The second site “Old Town” is a continuation of the first day in AlUla. We had booked our tickets for 3:30 tour in the afternoon. That gave us a lunch break of about 3 hours, between visiting Hegra in the morning. We again drove to the meeting place and parked our car, to gather on the tour bus for Old Town. We unfortunately arrived 10 minutes late, and the bus had just taken off without us. They kindly had a taxi waiting, which drove us free of charge to the Old Town site, where the tour was awaiting our arrival. Old Town site is located only about 10 minutes from the meeting place, so for the taxi it was easy.
This is the only site that is “in town”, literally. You will drive through this part of town a lot, especially if you rent an apartment space, villa, etc. It is important to note that if you want to visit this site, you must purchase your ticket online to get in. It looks like you could just drive there on your own and enter, however without a ticket and guide, you will be denied entry.
Here is a short video showing the surrounding landscape, going to the Old Town site in the morning.
Photography: Take all the photos you want. This is the only site where you get a feel for the homes as they once stood, during the Dadan period. 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.
Tour good for all: Single, Couple, Family or Group friendly. Tour about 1 1/2 hours. There is something here for everyone! Kids found this one interesting, and had fun going between homes. They also loved climbing to the castle lookout. Step back in time, where families lived next to families, in communities with maze-like street design. Easy to walk on sand and dirt ground. We found the wind blows the dust around in the air, especially in the house area where the tour first begins. We all have to wear masks for Covid precaution, so that does help a bit.
Individuals needing assistance: If you need a wheelchair, walker, or stroller, then this is the type of site for you. You can pretty much take your time here and follow the tour as it progresses. There may be a small incline in the house area. The part that is not suitable is the climb to the castle lookout. Have your friend/family take photos or video to show you what it looks like from up there.
Let’s start the tour!
What you can expect on arrival: Once you take the short bus ride from the meeting place, the bus drops you in front of a courtyard area. There is a table with dates, coffee and water. Here is where you will meet your tour guide. Our tour guide was excellent. She gives the same tour 4 times a day. Her English was great and she answered all our questions.
The Old Town sundial begins this sightseeing tour. The photo below shows the sundial structure in an old square of the town. There are corresponding rocks placed into the ground where you could tell what time it was, by the sun’s shadow, figuring from the point of the tower. Farther down that same wall, the guide showed us an area that had date paste put on the bricks, to hold posters or announcements. I found that practical and impressive that people used to use dates as glue!
Summer and Winter houses: We began to walk through the inner street, and entered the ruins of the winter residences of the Old Town inhabitants. Each family had two homes. The side open to tours presently, are the winter homes. The summer homes are across the street, and the community would move from one to the other depending on the season.
Reconstructed Homes: Built of mud bricks, palm fronds and wooden beams., every house had the same layout. A bottom living room had an area for the sheep or goat kept for milk, along with storage room in the back. Climb the stairway to the second floor that was used as a kitchen and bathroom. The only windows were on the second floor. I am not sure about sleeping arrangement, but I think they were also on the second floor, over the street. I was a bit confused on how the bathroom functioned on the second floor. Much of the town is in ruins, however you get a good sense of what it could have been like. Setting out props up such as rugs, pillows, etc. help the imagination.
The Streets: The tour guide did tell us that if a stranger entered the area, perhaps a robber, it would be hard for them to find the way out and escape. Each neighborhood had streets that ran into each other in a maze-like fashion, so unless you knew where to go, you would get lost, or caught. Since there are no windows on the bottom floor of the homes, it would also be dark, unless there were open fires in the streets?
Interior design: Archaeologists are still digging at this site. We still have much to learn about the people who built this area. There are some painted walls with geometric designs. Here is one that shows household objects such as a door key, teapots and cookware. There will probably be more to see in the future, as more is discovered and uncovered at this site.
When we finished with the neighborhood tour, our guide led us down the street. We entered an area with steps that led us on a climb up to the top of a “castle” lookout. There are many steps, and my boys perked up at the chance to see who could get to the top fastest. It was a windy day, so we all watched our steps as we climbed up. There are about 3 landing areas you can rest on if you need to. You don’t have to get to the top to have beautiful views. The scenery all around is just amazing! We had a clear, sunny day with wind and clouds. If it wasn’t so windy I would have taken a video. Most of the time my hands were busy holding down my abaya and keeping my scarf from taking off into the wind!
Hear ye, News!: Our guide told us that if one section of town had news to tell the other side, then one person would climb up at the “crossover” area, walk a few steps, and yell it over to the neighbors. That seems like an efficient way to spread information, when you have rocky areas between you!
Historic Information Markers: At the top lookout, there are several plaques that hang on the wall. I though to myself, “finally some more information on the history of this place”. It’s like an award for making the climb, although this info. should also be accessible down below. There is one plaque that really made an impression on me. It is the one fact that I have taken away from being in AlUla. A poet who was from AlUla, and about to die in Egypt did something special. He sent his camel with a man, back to AlUla so that the man could recite poems, so that AlUla would know what had become of the poet. This one fact keeps me pondering the effect that AlUla has on the heart and soul. It is truly a uniquely beautiful place. I have only been to a few places in Saudi, however this place immediately felt like home.
