Amid a vast and enigmatic monumental landscape, forgotten kingdoms, and layers of history, archaeologists are only just beginning to reveal the secrets of this heritage jewel in north-west Saudi Arabia. As winter approaches and international travel allows, archaeological work is resuming in AlUla, a historically rich region that has been relatively untouched in comparison to similar places. In what has become one of the world’s most active archaeological explorations, experts are beginning to fill in missing links in our understanding of the region’s human history with new discoveries – and further announcements are expected soon.
AlUla, in north-west Saudi Arabia, is a region of deserts and arid mountains. Yet, crucially, amid this hard landscape is a fertile oasis valley that has long sustained life and the wider area has drawn people and civilisations for more than 200,000 years. As a result, while AlUla is best known for the Nabataean tombs of Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site, over 27,000 other archaeological sites have been identified within its borders with more set to be discovered and recorded in the coming months.
“North-west Arabia has often been overlooked as a place of cultural and civilisational importance in and of itself,” explains Dr Rebecca Foote, Director of Archaeology & Cultural Heritage Research at RCU, “For many years, its importance has been eclipsed by the nearby Fertile Crescent, riverine Mesopotamia, and Egypt, and the marine civilisations along the Red Sea. AlUla was seen as just a region people passed through. However, we’re now learning that AlUla was more than just a place to transit, it was a true nexus and a home for complex communities across thousands of years.”
Archaeologists, conservators, photogrammeters, and other specialists are returning to AlUla, following the Covid-19 lockdown, and resuming their fieldwork. Despite the geographical size of AlUla (22,561 sq km) and the scope of heritage contained within, it is only in the last few years that AlUla has seen more than limited archaeological exploration. That has changed thanks to archaeologists of the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) – the governmental body charged with developing and administering the region – and the teams it organizes, tapping experts from Saudi and international universities, research institutes, museums and other professionals, as well as the French teams that the Agence française pour le développement d’AlUla (AFALULA), a key partner, brings.
Thanks to the recent work, this “jewel in the heritage crown of Saudi Arabia” is beginning to fill in the missing links of the region's development and the generations that have crossed it, and whose descendants still inhabit it. And, as 2021 approaches, more of AlUla’s heritage treasures will be revealed to the world through television documentaries, the touring Wonders of Arabia exhibition (previously hosted at the Institut du monde Arabe in Paris), and the re-opening of AlUla itself. Visitors will soon be able to journey through time and across one of the world’s largest archaeological sites, experiencing a landscape that has been inhabited for over 200,000 years.
Early human habitation
RCU’s discoveries have established that prehistoric peoples of AlUla hunted and grazed in AlUla in a greener land than today. New findings in the mysterious, vast, and previously unexplored, monumental landscape they and generations after left behind suggest their culture was far more complex than once thought.
Using satellite imagery, aerial photography, ground survey and old-fashioned digging, archaeologists can now appreciate the sheer number of stone structures built in the late prehistoric period (circa 5200-1200 BCE) across AlUla’s lowlands, uplands and harrat (lava flows). The size, locations, and numbers of these monuments point to a degree of community cooperation previously undetected, and evidence that some of these sites were used for ritual may change our view of these prehistoric peoples’ interior life altogether.
One of these structure types, which seems to one of the oldest, has been named ‘mustatil’ (rectangle, in Arabic), some of which are hundreds of metres long. Another style of structures is referred to as ‘pendant.’ These usually feature a ringed cairn main burial with a ‘tail’ of associated structures (that resembles jewellery from the air, hence the name). Exact details of the use of these constructions remains elusive; the people of this time left no writing, and excavations have unearthed surprisingly few tools, pottery or other small items that might indicate their specific usage.
The purpose of pendants seems clearly to have been funerary, tombs as well as memorial cenotaphs. But with the graves mostly disturbed long ago – perhaps only soon after the burials – the identities and significance of those who once lay within remains unknown. Were these local leaders? Religious figures? Or were they tombs reused, the bones within the large main ringed burial moved out to the smaller structures with each new generation? We may never know for sure, but the location of many of these funerary complexes on mountain tops overlooking the lands of AlUla does suggest the people interacting with and appreciating the world around them. By affording their ancestors such vaulted locations, they may have been appreciating the natural beauty of their home territories – not just a landscape through which they were passing.
For the mustatils, the findings from the first excavations which are currently being analysed, are leading experts to believe they held rituals for the people of AlUla, but what those rituals were remain a mystery. Others may also have marked the boundaries of territories - the search for evidence continues.
“Our investigation of these mustatils, pendants, and other prehistoric structures are giving us a tantalizing glimpse into the region around 7,000 years ago and for several millennia thereafter,” explains Dr Foote. “We could be looking at early expressions of ownership and property, if indeed the structures functioned primarily or secondarily as boundary markers – in keeping with a people grazing herds in addition to hunting wild animals. We’re only just beginning our own journey through time by identifying, recording and collecting datable samples from these sites to gain a chronology of this prehistory. By conducting intensive survey and targeted excavations at some of the more significant among these numerous sites we are gaining great insights about function too. This broad targeted approach has not been undertaken before in AlUla, and we’re raising even more questions as we do so. But what is certain is that we can now recognise AlUla as among the oldest monumental landscapes in the world. For its inhabitants, AlUla was a home – a place of ancestors, of natural resources and of beauty – and these people’s lives were more complex than we had previously imagined.”
The early North Arabian Kingdoms
Over 4,000 years after the peoples of the mustatil and yet still over 2,000 years ago, the ancient North Arabian Kingdoms of Dadan and Lihyan controlled AlUla from circa 900 BCE to 100 CE. It was a crossroads of trading routes, bringing incense from southern Arabia to Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. AlUla was vital as both a place where traders and other travellers could replenish food and water and as a gateway for the precious aromatics to reach beyond Arabia.
