This place was inhabited for centuries — but has only recently had tourists

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Also known as al-Hijr or Mada’in Saleh, Hegra is the crown jewel of Saudi Arabia’s archaeological attractions and was the first place in the country inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

In one of the most rapidly developing countries in the world, there is a monument carved into sandstone, surrounded by date farms and dusty two-lane roads. This is Hegra. Built between the first century BCE and the first century CE, this ancient city includes an impressive necropolis, with tombs carved into sandstone set against the sweeping desert landscape of northwestern Saudi Arabia. Petra, the famous site in Jordan, was the capital of the Nabatean people, while Hegra was the kingdom’s southern outpost until it was abandoned in the 12th century. But while Petra is one of the seven wonders of the modern world and welcomed more than one million visitors per year before the pandemic, Hegra has only been accessible for most international visitors since 2019, when Saudi Arabia first began issuing tourist visas. Although Hegra doesn’t yet have the same widespread name recognition, that is changing thanks to AlUla, the nearby oasis town that has developed into an arts, culture and tourism hub and now boasts a small but well connected airport, with regular flights from Jeddah, Riyadh, and Dubai. Out of history’s shadows The Nabateans are believed to have traded aromatics, like incense and spices, many of which are used in religious rituals. Two of those were frankincense and myrrh, which many Westerners will recognize as gifts brought to the infant Jesus in the Christian Bible. But most of their culture has been lost to history. Now, increased investment in archeology from the Saudi government means that more and more information is coming out of Hegra and other Nabatean sites. “We’ve all heard of the Assyrians, we’ve all heard of the Mesopotamians,” says Wayne Bowen, professor of history at the University of Central Florida. “But (the Nabateans) stood up to the Romans, they stood up to the Hellenistic Greeks, they had this incredible system of cisterns in the desert, controlled the trade routes. I think they just get absorbed in the story of the growth of the Roman Empire.” Though the Nabateans didn’t leave much behind in the way of historical documentation, one of their culture’s achievements continues to play a huge role in the region – the Nabatean alphabet laid the foundations of modern Arabic. Recently, some historians literally put a face to the Nabateans. In early 2023, they revealed “Hinat,” the reconstructed face of a Nabatean woman whose remains were found in the desert. Now, travelers can see her in the Hegra visitors’ center. On the sandy ground Upon arriving at the visitors’ center, guests are welcomed with dates and cups of Saudi coffee, which is very lightly brewed and often mixed with cardamom. It’s poured out of a traditional silver urn with a curved spout. From there, they can jump into a vintage midcentury-style Land Rover (with or without a roof, depending on the weather) with a guide and set off to explore. Like many places in this sun-soaked part of the world, AlUla and the surrounding region is best to visit early in the morning or evening. That goes even more so at Hegra, which doesn’t have trees or structures to block out the scorching midday sun. The Nabateans were a nomadic people, so there’s not much left of their daily lives. What remains, though, are their incredible final resting places. In total, there are around 115 known and numbered tombs. The most famous of these is Qasr al-Farid (Arabic for “the lonely castle”) which stands proudly alone, its 72-foot structure dramatically set against an expanse of sand. The contrast makes for an excellent photo backdrop, especially just before sunset as pinkish-orange light sets off the desert tones. One tomb at a time is open to visitors who want to take a peek inside. These open tombs are rotated through so that no single one gets too much foot traffic. However, they’re much more intricate and interesting on the outside. The area around the door frames can show names of the people buried there. Design details give clues about where the residents may have traveled from. Images of phoenixes, eagles, and snakes imply familiarity with cultures as far away as Greece and Egypt. Expand your search Many visitors combine their Hegra trip with visits to the smaller nearby historic sites of Dadan and Jabal Ikmah. In the valley of Jabal Ikmah, which the Saudis refer to as an “open-air library,” you can see a range of carved inscriptions in Aramaic, Dadanitic, Thamudic, Minaic and Nabataean, all of which provide glimmers of insight into the rich history of this region. Translations are shown in Arabic, English, and sometimes French, as French monks were early visitors to the area. Dadan, meanwhile, was once home to a key pre-Islamic trading city, where spice vendors mingled with religious pilgrims. Its most notable site is the “Lion Tombs,” a group of mausoleums decorated with – as the name indicates – carvings of lions. It’s simple to visit all three of these sites in a single day. The easiest way to book is via the website of the area’s official government-run tourism body, Experience AlUla. Travelers in a hurry can book a two-hour tour, but there are also afternoon- and day-long options. Don’t miss the covered outdoor station near the Hegra visitor’s center, where you can practice using a small chisel to carve your name or initials into pieces of stone. The amount of effort involved will make you really appreciate how much work the Nabateans put into creating these masterpieces. Miniature versions of Hegra’s most magnificent structures, made by the women who run this workshop, are available for sale as well. The future These days, Petra is focused on preservation and combating over-tourism, which gives Hegra the opportunity to grow and attract more visitors. According to David Graf, professor emeritus of Middle Eastern History at the University of Miami, many of the archaeologists who formerly led excavations at Petra are relocating to Saudi Arabia, which likely means there will be new discoveries in the years to come. It also means that more people around the world will learn about the Nabateans and their contributions to history. “The Nabataeans were a very cosmopolitan, sophisticated culture, and I’ve been trying to emphasize that,” says Graf, who continues to publish articles and give talks in his retirement. “We didn’t know a lot about the Nabataeans. I’ve been on the mission to see that we know more about them. That we see them as not backward and primitive, but really engaged and involved, and dynamic people who were interacting with Rome and the Greek world and other cultures.”