“Jamil ibn Mamar was a poet of the Umayyad era. He came from the tribe of Udhrah which lived in Wadi-al-Qura (Wadi al-Ula). When Jamil was about to die in Egypt, he remembered Wadi al-Qura and was saddened that Buthaynah would not know what had become of him. So he gave his camel and all it carried to a man, and gave him his cloak to wear, and requested him to recite some poetry near Buthaynah’s dwelling reflecting his deep attachment to Wadi al-Qura.”
“The traveler Ibn Battutah visited al_Ula at the commencement of the 8th/14th century and wrote about the town and its people, saying that “al-Ula is a large and fine village with orchards date palms and water. The pilgrimage caravan stays there for four days to resupply and wash. Pilgrims leave any excess belongings they might have them with the townspeople who are known for their trustworthiness and only take with them what they need for the journey.” (not sure which century, as 8 and 14 are a bit apart)
“The Kingdoms of Dedan and Lihyan: Dedan is an old name for the oasis of al-Ula as well as the name of a kingdom which ruled al-Ula and much of northwest Arabia during the 7th century BCE. The kingdom of Lihyan succeeded Dedan in ruling the same area with its capital at al-Ula from the 6th (or 4th?) to the 2nd centuries BCE.”
Once you descend back again to street level, the tour is done. At this point you may need some refreshments, or wish to stick around this area. In that case, continue walking down the road and follow the turn up to the left, where you will see a large entrance to “Old Town Market“. There is no entry fee here. Just show your Tawakalna App to enter.
If you want to return to your car first, as we did, then board the bus back to the meeting place, and drive your car back to this area. There is on street parking. If for some reason it is crowded, then there are designated parking areas for Old Town Market, however they are farther away from the entrance.
Old Town Market: This is the tourist area where you can peruse items for sale at the many stands along the walkway. There are rugs, home decorations, pottery, art, jewelry, spices and more. Prices tend to be higher here, so always bargain if you really see something you want.
Easily accessible for wheelchairs, strollers and walkers. One of the best places to hang out in AlUla at night time. Locals and tourists intermingle beneath the lights, sheltered by the mountain in the background. Our favorite place was a dessert cafe on a corner, down a few streets from this area.
Visitor Center: The only one we saw the whole time we were in AlUla. It really doesn’t offer much, but bottled water. There are no brochures, however there is a very stylized short movie about experiencing AlUla with models riding horses through the desert, etc. More of a fashion show than educational. In the future I’m sure it will be more of a proper visitor center.
Dining: Many restaurants set out in traditional style, are along the walkway. They are steeply priced, so bring your credit card! If you are just looking for some tea, coffee and dessert, then enjoy the outdoor seating and watch passersby. This area is still accommodating new businesses, so this coming fall might find more choices for you!
Archaeology Dig: This area is also under archaeological excavation. In fact I saw what appeared to be foreigners (dressed like Indiana Jones), pondering a ditch with house ruins in the background. I had a hunch they were an archaeology team, which was right. In fact the 3 men and 1 woman team were from various countries, and part of the Royal Commission team set up together by the Saudi government and France. I chatted with them briefly, and was interested to learn what they were finding out about this site. They said that not much has been studied at all in AlUla. It is a great opportunity for future archaeologists, as they are starting from scratch. They expressed their desire that new generations of archaeologists would come from Saudi students, however the progress is slow.
The ditch they were pondering over, was a few feet below the main ancient street. They were wondering why some of the bricks were vertically placed. Perhaps a wall had fallen in, or there had been another structure before the town had been built over it. So much to discover! (This reminded me of an archaeology class I had taken at University. It was pre-Roman culture, where people had dirt floors in their homes, and garbage was thrown on the ground. They would throw dirt over it to make a new floor.)
You can read more about what is being discovered, in the Arab News article, “International archaeological team ready to discover secrets of AlUla”, 16, May 2020, and the Saudi government website below:
Night life: As the sun set, more people arrived, and the locals came out to walk this area. Being set against the mountains, it is a nice area to just relax. A Saudi student who was in a master’s program, wanted to survey my thoughts on the area and transportation. She wanted to know what I thought about the traffic, and if other modes of transportation would be helpful. For instance horse and buggy, scooters, etc., and if it was more important to have efficient transportation or different modes. I said efficiency is better, and the slower pace of traffic that already exists, with all the speed bumps, kept a steady flow. You can already rent bikes to tour around. Scooters would be tough with all the speed bumps. I suggested something like a trolley car, where people could get off and on at different stops. We’ll see what is in store for future transportation!
Street conditions: When walking around, just be aware that some areas are better than others. There are broken cobbles, or sidewalks with uneven terrain. Here is a native milkweed plant, growing near a doorway on the sidewalk, along with some rubbish. Notice the aphids! For the most part, AlUla has beautifully planted median strip areas, all along the highways.
If you want to see our morning tour that we started at 10am, check out the blog: https://datepalmsncamels.com/2021/05/15/al-ula-in-2-1-2-days-march-2021-1-of-3-many-videos/
Here are a few websites that will help in your vacation planning.
This first 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.
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!