This month, we have a special guest contributor, Rania Hamad, telling us about her experience in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, as part of the Tantora Winter Festival. 


Imagine standing in front of the Sphinx with just yourself and your shadow, or at the end of the Inca trail, atop the mountain facing down onto Machu Pichu alone. Even if you fast track your way to the front of the queue, there is no place on this planet with a UNESCO World heritage designation that is more raw, uncharted or un-tapped as Mada’in Saleh and the surrounding sites in Al Ula county.


With the inaugural Tantora Winter Festival, the town of Al Ula is witnessing a dramatic increase in visitors. An enticing line up of performers such as Saudi icon Mohammed Abdo, the talented Chinese pianist Lang Lang, and the operatic genius of Andrea Bocelli have already taken to the stage. Festival guests are flocking in droves partly for the entertainment but mainly to gain full access to the World Heritage Site of Mada’in Saleh and others, which are otherwise closed for excavation work since December 2017. The upcoming line up includes many well known Arab stars such as; Kadim Al Sahir, Rashid Al Majid and Abdul Karim Abdul Qader.


Known as Hegra or Al Hijr historically, Mada’in Saleh gets its name from the Qur’an. It maybe is best known as the sister city, second only to Petra in the Nabataean civilization, dating back to the first century BC.
Most impressive among the sites we visited were the rock art formations at Ikmah, known as the library of the Lihyan Kings. The text and pictorial art seem to predate the written word as we know it.
As our passionate guide Ahmed extolls; “there are pictures of giraffes, ibex, ostriches, elephants, camels, and hunting scenes scattered all around us and above us in these rocks.”
They don’t have verifiable dates yet but some believe that these rock art treasures date back to at least 4000 BC; some think it may extend even further to the Neolithic period.


A few kilometers away, Ibrahim our equally enigmatic tour guide points to the oldest known civilization in this area and describes emphatically the old rites of worship among the Dedan tribes. Here between the two mountain ranges, excavation work will soon uncover the towns believed to be laying just below the surface. Scattered all around us in the hilly terrain are tombs where they came to bury their dead. And below us where we walk among bolt hole cavities in the ground, marks the area where the Dedanites came to worship their gods and make sacrifices to their god ‘Dhu Ghaibat’, which translates to the absent one. This seems almost sacrilegious to be discussing so openly in a place like Saudi Arabia. But such is the pace of change and openness with which this festival has come to amplify.


Standing at the singular large chiseled rock façade from among 131 tombs, we’re in awe at how few of us are standing there in front of this majestic site. It’s almost as if we have the place to ourselves, and we do. This too will change with the passing of time, as will the landscape.  We take our pictures not only to capture the moment but also to archive the changes to come in the not too distant future. As archaeologists unearth further discoveries, the current landscape will undoubtedly transform, and villages will emerge to complement the current tombs and burial sites.


The desert rock formations that are dotted all around Al Ula form their own deities in the shape of large elephants and mushrooms and other lifelike shapes. On parts, the landscape is almost like a mirror image of Halong Bay but on arid land, and in others, it’s a vast mountainous range that almost feels as vast and as barren as parts of Mongolia. But throughout it all, it is peaceful and serene. The energy comprised by the combination of graves, desert oasis, and more stars in the skies than humans on the soil, makes this place unlike any other place I’ve visited before, and a truly surreal experience.

In the words of Ibn Battuta who traveled through Al Ula in the 1400’s; “He who enters it is lost and he who leaves it is born.” So too, is the exhilarating sense of wonder and discovery that envelops you after spending a mere three days here.

For information on how to visit Al Ula, please contact us at


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