Hidden in the heart of the Najd, an oasis-dotted region 200km northwest of Riyadh, Ushaiger Heritage Village provides a glimpse of a slow-paced Saudi society of old.
Bedouins first settled here 1,500 years ago and Ushaiger quickly became a popular stopping point for pilgrims crossing to Makkah, thanks to its springs and low-brimmed olive and palm groves. But far from being a dusty, deserted museum piece, Ushaiger – which, in a naming quirk, means ‘little blonde’ to reflect the nearby red mountain that looms over the yellow mud houses – still has a small community of residents, making use of its schools, shops and mosques. To walk its narrow lanes is to enter a living museum, draped with traces of an ancient way of life.
Encased in thick walls, Ushaiger is a labyrinth of winding alleyways, shaded pathways and timber-framed walkways, crossing between hundreds of mud houses. The village is divided into districts and bisected by groves of palm trees, and includes a cluster of beautifully renovated houses. These offer a stunning example of Najdi architecture, with its distinctive triangular windows and roofs, and ornately carved wooden doors. Some still bear the names of the families who lived there.
Don’t miss the Al Salem museum, which the village residents established themselves, with its vast collection of artefacts including elaborately embroidered clothing, jewelry and ceramics, as well as weapons and cooking utensils. Speak up if you have questions: friendly residents will happily explain their provenance and regale you with stories about Ushaiger and its history.
Afterwards, wander through the narrow streets and covered lanes to admire feats of engineering that remain exactly as they have been for hundreds of years. You can even enter some of the empty houses and climb the stairs to look out over the surrounding oasis and farmlands. When the hunger pangs kick in, there’s a small restaurant (open on Fridays) that serves simple, but delicious food. They charge by weight, so go easy on the meat.
No visit to Ushaiger is complete without a drive up the nearby mountain road to take in the golden sunset and gaze down at the sprawling village spread beneath you.