See the secrets of the sands in AlUla
Talk about an architectural contrast. Deep in the desert, where sandstone outcrops have been shaped by the winds of time, are two architectural masterpieces, one ancient, the other modern. Just 20 minutes from the Unesco World Heritage -listed city of Hegra, where nomadic Nabateans carved ornate tombs from the rock in the first century BC, lies the Maraya Concert Hall, an enormous, strikingly modern reflective cube.
It was AlUla’s desert oasis on the incense trading route that prompted the Nabateans to build Hegra, with its 111 rock tombs. While that’s not on the same scale as Jordan’s Nabatean necropolis of Petra, Hegra’s tombs are in better condition and are much less visited, so you don’t have hordes of other visitors ruining your holiday snaps. And you’re going to want to take a lot of pictures; Hegra has serious wow factor in the form of massive monoliths rising starkly from the desert floor.
The biggest of these is a sandstone outcrop 21 metres high that holds a single unfinished tomb, that of Lihyan son of Kuza. Nearby, Jabal Al Banat, or Girls’ Mountain, has 29 tombs, most for women. Here, the carvings above the entrances show what a cosmopolitan lot the trading Nabateans were: the five steps above the doorway symbolising the way to heaven show influences from Mesopotamia; the shelf cornicing is from Egypt; and the head of Medusa warning against destroying the tomb from Greece.
A short drive brings you slap bang into the 21st century, this time gazing at the Maraya Concert Hall, shimmering in the desert sun. Built in 2019, with 3,000 panes of tempered glass covering 9,740 square metres, it is the world’s largest reflective building according to the Guinness Book of Records. It rises, mirage-like in the desert, its sides beautifully mirroring the surrounding red rock formations.
AlUla’s wonders don’t stop here though. Stroll through the labyrinthine streets of AlUla Old Town, with 900 medieval mudbrick houses enclosed within the city walls and enjoy lunch in a desert oasis amid amazing rock formations. Or take a 30-minute helicopter tour to see it all from the air, as well as Elephant Rock, a sandstone monolith climbing three storeys into the Saudi Arabian sky, and the Lion Tombs of Dadan, the old capital of the Dadan and Lihyan kingdoms.
It may be a long drive from the Red Sea to AlUla, but my goodness, it’s worth the journey.