The modern city of an ancient oasis
Al-Ula is the capital of the governorate of the same name that is part of Madinah Province. It is located in the Wadi Al-Qura, a valley oriented north-south between, on the west, the lava fields of the Harrat 'Uwayrid, and the sandstone massif of the Jibal Ath-Thumayid. Its underground water resources and its strategic location along the frankincense road meant this valley played a major role in the history of the Arabian Peninsula.
An anciently populated oasis
Human occupation of the Arabian Peninsula may be as old as 1 million years and may have been continuous until today despite the changes in climate involving long periods of desertification. But whereas some places where life used to thrive thousands of years ago, like Rajajil and Shuwaymis, were abandoned when the humid climate was replaced by drought, some places benefiting from underground water hosted human populations during the dry periods. The valley containing the modern city of Al-Ula is one of them.
Some ancient carvings found on the cliffs on both eastern and western sides of Al-Ula show that this area was inhabited at least from the Bronze Age (3rd and 2nd millennia BCE) and possibly much earlier.
The birthplace of two ancient Arabian kingdoms
During the 1st millennium BCE, Al-Ula saw the rise of the ancient city of Dedan that became the capital of two successive kingdoms, Dedan and Lihyan, that ruled over the northwest of the Arabian Peninsula.
And at the end of the 1st millennium BCE a new power coming from the north, the Nabateans, installed their southernmost outpost and second most important city 20 kilometers to the north of Al-Ula, in Madain Saleh.
In his book "The Last Years of the Prophet", Tabari mentions Al-Ula under the name of the valley, the Wadi Al-Qura. The episode he relates dates back to 630 CE/7 AH when the Prophet Mohammed led a military campaign until Tabuk where an intervention of the Byzantine army was feared. The Prophet is supposed to have spent three days in Al-Ula, helping to revive the commercial role of the oasis that had developed 20 kilometers to the south in Al-Mabiyat, close to Mughayra'.
An important pilgrimage city
After the Muslim conquest, Wadi Al-Qura became a station along the pilgrimage road from Damascus to Makkah (which is called the Syrian road). Pilgrim caravans used to halt in Wadi Al-Qura to buy provisions and water. As with the other important caravan city Fayd, pilgrims could leave some of their belongings in Wadi Al-Qura and were sure to find them upon their way back.
Syrian merchants even traveled all the way to Wadi Al-Qura in order to sell supplies to pilgrims.
The foundation of the city of Al-Ula
In the 12th century CE the inhabitants of the oasis moved to the site where is the modern city of Al-Ula. As this new city was built just a few hundred meters from the ancient city of Dedan, and maybe even partially on top of it, as attested to by stones of the old Dedanite and Lihyanite ruins that were reused.
The first mention of the name of Al-Ula was provided by Ibn Shuja Al-Dimashqi who wrote on his way to the pilgrimage: "The town of Al-Ula lies in the middle of the valley among numerous date palms. It is a small town with a small fort on top of a small mountain. The town has springs of fresh water which is used for irrigation, and has an emir. The Syrian pilgrims left their belonging there".
The small fort that Al-Dimashqi mentions still stands in the middle of the Heritage Village of Al-Ula and is known as Musa Ibn Nusayr Fort. It was probably a fortified structure as early as the Dedanite or Lihyanite times as some Dedanitic inscriptions were carved on the rock where the fort was built.
This fort was certainly reused for observation and defense over time, especially when people moved from Mughayra' to settle in Al-Ula. It was renovated and the stairs offer an easy way the top where the view on the valley, the old town, and the oasis is stunning.
Al-Ula Heritage Village
Al-Ula Heritage Village, also known as Ad-Deerah, is the traditional Arabian village where people of the oasis moved some 8 centuries ago and inhabited until the 20th century. It was built on a higher part of the valley in order to be clear from the floods that can occur during the raining season. At its maximum expansion the town contained over 1 000 houses that were built adjacent to one another thereby forming a wall around the town to defend the population.
Most of houses were built with at least one upper floor in order to increase the space available for dwelling and also to keep the lower floors and streets cooler thanks to the shade created.
The ground floor was used for storage and reception with the traditional majlis, and the first floor was the private area of the house.
Houses were separated by narrow shaded streets including some that have been renovated. They offer a nice walk in the maze of the old town among the old houses that are still accessible as most doors are open. It is advisable to check the state of a house before entering it or even climbing the stairs as some of them are still in ruins.
On the west of the town, at the bottom of the cliff is the old souq that was renovated. This wide open space that was still populated few decades ago is reachable (by chance?) after roaming through the maze of narrow streets of the old town.
The modern times
Between 1901 and 1908 the Ottomans built a railway across the Hejaz in order to link Damascus to Madinah. The railway had a station in both Madain Saleh and Al-Ula where a line was built through the western part of Al-Khuraybah that is still standing there despite of being in bad shape.
In the 20th century the new town center was established beside the old town and eventually the people left the old buildings. The last family is said to have left in 1983, while the last service in the old mosque was held in 1985.
The first European traveler of modern times to describe the town was the English traveler Charles Doughty who visited Al-Ula in 1876. The French explorer Charles Huber followed in 1881-82 and returned in 1883 accompanied by the German scientist Julius Euting. French explorers Jaussen and Savignac who compiled the first scientific records of the northwest of Arabia visited Al-Ula in 1909 and again in 1910 copying inscriptions and exploring the ruins of Dedan.
How to visit Al-Ula
Most of the points of interest in and around Al-Ula are available on Google Maps. Most of the sites require prior authorizations that can be arranged by your hotel or tour guide. Visiting the Al-Ula Heritage Village doesn't require permission. Unfortunately the Al-Ula Museum is closed on weekends.
The modern city of an ancient oasis (author: Florent Egal)