It was at Petra that I first heard of the Nabataean kingdom. Although I was fascinated by the archaeological site, I knew little about its history.
The Nabataeans were Negev Desert Arabs who led a Bedouin lifestyle – moving whenever the pasture for their animals ran out, moving according to encounters and markets. They made the most of what the dry, desert environment had to offer by being flexible about where they lived, but they still built large settlements and cities when the opportunity arose. .
Living in the region that today spans southern Jordan and the northern half of Saudi Arabia, the tribe controlled part of the Frankincense Road that wound through their kingdom, making them very rich. It was about 2,000 years ago.
Petra, an archaeological site in present-day Jordan, was the main city of the Nabataeans, with over 1,000 of their monuments still to be seen today. It is undoubtedly the most famous and impressive Nabataean site. But shortly after visiting Petra, someone told me about Hegra, also known as Mada’in Saleh, in today’s Saudi Arabia. It houses 111 Nabataean rock tombs.
Alas, this was at a time when visiting Saudi Arabia as a tourist was next to impossible. But I kept it on the back burner, and as soon as Saudi Arabia introduced its e-visa and COVID restrictions were eased, I left for AlUla – first stop, Hegra, the second city of the Nabataean kingdom.
Here are a few reasons why this historic tribe and its architectural achievements fascinate me so much, and why you should put Hegra on your to-do list.
Pro Tip: To get to Hegra, you can fly to the small AlUla airport, either via Jeddah or Riyadh, or directly from Dubai. Hegra itself can only be visited as part of a tour, to protect the ancient site, but there are several daily tours, even out of season.
1. Just because you can
As I mentioned, for years I’ve longed to visit the famous Hegra Rock – the one that seems to stand on its own in the middle of the desert, a temple-like tomb carved into the center of it. I had no idea that this lonely rock was part of an entire complex (and not yet occupied by tourists).
Petra is so popular you can barely walk, let alone let the magic of ancient history cast its spell. But at Hegra – virtually untouched for 2,000 years, and with Saudi tourism still in its infancy – you’ll be one of the first internationals to see these wondrous sights, and all without having to wait in line.
2. The workmanship is amazing
Many of the famous structures, such as temples and tombs, were literally carved out of the mountains and rocks found in and around the Negev desert. It is logical that this type of construction was used by a nomadic tribe of the desert; First, they wouldn’t carry much building material with them, and second, lumber and other supplies were of limited availability in the desert. This is not to say that the Nabataeans did not use the wood of the few surrounding trees – they used wood for scaffolding, as reinforcements for walls and roof structures, and to build arches and ceilings – but above all, they dug into the rock.
In Hegra you can see some examples of remnants of “normal” domestic dwelling structures, such as private houses, built from rocks, coral or mud bricks; but the Nabataeans are famous for fashioning entire structures from sandstone and bedrock. On the faces of the tombs of Hegra, one can see the steps at the top of the structures, which seem to be part of the decoration of the facade, but which are in fact part of the access of the workers to the tombs when they were digging from above .
3. The story is virtually unknown
As with most nomadic peoples, physical evidence of Nabataean history is scarce. Records have been passed down through stories, poems and music, but tribes never staying in one place for very long, permanent structures are rare – and that’s why the Nabataeans are so fascinating. Their structures are incredibly large and complex, but their history is still quite elusive, probably mainly due to their dispersal across the vast desert they lived and traversed, where archaeologists are still discovering new sites even now.
The Nabataeans are believed to have first appeared between the 6e and 4e century BC, with the decline of civilization around AD 100. Petra dates from around 300 BC and was not rediscovered until 1812; while Hegra dated to around 100 BC. Both cities were once bustling metropolises, which later, when people moved, turned into necropolises, leaving behind only the tombs.
4. What we know is fascinating
In addition to carving incredible structures out of rock, the Nabataeans were also known to use sophisticated systems to collect water. They built reservoirs as well as aqueducts, some of which can still be seen in Petra, which allowed them to stay longer in one place and build more permanent structures. Whereas the Nabataeans founded several cities, such as Petra, Hegra, Midian and others. It seems a little wrong to call them nomads, but essentially they were nomads, like all tribes living in the desert. When the water ran out, the pastures dried up and it was time to move on.
That said, it is understood that some of the towns functioned as stations that controlled ancient trade routes, such as the frankincense route from the south. They were, if you will, frontier posts, where traders could not only get supplies and rest, but presumably also had to pay for that privilege, as well as having to part with silver to be allowed to cross the land of the Nabataeans.
5. Hegra is near an oasis
Many towns were close to an oasis. Hegra is near AlUla, an oasis that still boasts some 6,000 palm trees today and must have provided welcome respite from a formidable and inhospitable environment. Visiting Hegra is a hot and dusty endeavor, with almost no shade available and tombs spread across the desert, making the return trip to the green oases of AlUla a perfect pleasure. And when you visit an oasis or a date palm farm, walking among the palm trees, it’s easy – or at least easier – to imagine what life was like in Nabataean times.
6. The modern goes hand in hand with the ancient
That might dampen the sense of discovery and old-world expeditions a bit, but it’s kind of nice that you have modern amenities near these ancient sites. Just like Petra has Wadi Musa, with its hotels and restaurants, access to tourist guides, and yes, those ever-needed souvenir shops; Hegra has AlUla, with its modern city center, incredibly diverse accommodation options, superb restaurants and other historical sites, such as the old center of AlUla with its fortified castle.
The modernity of tourism might taint the shine of the ancient sites a bit – I’ll let you know what that is when I finally visit the less touristy Nabataean cities mentioned below – but it also adds a little something extra to your trip. Whether it’s a glimpse of life in a Saudi oasis, sampling the local cuisine, or even visiting Maraya’s stunning art installations and hypermodern mirrored building, which literally reflects the old in the new .
7. Hegra is part of a whole
As always seems to happen, once you check off one thing on your list, another comes along. Did you know that there are two other amazing yet virtually unknown Nabataean sites in Saudi Arabia? (And probably more to discover.)
There is Dumat al Jandal oasis in Al-Jawf province and Al Badʿ in Tabuk province (believed to be the ancient city of Midian, with scholars still busy researching its history). Both sites are in the northwest of Saudi Arabia, not as easily accessible as Hegra or, of course, Petra, but even more exciting due to their remoteness and ongoing research that reveals more about their story. So now, although I checked Petra and Hegra off my list, I’ve added two more Nabataean sites, and I’m already deep in research on how to get there.