Al-Ula — Romancing a forgotten past

Al-Ula Castle.
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Updated 19 December 2019

Al-Ula — Romancing a forgotten past

Since reading William Dalrymple’s “City of Djinns,” I have been intrigued by travel to places full of the whispers of times gone by. Visiting ancient sites allows one to imagine the kind of life the inhabitants may have lived along with their dreams, their aspirations, their creativity and their art.  

The rebirth of AlUla
Hegra, ancient city of the Nabataeans in Saudi Arabia’s historic AlUla Valley, is emerging from the mists of time to take its rightful place as one of the wonders of the world

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It is not in buildings of concrete and glass that you find meaning; rather it is in the alleyways of old towns, the forts and castles, the mountains and the trees, the huge sand deserts. They have lasted when people turned to ash and dust. They know the world as we never will.
This present tale is of the northwestern part of Saudi Arabia. Al-Ula is a small town some 300 km from Madinah. While many people have heard of the Madain Saleh site, few know about this small archaeological wonder very close to it. It is accessible via a small detour between Tabuk and Madain Saleh. Though relatively unknown to tourists, the site has been subjected to intense excavation by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTNH) and has attracted attention from experts from all over the world.
The excavations are largely out of bounds unless one possesses a special permit SCTNH, which is not difficult to acquire. My husband and I did not have one so we were not able to visit the ancient sites. Nevertheless, what little was open to tourists was fascinating enough to prompt me to write, in order to encourage people to explore this ancient wonder.
The oasis of Al-Ula was known in ancient history as the capital of two ancient Arab kingdoms — the Kingdom of Lihyan and the Kingdom of Dedan which preceded it. Dedan, an ancient name for Al-Ula, later gave way to the Lihyanite kingdom from the Lihyan tribe in that area. The Lihyanites had their own script which was one among many North Arabian oasis scripts. Archaeological evidence indicates their influence extended to cities as far away as Tayma and Dedan (Al Ula). The Lihyanite dynasty ruled for around 200 years or more at Khuraybah which is one of the archaeological sites. According to inscriptions found at Harran in modern-day Turkey, the last Babylonian king led a military campaign which conquered the three most important settlements of the region — Tayma, Dedan and Yathrib (Madinah) in about 552 BCE. The more recent Islamic history is of especial interest to visitors to this area.

Places to visit in Al-Ula
• The Old City — The old city is said to have developed in the 13th century CE and is divided into two districts by the strategically placed Al-Ula Castle, which predates the old city by almost a millennium. To the north of the castle is the Ashqaiq district and to the south, the Al-Halaf district. A walk in the alleys of the town takes one back in time and one can almost imagine the life of the people who once lived here with streets lit in the evening by lanterns. Most houses are accessible to visitors and one can step inside to view what the floor plan of a house built 700 years ago was like. Though some houses were built with stones from the ancient Lihyanite ruins which are said to bear inscriptions, we did not come across any of them. Since we were there on a Friday, the tourist information office was closed. There were not many visitors besides us but we got to explore the town in great detail and take many photographs; the two mosques were especially interesting places.
• Al-Ula Castle — This is an ancient castle which may not seem very grand to those who have visited such structures in other countries. It was built on a sandstone promontory in about the 6th century BCE and rebuilt several times over the century. It was built of quarried sandstone from nearby hills and many of its foundation stones are from the original 2,600-year-old construction. The castle walls are well preserved as compared to the later structures built around it. A climb to the top requires little effort for people in good physical shape and the view from the top is delightful.
• Al-Khuraybah (Jabal Khuraybah) — This is where the ruins of the ancient town of Dedan/Lihyan were found. It is a fortress built on and around hills. It contains tombs cut inside rocks at the foot of the mountains, the most famous being the Al-Asad Lion Tomb — due to two lions carved at its entrance. It also contains a building which archaeologists consider to be a temple with a bath-like structure 4 meters in diameter and 2.5 meters deep, possibly used in religious rituals. Several inscriptions are on the walls, the most notable is the inscription with names of a family of devotees of the Lihyanite deity. Due to ongoing excavations, this site is currently accessible only to those who have a permit from the SCTNH.
• Umm Ad-Daraj (The Mother of Steps/Staircases) — The is a series of steps built on a hill in the archaeological site. The steps lead to three sandstone structures, a slab of which seems to be a sacrificial altar with inscriptions in the Lihyanite script. Again, this site was closed for visitors without a permit.
• Al-Ula Museum — We were told that this small museum has intriguing archaeological items on display as well as information on the culture, flora and fauna of the area. The museum is open Sunday to Thursday from 8 a.m. to 2.30 p.m.
• Natural Rock formations — The sandstone promontories and rock formations are wonders to behold. The rock formations are believed to have been formed by the same geological processes which formed the Grand Canyon in the US. One shape in particular is strikingly similar to the silhouette of an elephant, the famous Elephant Rock, and is a favorite spot for tourists.
For places to stay, one can find furnished apartments. The Al-Ula Arac Resort is a place in the huge sandstone mountains. It is the only resort in town and it is where we camped for the night. The sunset and morning views are spectacular from your private patio and a small landscaped garden is very inviting for evening tea. If you are the camping type, there are plenty of opportunities for you to go into Bedouin mode but be sure to be equipped for such an excursion.
Al-Ula is a place which gives us a glimpse of the life and culture of an ancient people. However little it may be, these people did leave a mark on the history of Saudi Arabia and it is only fitting that we honor their memory by spreading awareness.

