An insider’s look

A tourism guide to Hegra

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Before October 2020, when the Royal Commission for AlUla formally opened Hegra for tourism, people could visit the ancient site but may not have had quite the same experience you can today. Part of the famed Vision 2030 initiative, the “opening” of Hegra has turned the ancient site into a living museum replete with passionate tour guides steeped in local knowledge, a brand-new rock art trail with hundreds of petroglyphs, a cycling trail and even the opportunity to sightsee via vintage car. The new access to the architectural marvel is already opening people’s eyes to the deep historical roots of Arabia.

“When I guide tourists [who, because of COVID-19 restrictions, are presently mostly from within Saudi, but also include expatriates from all over], they get so excited. Many of them have lived here all their lives and never really seen the site,” says Mashail Makki, the first female “Rawiya” (which means storyteller in Arabic) in Hegra. “Hegra is very special because it was the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Saudi, and it dates back 2,000 years. It belonged to many civilizations, and it tells the story of what they left to us.” Civilizations including the Nabataeans thrived in the location but didn’t leave behind many books or documents, “so we learn from the inscriptions and facades” on the rocks and tombs, Makki says. 

What You’ll See on a Tour of Hegra

Covering 52 hectares, Hegra features 131 tombs and countless rock formations. The first stop on the tour is the small Hijaz Railway Museum, where you will see the ruins of a railroad that was built in the early 1900s to shorten the journey of pilgrims performing Hajj. (You will also be welcomed by dates and Arabic coffee.) Next, you will head via luxury bus to Jabal Ithlib, a mountain outcrop east of Hegra where the ancient Nabataeans practiced their religion. The next stop is Jabal Al Banat, one of the largest clusters of tombs — 29 of them, of which many were owned or commissioned by women. The tour continues to Jabal Al Ahmar, home to 18 tombs, some of which were only recently excavated. The last stop of the tour is the Tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza, Hegra’s largest tomb, measuring about 22 meters tall. It is sometimes referred to as Qasr Al Farid, or “The Lonely Castle,” because of its distance from the other tombs.

A Few of the Sites You’ll See on a Tour of Hegra

  • Hijaz Railway Museum

    In this small museum, you’ll find the ruins of a railroad built in the early 1900s to shorten the journey of pilgrims performing Hajj.

  • Jabal Ithlib

    This mountain outcrop east of Hegra is where the ancient Nabataeans practiced their religion.

  • Tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza

    Hegra’s largest tomb at 22 meters tall, it is sometimes referred to as Qasr Al Farid, or “The Lonely Castle,” because of its distance from the other tombs.

  • Jabal Al Banat

    One of the largest clusters of tombs in Hegra, many of these were owned or commissioned by women.

The Story of Al Banat Mountain

“My favorite part of Hegra is the story of Al Banat mountain,” Makki says. “It is Saudi’s version of Rapunzel.” According to ancient lore, the mountain belonged to a young lady. She was her father’s only child. “He wanted to protect her, so he built a room for her above the mountain, where she sang and brushed her hair,” Makki says. But she grew lonely in her room. When her father went traveling, a handsome man appeared below her room, drawn to the singing. It was love at first sight. The young lady allowed the man to crawl up her long hair to visit her in her room — and eventually the couple found themselves with a child. Upon his return to Hegra, the young lady’s father learned of the pregnancy and ended the lives of the lovers. “One of the rocks has a red tint, which people have said was blood, but it is actually a chemical reaction to the iron in the rock,” says Makki. “I love my job. My grandmother first told me that story — and now I can share it with others.”

To book tickets to Hegra, visit experiencealula.com, or check out more of AlUla’s wonders here.

Didi Gluck is a journalist with more than 20 years of experience reporting on travel, culture and style for publications including Travel + Leisure, JWM, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle.

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