This was one of the best experiences I have had here in Saudi Arabia. One of the most beautiful places and historically interesting sites. I have taken hundreds of photos and really could just make a photographic journey of memories. One lesson here: the light quality and surrounding landscape make even the worst photographer, great. My photos are not even that good, taken with a cell phone, however they came out professional looking. One of the perks of AlUla! The experiencealula website has amazing footage of the area. True photographic beauty! Be sure to scroll all the way down for the websites at the end. They will give you some great information.
The weather in March: Hot in the day, but cool mornings and perfect evenings. We found it fine for morning and late afternoon tours. Bring water with you wherever you go.
If you go in winter months, the days will be warm/cool, but cold mornings and evenings. The Tantora Festival happens during the winter months, however this year it was cancelled due to Covid. For more information on the Tantora Festival, scroll down to websites at the end of this post.
Tour good for all: Single, Couple, Family or Group friendly. Tour about 1 1/2 hours. There is something here for everyone! You can tell folks just want to learn, see and explore. When bringing young or old in particular, know that it is hot and kids in particular will tend to get cranky easily in the heat. Lucky there is a bus to take everyone around in A/C. If your kid doesn’t want to continue, you can just stay on the bus, and eat a snack you have brought. Our kids got a bit tired of rocks, sand and heat, as all they really wanted to do was climb the rocks! That is not allowed here.
A note for handicapped individuals: If you need a wheelchair or walker, then this is probably not the type of site for you. You can see the railway and visitor center, as there is a cobbled pathway, however the bus drops visitors off on rock and sand beyond this. There are a few parking lots along the route, but not many manmade areas.
Let’s start the tour!
Do-It-Yourself Tours: If you bought your ticket online from http://www.experiencealula.com, then you will need to take a taxi or drive yourself to the meeting area, right off the highway. For us it was about a 25 minute drive from the rented apartment we were staying at. There is parking all around the area, and food trucks onsite in case you want a snack or break. (You can bring snacks onboard the tour bus, but be clean and throw away your trash.)
The buses have the name of the site they are going to on a sign in the front window. If you are not sure which one to take, ask any of the bus drivers or tour guides there. There is not a kiosk or any structure for visitors to find out information, so utilize your guides/bus drivers. If you show late, you may need to rebook your tour. Try to arrive at the time your ticket specifies you arrive. Plenty of choice in open seating, at the time we went.
Pre-planned Experience Packages: If you have booked an “experience” through the http://www.experiencealula.com website, then you may have a different tour. Experience packages are inclusive of high end accommodations and site tickets. Most include breakfast and dinner. Tours are preplanned in a day/time schedule you follow. Some have private safari-type jeeps out to the various sites, or your family in one vehicle, etc. As tourism continues to grow in this area, it would seem mid-range accommodations would be forthcoming.
The first tourist site we visited was Hegra. It is an area of tombs carved into the rocks, and goes for miles. Some are open to the public while others are not. I had wanted to see Petra in Jordan, but Covid restrictions make it difficult at this time. This is the nearest you will get to having that experience. I believe it is the same culture that built Petra and Hegra.
What you can expect on arrival: Your bus will arrive first at the historic Hijaz Railway Station. Visitors disembark to view the reconstructed trains and read about the station. My boys climbed aboard the coal-burning engine car. Follow the cobbled path to the visitor center where you are greeted with refreshments of coffee and dates. The employees were more than happy to pose for this photo. Don’t forget to get your bottle of water here for the rest of your visit!
In case you can’t read the sign above, the description says, “Hegra on the Hijaz Railway”
“In the late 19th century, Sultan Abdulhamid II ordered the construction of a railway from Damascus (Syria) to Makkah. Known as the Hijaz Railway, construction began in 1900 and made pilgrims journeys easier and significantly reduced their traveling time. The stations at Hegra (Mada’in Salih) and AlUla, signalled the final point to which non-Muslims could travel before reaching Makkah. They opened in 1907, and in 1912 19,000 pilgrims stopped at Mada’in Salih.”
From the visitor center, you will board a second bus with fellow travelers. Most of the tourists when we visited, were Saudis, however we did meet Americans, Jordanians, British, and folks from the UAE, etc. Covid restrictions ensure your bus has plenty of space for all, as the tickets you purchase online are for a certain time. They only sell a certain amount of tickets for that time slot. The buses are new and we really enjoyed the air conditioning and listening to the guide talk in Arabic and English. Some have better English skills than others. All guides here are young people that have enthusiasm for their job and usually can answer your questions. Because there is much to still learn about all the sites in AlUla, they may not have all the history for you yet!
The Meeting Place/Political Seat: We first walked to a famous area you will see when Hegra is advertised. It is the place important gatherings and meetings took place. This area you can walk around and touch the stone. There are carvings and inscriptions that talk about religious and important political decisions made. When a person wanted to speak, they would stand inside the large carved room area and the sound would broadcast outward.
Hegra Tombs: You may be wondering whose tomb is this? I do not know the answer. There are many questions waiting to be answered by archaeology and scholarly study. AlUla is just the place to be if you want to work on a yet, not understood historical area! Here is something I found online from UNESCO.org. “The Archaeological Site of Al-Hijr (Madâin Sâlih) is the first World Heritage property to be inscribed in Saudi Arabia. Formerly known as Hegra it is the largest conserved site of the civilization of the Nabataeans south of Petra in Jordan. It features well-preserved monumental tombs with decorated facades dating from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD.” To read more about Hegra, please visit their online site: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1293/
One suggestion for future tourism at this site: Please let the visitors into one tomb! Speaking with a woman who had visited this site 10 years ago, she was allowed into the tomb areas and to touch the rock, etc. Now you can only stand outside and not really get a good view of the inner area. There really isn’t much to see but carved out floor and sand, however it is just a nice feeling to be able to go inside. We came all this way!
The closest comparison I can make to AlUla, is what I have seen. In the US, the state of Utah has a few National and State Parks, such as Goblin Valley, Arches Canyon and Zion. If you have ever visited those, then you can have some idea of what it is like here. However here there are date palm farms, tons of sand, etc. Your sightline goes on for miles and the mountains have no end!
See what our next destination is in the afternoon. Here it is on the blog: https://datepalmsncamels.com/2021/05/17/alula-old-town-march-2021-2-of-3/
Where can I find out more information?: Here are the best websites!
To find out what is going on with the AlUla project, click the site below. Packed full of great photos and information and well as news.
Flora of AlUla and restoration of areas here. Check out the below link to read about the wonderful work being done. “Native Species for AlUla Landscaping”. It is a readable document that can also be found in the above website.
The Middle East Institute has a wonderful write up of the AlUla region. There is a lot to read and learn. I haven’t read it all, but need to return to do that! You will enjoy this one!
This last website is THE website you can book all your “experiences” or tickets through. The most used website for us in planning our trip. Fantastic videos and photos.