It was in Petra that I first heard about the Nabataean Kingdom. Though I was spellbound by the archaeological site, I’d known little of its history.
The Nabataeans were Arabs from the Negev desert who led a Bedouin lifestyle — relocating whenever grazing for their animals ran out, moving according to meetups and markets. They made the best of what the dry, desert surroundings had to offer by being flexible about where they called home, but they still built large settlements and cities when the opportunity struck.
Living in the region that spans modern-day southern Jordan and the northern half of Saudi Arabia, the tribe controlled part of the Incense Route that wound its way through their kingdom, making them very rich indeed. This was all roughly 2,000 years ago.
Petra, an archaeological site in today’s Jordan, was the Nabataeans’ main city, with more than 1,000 of their monuments still there to see today. It is undoubtedly the most famous and most impressive Nabataean site. But not long after visiting Petra, someone told me about Hegra, also known as Mada’in Saleh, in modern-day Saudi Arabia. It is host to 111 Nabataean rock tombs.
Alas, it was at a time when visiting Saudi Arabia as a tourist was practically impossible. But I kept it on the back burner, and as soon as Saudi introduced their e-visa and COVID restrictions eased, I was off to AlUla — first stop, Hegra, the Nabataean Kingdom’s second city.
Here are some reasons why this historic tribe and its architectural achievements fascinate me so much, and why you should put Hegra on your travel to-do list.
Pro Tip: To get to Hegra, you can fly into the little airport of AlUla, either connecting through Jeddah or Riyadh or direct from Dubai. Hegra itself can only be visited as part of a tour, to protect the ancient site, but there are several daily tours, even out of season.
1. Just Because You Can
As I mentioned, for years I had longed to visit the famous rock in Hegra — the one that looks like it is standing all alone in the middle of the desert, a temple-like tomb carved into the center of it. Little did I know that this lone rock was part of an entire complex (and one that is not yet busy with tourists).
Petra is so popular that you can barely walk, let alone allow the magic of ancient history to cast its spell. But in Hegra — practically left untouched for 2,000 years, and with Saudi Arabia’s tourism still in its infancy — you’ll be one of the first internationals to see these wondrous sights, and all without having to stand in line.
2. The Workmanship Is Amazing
Most of the famous structures, such as the temples and the tombs, were literally carved from the mountains and rocks found in and around the Negev desert. It makes sense that this type of construction was used by a nomadic desert tribe; one, they would not be carrying much building material around with them, and two, wood and other supplies were of limited availability in the desert. That is not to say that the Nabataeans did not use the wood of the few trees around — they did use timber for scaffolding, as reinforcements for walls and roof structures, and to construct arches and ceilings — but mostly, they carved into rock.
In Hegra, you can see a few examples of remains of “normal” domestic living structures, such as private houses, which were built from rocks, coral, or mudbrick; but the Nabataeans are famous for fashioning entire structures from sandstone and bedrock. On the faces of the tombs in Hegra, you can see the steps at the top of the structures, which seem part of the façade’s décor, but which are in fact part of the workers’ access to the tombs when they were carving from above.
3. The History Is Practically Unknown
As with most nomadic peoples, physical proof of the Nabataeans’ history is rare. Records were passed on through stories, poems, and music, but with tribes never staying in one spot for very long, permanent structures are rare — and that is why the Nabataeans are so fascinating. Their structures are mind-blowingly large and intricate, but their history is still quite elusive, probably mostly due to being scattered across the vast desert they lived in and traveled across, where archaeologists are still discovering new sites even now.
It is believed the Nabataeans first emerged sometime between the 6th and 4th century B.C, with the civilization declining around A.D. 100. Petra dates to around 300 B.C. and was only re-discovered in 1812; while Hegra dated to roughly 100 B.C. Both cities were once busy metropolises, which later, when people moved on, turned into necropolises, leaving only the tombs behind.
4. What We Do Know Is Fascinating
Apart from carving incredible structures from rock, the Nabataeans were also known for using sophisticated systems to collect water. They constructed reservoirs as well as aqueducts, some of which are still there to see in Petra, and which allowed them to stay put in one place for longer and build more permanent structures. Considering the Nabataeans founded several cities, such as Petra, Hegra, Midian, and others. It seems a little wrong to call them nomads, but essentially, they were nomadic, like all tribes living in the desert. When the water ran out, the grazing dried up, and it was time to move on.
That said, it is understood that some of the cities functioned as stations that controlled the ancient trade routes, such as the Incense Route coming up from the south. They were, if you so wish, border posts, where traders could not only refuel and rest, but no doubt also had to pay for that privilege, as well as having to part with money to be allowed to pass through the Nabataeans’ land.
5. Hegra Is Near An Oasis
Many of the cities were near an oasis. Hegra is near AlUla, an oasis that sports some 6,000 palm trees even today and must have offered a welcome respite from the formidable and inhospitable surroundings. Visiting Hegra is a hot and dusty undertaking, with barely any shade available and tombs spread across the desert, which makes heading back to the green oases of AlUla a perfect pleasure. And when you visit an oasis or date palm farm, walking among the palm trees, it is easy — or at least easier — to imagine what life must have been like in Nabataean times.
6. Modern Goes Hand In Hand With Ancient
It might lessen the sense of discovery and old-world expeditions a little, but it is quite nice that you do have modern amenities near these ancient sites. Just as Petra has Wadi Musa, with its hotels and restaurants, access to tour guides, and yes, those always necessary souvenir shops; Hegra has AlUla, with its modern town center, amazingly diverse accommodation options, superb restaurants, and other historic sites, such as the old center of AlUla with its fortified castle.
The modernity of tourism might take a bit of the shine off the ancient sites — I will let you know what it’s like when I finally make it to the less touristy Nabataean cities mentioned below – but it also adds a little something extra to your trip. Be it a glimpse of what life is like in a Saudi Arabian oasis, sampling the local cuisine, or even visiting the superb art installations and the hyper-modern mirrored building of Maraya, which literally reflects the old in the new.
7. Hegra Is Part Of A Set
As it always seems to go, once you tick one thing off your list, another one comes along. Did you know that there are two other amazing, and yet practically unheard of, Nabataean sites in Saudi Arabia? (And probably more yet to be unearthed.)
There is the oasis Dumat al Jandal in the Al-Jawf province, and Al Badʿ in the Tabuk province (thought to be the ancient city of Midian, with scholars still busy researching its history). Both sites lie in northwestern Saudi Arabia, not as easily reached as Hegra or, of course, Petra, but even more thrilling because of their remoteness and ongoing research that uncovers more about their history each day. So now, despite having ticked off Petra and Hegra from my list, I have added two more Nabataean sites, and am already knee-deep in research about how to get there.