On our first morning in Al-Ula, we woke up to sunlight trickling through the gaps of our canvas tent at Winter Camp Al Wadi. We had arrived under a blanket of stars, and the view now in daylight as we stepped out onto the private terrace was surreal – like entering a painting. Enormous sandstone cliffs surged upwards from the sand, their amber peaks wrapped in the lingering morning fog. We sat on the terrace and enjoyed a cup of hot tea as the golden sun warmed the desert sand beneath the towers of russet-colored rock.
It was hard to believe that such a world existed, or that it was even accessible to foreign visitors. Until recently, for the most part, it wasn’t. Saudi Arabia has been preparing to open its borders to tourism, an ambitious project which it anticipates will contribute 10% of the country’s GDP by 2030. Drawn to the cultural heritage and the mystery of the Kingdom, travelers from around the world are eager to visit one of the country’s hidden treasures, a place in the northwestern Hejaz region known as Al-Ula. For centuries, the desert was known only to a small population – the ancestors of its original inhabitants. Until recently, the region has remained a place of monumental mystery.
Five thousand years ago, Al-Ula was a bustling caravan town; a strategic midpoint on the famed incense trade route linking Southern Arabia to the Roman empires. Today, Al-Ula’s sandstone cliffs, desert oases and walled cities are all but abandoned – a well preserved yet forgotten enclave of history.
Drawn to the mystery of the desert and with the announcement of the inaugural Winter at Tantora festival, we set out to visit Al-Ula, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to uncover its forgotten past and immerse ourselves in the memory of a life that once occupied the ancient stone and mud walled city. In many ways, our journey foreshadowed a future Kingdom – a warm and welcoming place with a spirit steeped in history, eager to celebrate the past and embrace the present while building for the future.
"Despite constant hardship and circumstance, desert life continues to prevail. Fortitude, after all, is a mark of beauty."