Dating back around 2,400 years, Hegra was once a thriving metropolis and the southernmost city of the Nabataean Kingdom.
The Nabataeans were desert-dwelling nomads and master merchants, directing camel-drawn caravans laden with fragrant spices such as peppercorn and ginger, precious incense like frankincense and myrrh and fine materials including ebony, silk and cotton, through Arabia and on to the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia and Africa. They were master craftspeople, who carved a monolithic city from nature itself.
Scattered throughout the desert in the Hegra area are over 110 surviving tombs and structures, intricately carved out of the naturally-shaped sandstone rocks which sprout out of the arid terrain.
RAIL TO NOWHERE
There are two main options for touring: the hop-on, hop-off coach tour and the Vintage Land Rover Tour. Both take two hours but the latter has a maximum of seven guests, giving it a more exclusive feel.
On the Land Rover tours, visitors will meet their local ‘Rawi’ storyteller, who brings the sites to life with their expert knowledge.
First stop is the Tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza. This tomb is Hegra’s largest, reaching almost 72 feet tall.
It has been left unfinished, with textured chisel marks fringing its lower third. Locals sometimes call it Qasr al-Farid (meaning the ‘Lonely Castle’ in English) because of its distance to the other tombs.
Rising out of the desert like a cluster of crumbling mushrooms is Jabal Ithlib. Here, visitors can walk through the Siq, a natural and spectacularly narrow passage through dizzyingly high rock – catch it at the perfect moment when the sun sets, its rays piercing the passage and creating an amazing photo opportunity.
Next to it is the Diwan, a perfectly square rock chamber, nine metres high and 12 deep, unfeasibly carved out of the mountain with just a hammer and chisel and used as a banqueting hall.
ENTER THE NECROPOLIS
Jabal means mountain in Arabic and each named mountain in AlUla represents a cluster of tombs cut into the rock. At Jabal AlBanat, one of the largest, there are 33 skilfully carved into the towering sandstone hillside. This particular one is also known as Women’s Mountain, because all the tombs were owned by or commissioned for women. Ornate columns and decoratively carved doors lead into surprisingly bare chambers.
There are a further 18 more recently excavated tombs, to explore at Jabal AlAhmar. But the poster star of Hegra is the Tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza. Sitting in a single but monumental rock rising out of the desert, the so-called ‘Lonely Castle’ has a tiny doorway that leads to the grave of an army commander who died in battle.
There are many astounding rock formations around Hegra and many give America’s west a run for its money. The most photographed is the unsettlingly human profile of Face Rock – it even has a hole where the eye would be.
The Hegra Rock Art Trail guides visitors around Hegra’s mystical carvings, left thousands of years ago by locals and passing travellers. The 60-90-minute tour, usually available between November and March, is on foot along a 1,500-metre elevated track offering breath-taking vistas. An atmospheric evening version lends the help of torches to search for hidden inscriptions.
BECOME AN ALULA SPECIALIST
Extensive training material is available at alulaspecialist.com, covering historic sights, accommodations, sustainability, experiences and events taking place in AlUla. This one-stop shop for travel agents includes three training modules, a series of seven new short training videos, as well as imagery, agent perks, a directory of product suppliers and more.