French, as French monks were the first visitors to the area.

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Dadan, meanwhile, was an important pre-Islamic trading city, where spice sellers mingled with religious pilgrims.

Its most notable place is the Tombs of the Lions, a group of shrines decorated with carved lions as the name suggests.

In Dadan, tombs were dug into the cliffs. Credit: Matthew Starling/iStockphoto/Getty Images

It is easy to visit these three places in one day. The easiest way to book is through the website of the official tourism agency of the region, AlUla experience. Travelers in a hurry can book a two-hour tour, but there are afternoon and daytime options as well.

Don’t miss the covered outdoor kiosk near the Hegra Visitor Center, where you can practice with a small chisel carving your name or initials on pieces of stone.

The amount of effort that went into it will make you really appreciate the amount of work that the Nabataeans put into creating these masterpieces. Miniature copies of Hegra’s finest structures, made by the women who run this workshop, were also sold.

Because of the inclement weather, Saudi tourism officials have devised nightly activities around the stone, such as this light-up event. Credit: Vadim Nefedov/Alamy Stock Photo

the future

Petra is currently focusing on preserving and combating excess tourism, which gives the stone a chance to grow and attract more visitors.

According to David Graff, professor emeritus of Near Eastern history at the University of Miami, many of the archaeologists who previously led excavations at Petra are moving to Saudi Arabia, which likely means new discoveries in the coming years.

The section where huge blocks of sandstone create a canyon is another popular photo spot. Credit: robertharding/Alamy Stock Photo

It also means that more people around the world will learn about the Nabataeans and their contributions to history.

“The Nabateans were a very cosmopolitan and sophisticated culture, and I tried to emphasize that,” says Graf, who continues to publish articles and give lectures after retirement.

“We didn’t know much about the Nabataeans. My job was to let us know more about them. And that we see them not as backward and primitive, but as engaged, engaging, dynamic people, interacting with Rome and the Greek world and other cultures.”