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Alice in (a Saudi) Wonderland

AFAR logo AFAR 3/11/2021 Katherine LaGrave

a person sitting on a rock with Mada'in Saleh in the background: Alice in (a Saudi) Wonderland © Courtesy of Experience AlUla Alice in (a Saudi) Wonderland

Those familiar with AlUla have called it “an open-air museum the size of a country” and an “oasis in the desert.” At roughly 8,710 square miles—bigger than Slovenia—the area in the remote upper pocket of northwest Saudi Arabia was from 900 B.C.E. to 106 C.E. a bustling outpost criss-crossed by caravans carrying spices, incense, beads, and ceramics along the trade routes from Arabia to Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Yet if you are unfamiliar with AlUla, you would hardly be alone: Saudi Arabia itself only began issuing tourist visas for the first time ever in 2019, and the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), formed in 2017, only opened AlUla to visitors full time in phases in October 2020 after undertaking a “sensitive renewal” of the region. AlUla is a key component of Saudi Arabia’s broader Saudi Vision 2030, which looks to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and fortify its recreation and tourism offerings. 

“I call it a Saudi wonderland,” says Mashail Makki, the first woman tour guide in AlUla and the fifth woman tour guide in Saudi Arabia. “I imagine myself as Alice walking and discovering these places.”

AlUla has five primary attractions: Hegra, a 52-hectare ancient city, is a UNESCO World Heritage site with 111 intricately carved cliffside tombs, and is thought to have been the most southern outpost of the Roman Empire. (Hegra was also the “second city” of the Nabataean Kingdom, which called Petra, in Jordan, its capital.) Dadan, a second ancient city, was once the capital of the Dadanite and Lihyanite kingdoms and pivotal to local trade routes. Jabal Ikmah, a remote mountain close to Dadan, is a “library” for its thousands of pre-Arabic inscriptions in Aramaic, Dadanitic, Thamudic, Minaic, and Nabataean, making it the area with both the highest concentration and the highest variation of languages in Saudi Arabia. Another sandstone monolith, the three-story-high Jabal AlFil, or Elephant Rock, is named for its resemblance to the pachyderm. 

On March 7, AlUla’s fifth main draw—its labyrinthine Old Town—reopened to visitors with body temperature checks and hand-sanitizing stations. The Old Town is thought to have been inhabited since the 12th century, and it had full-time residents until the 1980s, when they left for modern housing. Although it had been open sporadically to former residents in the past 40 years, the Old Town in 2017 was shuttered by the RCU for three years of restoration and conservation on sections of the town’s closely packed stone and mud buildings. Today, the town’s main thoroughfare—the “Incense Road”—has been restored, as has its citadel, central plaza, sundial, the mosques AlZawiyah and Hamad bin Yunis, and homes on the southern edge of town.

a man standing in front of a building: Mashail Makki began her career as an English teacher but was drawn back to AlUla. © Courtesy of Experience AlUla Mashail Makki began her career as an English teacher but was drawn back to AlUla.

Makki is no stranger to AlUla, which has been continuously inhabited for 200,000 years and today has a population of around 46,000; she grew up in a family with a long history in the area—and proud of it. Her grandparents were farmers, and her uncle, the first tour guide in AlUla, had a private museum celebrating the region in his home. Ironically, she says, it was her travels outside of AlUla that made her want to return: “People always asked me where I came from, and when I told them I was from AlUla they looked surprised, because they didn’t know anything about it.” 

Her road to becoming a tour guide was circuitous. After getting a degree in English at the University of Tabuk in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia, Makki worked at Taibah University in Medina as an education researcher, exam coordinator, student activities coordinator, and English teacher for nearly a decade. But, she says, she “never saw herself” as a teacher. AlUla kept calling: First, Makki developed a team called Majd AlUla to organize trips to the historical site and gave lectures about AlUla at schools around the country. In December 2018, she began working part time as a tour guide at the Royal Commission for AlUla. By July of 2019, she had quit her job at the university and joined the Royal Commission for AlUla full time as a rawi, or Arabic storyteller. 

a close up of a brick building: An aerial view of the mud-walled Old Town of AlUla, where Makki gives tours. © Courtesy of Experience AlUla An aerial view of the mud-walled Old Town of AlUla, where Makki gives tours.

Makki has excelled in the industry: In 2018 the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage named her Saudi Arabia’s best “tourism coach” for her work helping to develop future guides, and in February 2021, the Saudi Tour Guide Association designated her 2020’s Best Tour Guide. For Makki, who meets visitors at the AlUla Old Town welcome center before walking them through the maze of the city, it’s in large part because of the destination itself.

“Everywhere you go [in AlUla] has its own story waiting to be told,” says Makki. “From the mountains to the historical sites and the stories that the past civilizations left to us, the tombs and the mud houses, the inscriptions and the rock art—all of that is unique and special for me.”

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