.In an open letter to President Biden and top Congressional leaders Tuesday, nearly 150 business leaders urged the two sides to act – or face “a devastating scenario … and potentially disastrous consequences,” the letter states. The open letter was first shared with CNN before it was published. CEOs of major corporations and financial institutions signed the letter. Among the signees are James P. Gorman, Chairman & CEO of Morgan Stanley, David M. Solomon, Chairman & CEO of Goldman Sachs, Adena Friedman, Chair & CEO of the Nasdaq, and Robin Hayes, CEO of JetBlue. It is one of the strongest collective warnings from America’s business sector. The United States could default on its debt as soon as June 1 if lawmakers fail to raise the amount of money the US can borrow to pay its debts, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said. President Biden and top Congressional leaders are expected to meet Tuesday to negotiate a deal and prevent a default. “Failure to resolve the current impasse could easily have more negative consequences. Although the American economy is generally strong, high inflation has created stresses in our financial system, including several recent bank failures. Much worse will occur if the nation defaults on our debt obligations, which would weaken our position in the world financial system,” the letter states. A default on the nation’s debt could send the economy into a recession, and the stock market could tank. The nation’s unemployment rate could spike and borrowing costs for businesses and everyday Americans would rise. In her second letter in two weeks to Congressional leaders Monday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen reaffirmed her warning. She says the US is already feeling the impacts of getting close to the “x date” of June 1. “We have learned from past debt limit impasses that waiting until the last minute to suspend or increase the debt limit can cause serious harm to business and consumer confidence, raise short-term borrowing costs for taxpayers, and negatively impact the credit rating of the United States. In fact, we have already seen Treasury’s borrowing costs increase substantially for securities maturing in early June,” Secretary Yellen wrote Monday. The last time the US came close to a default was in 2011 – and as a result the US lost its lustrous AAA credit rating. That ended up being a miserable year for the market and the economy, the CEOs noted. “The stock market still lost 17% of its value for more than a year. Moody’s reported that the heightened uncertainty from this crisis resulted in 1.2 million fewer jobs, a 0.7 percentage point higher unemployment rate, and a $180 billion smaller economy than it otherwise would have — dire impacts that occurred without an actual default, “the letter from business leaders’ states. A default on the US debt would also impact the US government’s ability to pay out Social Security, Medicare, veterans’ benefits, and the military. The consequences would harm the US’s global leadership position, and ability to defend national security interests. “This cannot be allowed to happen,” the letter states..Deegan is projected to defeat Republican former state Rep. Daniel Davis in Tuesday’s runoff election to succeed term-limited GOP incumbent Lenny Curry. Jacksonville is currently the biggest city in the country led by a Republican mayor. Deegan and Davis had advanced to the runoff after no candidate took more than 50% of the vote in the first round in March. Deegan took 39% of the vote to 25% for Davis, though Republicans combined for a slight majority of the overall vote in the March race. Leading up to the runoff, an ad by the county GOP took aim at Deegan, a longtime news anchor in Jacksonville, for saying she had attended Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd in 2020. The spot, which was approved by Davis, also suggested that Deegan wanted to defund the police. In response, Deegan accused Republicans of using the “same old playbook.” “I believe that two things can be true,” she said in a video released on Twitter. “While I do believe police have a very dangerous job, and I believe that we need more officers on the streets and will fund those, I also believe that Black mamas shouldn’t have to worry every time their kids step out of the house.” Deegan campaigned on improving city infrastructure, increased access to health care and for a more inclusive economy, while portraying herself as someone who could bring change. Davis focused on a tough-on-crime messaging, while also emphasizing his support for boosting the city economy and infrastructure. Davis had the support of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who endorsed him in March as “the proven law and order conservative Jacksonville needs to tackle the city’s greatest challenges and seize its biggest opportunities.” While Republicans have long had the edge in Duval County, home to Jacksonville, the area has grown more competitive politically over the past few years. In 2020, Joe Biden was the first Democrat to carry the county since Jimmy Carter in 1976. And while DeSantis coasted to reelection by 19 points in November, the Republican governor carried Duval by 12 points. Deegan, a cousin of the late Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Hazouri, started her career in broadcast journalism after graduating from Florida State University. She was an unsuccessful candidate for Congress in 2020, losing a bid for a deep-red northeast Florida seat to GOP Rep. John Rutherford. In 2003, the former journalist started The DONNA Foundation, a nonprofit providing financial assistance and support to those living with breast cancer and funding research after receiving multiple diagnoses of breast cancer. She chronicled her experiences in two books and also founded 26.2 with DONNA: The National Marathon to Finish Breast Cancer, which raises money for breast cancer research and care. This story has been updated with additional reporting..1. How relevant is this ad to you?.


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