Dr Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, Associate Professor of Archaeology at King Saud University and Acting Director of Museums and Exhibitions at RCU, and the team he co-directs, are excavating several key areas within the site of Dadan, including tombs and a newly discovered residential area, to answer a number of questions about these mysterious vanished kingdoms. How and when precisely did each kingdom rise to power? What were their major achievements? What was the relationship between the two? Were they one people and one land but ruled by two separate consecutive kingdoms? Or were they separate peoples and kingdoms? And, perhaps most fascinating of all, what caused the Lihyanite Kingdom to so abruptly disappear and when?
“It may have been an earthquake or another natural disaster, but we don’t have any confirmed evidence yet” suggests Dr Alsuhaibani, “and the Lihyanite people left to integrate with another people elsewhere. Or it may have been a political shift, begun or exacerbated by the arrival of the Nabataeans possibly from the north. But if it was due to the Nabataean arrival, that raises even more questions: We know some of the Lihyanite peoples continued to live under the Nabataeans; their dialects come through in inscriptions and design details from Lihyanite funerary architecture is repeated in the Nabataean monuments. Yet the Nabataeans normally detailed chronicles of their own history and say almost nothing about the Lihyanite Kingdom. Ultimately, learning more about this long-lasting and far-reaching civilisation – one of the forgotten powers of Arabia – could change our understanding of the entire region.”
As gateways and gatekeepers, these kingdoms held power and influence across the region, Dr Alsuhaibani, RCU’s expert on this period, explains further: “All the evidence we have so far points to these kingdoms, the Lihyanite Kingdom in particular, being regional powers. Dadan is mentioned in the Bible and an Aramaic inscription attests to it being an equal to the powerful Kingdom of Saba (popularly known as Sheba) in the south of the Arabian peninsula. The Lihyanite Kingdom was one of the largest of its time, stretching from Medina in the south up to Aqaba in modern day Jordan in the north. Other regional kingdoms maintained embassies there and people made offerings to the kingdom’s gods in temples beyond its borders. The two kingdoms lasted around 900 years – almost three times as long as the famous Nabataean Kingdom in AlUla – and yet, we know almost nothing else about these two kingdoms, in particular their rise and fall. We’re really taking our first steps here.”
The Islamic period
After the fall of the Lihyanite Kingdom, AlUla became the principal southern city of the Nabataean Kingdom, inscriptions attesting to the movement of families and individuals from Petra to the AlUla and also give us the proper name of Hegra, before the arrival of the Romans who named the region Arabia Petraea (“rocky Arabia”). In 622 CE, the birth of Islam brought another sea-change.
Arabia suddenly became the cradle of a new religion and a new culture with it. AlUla’s history was already a part of this through its place in the pre-Islamic evolution of the Hijazi Arabic script (itself influenced by the Nabataean script) that later carried Islam’s message, but its present and future rapidly became a vital part of the new Islamic world as a stopping point on the pilgrimage to Mecca, at Qurh. Thanks to its importance on pilgrim routes, this city in AlUla was an important part of the early Islamic empire. Indeed, one early commander, Musa bin Nusayr, after whom a nearby citadel is commonly known, achieved fame as one of the leaders of the Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, in 711 CE, being the first ‘Waly’ (governor) of the new territory of AlAndalus, between 714 and 716.
AlUla Old Town followed Qurh to become the vital commercial centre of the AlUla Valley after the 12th century CE, drawing on its fertile soils, abundant water, and links from the Red Sea into the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, as well as links north to south. AlUla Old Town flourished and its people with it. Even now, its centuries-old mosques stand as a testament to the town’s importance to the birth, spread, and vibrant life of Islam.
RCU is in the process of conserving AlUla Old Town, working with the community to understand the original construction methods used there and recording oral histories passed down through generations of AlUla inhabitants, the long-term custodians of AlUla’s history, to learn more about how the town functioned and its people lived.
Michael Jones, Cultural Heritage Conservation Manager at RCU, has been working with the community and international experts on this conservation: “AlUla’s Old Town really is a time capsule. Walking its streets one can literally see the layers of history - one building built out of or into another, the town’s fabric being rebuilt, refreshed, and revitalized every generation or so. And as well as the more distant history, we’re also discovering how people lived up to the point they left Old Town in the late 1970s and early 1980s from the items they left behind – sewing machines, tea pots, and coins from the early days of the modern Saudi kingdom for example – and with the oral history that we’re recording we’re able to re-establish that missing link between modern AlUla and its past.”
Today – The missing links between us and our ancestors
With the community at the centre and so closely involved in this way, AlUla is truly a place where history and heritage are coming back to life. And that is a key goal of RCU’s heritage and development work in AlUla: growing the region as a “living museum” where visitors can encounter the different civilisations and cultures who have called the place home – or just passed through – and left their mark. Indeed, RCU is preparing to launch its Living Museum website, an online portal to AlUla’s past.
By simply clicking a web-link visitors to AUla will be able to see these missing links for themselves – even if they cannot yet visit in person. This Living Museum resource will also be a way for RCU’s conservation and archaeological teams to keep the public updated of their new findings, once they have passed through academic review.
“Conservation and Archaeology are about maintaining that chain of human knowledge and experience,” says Michael Jones, reflecting on RCU’s work. “Our work in AlUla is an amazing example of that. We’re looking at more than 200,000 years of human experience here. We’re filling in gaps – those missing links – to connect us to that past, but our work is also about connecting with the future. The knowledge we’re gaining now and sharing through papers, museums, and in conversations with the community will also belong to future generations. These future generations will look back on what we’re doing, just as we’re looking back, and I believe that all this will be as vital to them as looking back on our past is for us.”