Al-Ula, land of civilizations and world’s largest open museum

RIYADH: Al-Ula Governorate, situated to the northwest of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is located in an area rich with a history of living evidence and cultural backgrounds that were formed by successive civilizations dating back to more than 200,000 years ago. Al-Ula has been a destination for journeys of travelers and explorers and is still one of the most important locations for historical explorations due to what it enjoys of antiquities. Before Islam, Al-Ula was known as Dadan, as mentioned in the books of the Assyrians and old Arabic books. It was also known as Wadi Al-Qura, but its name was connected to the heritage of the Nabataeans, Dadans and Lihyans. Al-Ula also houses human and historical monuments, including the Hegra site that was built by the Nabataeans, which was registered as the first UNESCO world heritage site in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Al-Ula includes the two kingdoms of Lihyan and Dadan, over two consecutive eras spanning between the 9th century BC till the end of the 2nd century BC or the start of the 1st century BC, in addition to “Al-Ula Old Town” that was a hub for Hajj caravans around 1,000 years ago. Al-Ula combines all elements of historical and geographical attraction for its being one of the most important archaeological sites in the world whose monuments tell the history of human civilizations and are characterized by a natural beauty and qualitative human heritage, which all make it a main target as the biggest living museum in the world and allow it to provide a unique global tourist experiment as per the work of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula.

Saudi Vision 2030

As per the Saudi Vision 2030 to maximize benefits of the historical heritage of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on July 20, 2017 issued two Royal Decrees to establish the Royal Commission for Al-Ula and form its board of directors under the chairmanship of Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Crown Prince, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, where the commission aims at developing Al-Ula in a way that accords with its historical value and civil status and what it enjoys of archaeological sites and to realize the economic and cultural interests emanating from the Saudi Vision 2030.

On April 24, 2021, Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Crown Prince, Deputy Prime Minister, and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula, launched the design vision of the “Journey Through Time” Masterplan, with the aim of reviving and rehabilitating the main archaeological site in Al-Ula in a responsible and sustainable manner amidst a unique cultural and natural environment, where the project is considered a main station under the program to develop Al-Ula and change it into a pioneering global destination for arts, heritage, culture and nature, in realization of the Saudi Vision 2030 targets.

The “Journey Through Time” Masterplan consists of three main phases and its first phase is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2023, where the development strategy, upon completion in 2035, aims at providing 38,000 new jobs and contributing SAR 120 billion to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s GDP. The Masterplan also provides a special historical map for civilizations that inhabited Al-Ula Oasis over 7,000 years of the human history through utilizing the heritage, cultural, natural and geological richness of the area through the participation of its distinguished community with the development process to preserve Al-Ula heritage and draw the future via opening new chapters to explore its untapped history and build a future heritage that can be a source of pride. Under the Masterplan, five districts over a distance of 20 kilometers of Al-Ula center will be established in inspiring and main stations through the courses of the Journey Through Time, starting from the center of the Al-Ula Old Town in the south passing through Dadan Oasis center, Jabal Ikmah Oasis and the Nabataean Oasis till reaching the Hegra Historical City in the north.

The Journey Through Time Masterplan constitutes a national investment in Al-Ula community through the commission’s commitment to supporting and empowering the community participation, where the Masterplan includes providing community services, amenities and a set of cultural and educational facilities in a bid to realize a cultural economy and improve the living conditions of individuals and families. Also, the Masterplan will contribute to the revitalization and rehabilitation of the cultural oasis, and the sustainable development of its agricultural community, as a commitment to developing the agricultural sector in Al-Ula. The Masterplan also stresses the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s commitment to preserving and protecting world heritage, especially that it is based on intensified scientific studies on human patterns and the environmental and geological development in Al-Ula under the supervision of a team of Saudi and international experts over the past four years to realize integration with the nature and celebrate the cultural and historical heritage of the governorate.

Kingdoms Institute

The Kingdoms Institute, one of the plan’s flagship components, is located in Dadan Oasis, where its design is inspired by the Dadan civilization to be one of the top engraved buildings in mountains opposite to the archaeological site. The institute includes seven basic programs and archaeological research areas, the top of which being: preserving rock arts, inscriptions, languages, agriculture, sustainability in the prehistoric times, archaeological communications and records, supervising archaeological sites and preserving them, and administrating the site and archaeological elements. The institute will be specialized in studying and analyzing archaeological pieces, contents and their stories, in addition to the top advanced scientific methods and global practices to explore antiquities and maintain heritage. Also, 80 percent of the total Al-Ula area will be allocated for nature reserves to revive plants and restore ecosystems, including protecting wild animals and relocating them and preserving their natural habitats.

In June, 2022, UNESCO, during its recently held 34th meeting, registered the Harrat Uwayrid Reserve in the Man and the Biosphere Program, after the reserve met all standards required for its registration. The Harrat Uwayrid Reserve is considered the biggest nature reserve in Al-Ula among other five reserves, and it contains 19 endangered species of animals, 43 bird species (including 8 kinds of birds of prey) and 55 species of rare plants. A research study by the University of Cambridge, through the biggest archaeological excavations in the world that are still ongoing, revealed the historical importance of Al-Ula, where the study reached a conclusion that the mustatils, which translates to “rectangles” in Arabic, (prehistoric monuments made of sandstone walls) that were found in Al-Ula are older than Egypt’s pyramids and UK’s Stonehenge.

According to the field research work that was published by the University of Cambridge, these mustatils belong to prehistoric times. According to the study, these mustatils have not received considerable attention until field research showed that these antiquities are complex in terms of architectural point of view more than it was believed in the past, and that they include chambers, entrances and sanding stones that can be interpreted as being facilities to perform rituals dating back to the end of the sixth millennium BC, where recent excavations have uncovered the oldest evidence for worshipping cattle in the Arabian Peninsula, where the mustatils are considered among the oldest stone antiquities and one of the oldest archaeological construction methods that the world has ever known about. – KUNA

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