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The rebirth of AlUla
Hegra, ancient city of the Nabataeans in Saudi Arabia’s historic AlUla Valley, is emerging from the mists of time to take its rightful place as one of the wonders of the world

Enter


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How to travel post-COVID-19

Updated 07 July 2020

How to travel post-COVID-19

  • As borders begin to re-open in the Middle East and around the world, here is how to deal with traveling in a post-pandemic world

DUBAI: When it comes to the Middle East, July seems to be a marker. From Bahrain to Egypt, Morocco to Dubai, borders are tentatively opening, with plans to jumpstart tourism a sign of better days to come. But still, a question hangs heavy. Even if we are now allowed to travel, will the experience ever really be the same again?

From where you can go to how much it will cost, what you can do there to a fear of going in the first place, the very essence of travel stands on the precipice, and we are all at risk of a lesser life experience because of it.

For Dubai-based, Euronews Travel TV presenter Sarah Hedley-Hymers, the biggest repercussion is the resulting knowledge hit. “Traveling makes me hyper-attentive,” she said. “The newness of places stimulates all the senses. I’m like Bradley Cooper in the movie ‘Limitless,’ absorbing different destinations like a sponge, expanding with the knowledge of it all, energized by the novelty. Not traveling feels like a protracted comedown.”

But while COVID-19 may have grounded the first half of 2020, the green shoots of recovery are slowly creeping through the cracks. Tentatively, travel is once more an option, but if you are planning post-pandemic travel, preparation is paramount.


Where can I travel to?
June saw much of Europe slowly re-open its doors, albeit with entry generally restricted to EU nationals or returning residents. In the Middle East, July 1 saw airports open in Egypt and Lebanon, along with tourism facilities in Turkey. Dubai will welcome visitors from July 7, Morocco from July 11, and Bahrain hopes to re-open the King Fahd Causeway — and its border with Saudi Arabia — by the end of the month.

Tourists from around the world stepped foot in the UAE for the first time in nearly four months on July 7. Shutterstock

The re-openings are fluid, with plans changing daily. Best advice? Check carefully ahead of any trip. There is a good chance that restrictions will still apply, both with the country you are heading to and the one you are departing from.


Will air travel be more expensive post-COVID-19?
As fleets have lay grounded for months, the big fear was that airlines would have to charge extortionate fares in order to recoup losses. Thankfully, the opposite might be true.

“With regards to the cost of travel, views currently vary and it’s difficult to accurately predict airline strategies,” said Ciarán Kelly, managing director of the Middle East & Africa Network at FCM Travel Solutions. “But some people expect fares to stay low as airlines struggle to get customers back on board.


“Whether it’s a free checked bag on your flight, discount vouchers — as we’ve seen already from Etihad — free wifi or other incentives, airlines are going to have to do everything they can to get people back into the skies.


“Of course on the flip side, faced with huge losses to make up and potentially emptier planes, they could go the other way and raise ticket prices. But even if that happens, it’s also likely they’ll adopt more lenient change and cancelation policies, as has been seen over the last few weeks.”


What if I am scared to travel?
A perhaps unexpected repercussion of COVID-19 on travel is a fear of staying safe. A recent poll by Mower, an independent marketing, advertising and public relations agency in the US, found that only 16 percent of Americans would be comfortable flying again once restrictions were eased. For Reem Shaheen, counseling psychologist at Dubai’s Be Psychology Center, the key to allaying fear is preparation.
“Apart from concerns over the virus, the overwhelming worry at the moment is access. Most people are struggling to not only figure out a travel destination with open borders, but also if they’re able to return to their country of residency,” she said.

Most people are struggling to not only figure out a travel destination with open borders, but also if they’re able to return to their country of residency. Shutterstock


“I believe that the fuel of this fear lies in the feeling of helplessness. The best way to manage that is by gathering as much information as possible. This could be by knowing where the hospitals are, preparing for a safe return to your country of residence, or simply learning the protocols on social distancing of the country that you’re heading to. Working to gain control over situations within your power will help reduce the fear and anxiety triggered by traveling during the pandemic.”


When should I travel again?
While open borders might signify an invitation to travel, the reality is that things might take a little longer before the world is comfortable in transit once more. But while your travel experience might now be a little different, you would hope that the opportunity to embrace new experiences will once again prove too good to resist.

Travel equates to more than the sum of its parts, not just the act of being there but the attributes it brings. Patience, acceptance, kindness and curiosity — those are the traits that you pick up on the road, and without the ability to move freely, we are all missing out. Plus, as Hedley-Hymers said: “If nothing else, it’s always nice to find a corner of the world that doesn’t have a McDonald’s on it.”