This month, I gazed upon the remains of a two thousand year old civilisation lost for centuries in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. The second city of the Nabatean civilisation, famous for the tombs built at Petra in what is now the kingdom of Jordan. This was a Nabatean city that rivalled Petra for wealth and sumptuousness. Hegra – queen of the desert. Forgotten for centuries. But now, the Saudi authorities are welcoming archaeologists, historians, storytellers, and even tourists to view this glory in the sands.
Four hundred miles separates Hegra from its more famous rival Petra to the north. The Nabatean empire, built on trade in incense, silks, and other treasures, covered a vast area from the Levant deep into the Arabian Peninsula. Most of it was eventually conquered by the Romans, envious of the wealth streaming into this area from all four corners of the globe.
But the legacy of the Nabateans can still be seen – in the imposing tombs, though their houses were long ago either swept away or destroyed by earthquakes.
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My visit to the Nabatean glory of Hegra
I flew to Riyadh from London and then on to AlUla where I stayed at the luxurious Al-Shaden desert resort. From there, I was taken very early in the morning to the lost city of Hegra. Before the temperature soared to 45 degrees Centigrade, I was able to approach an enormous tomb that reared up before me. The last resting place of a Nabatean merchant or prince.
Nearby, there were over a hundred tombs waiting to be investigated. Surmounted by imperial eagles that for some reason were decapitated long ago in the ancient past. Below is my video journal of the visit to Hegra and what I found. My blog article continues below.
While in Saudi Arabia, I also attended the World Archaeology Summit at the Maraya hall in AlUla. You can see this stunning venue in the video. The largest mirrored building in the world. As hundreds of us from all over the world arrived, a Bedouin guard of honour lined the path into the Maraya. It was mesmerising to see the surrounding desert reflected in the mirrors back at us. A feast for the senses.
The highlight for everybody was seeing Hegra, which is also referred to from the Arabic as Al-Hijr and Mada’in Salih. Since 2008, UNESCO has designated it a World Heritage site and deservedly so.