The Ancient City Of Hegra Sat Untouched For 2,000 Years — Now It’s Open For Tourists

Published December 4, 2020
Updated January 9, 2021

Hegra holds 111 intricately carved monumental tombs dating back as far as the first century B.C.

Rock Cut Structure In Hegra
Al Hijr Archaeological Site
Al Hijr Rock Face
Hegra Night Sky
The Ancient City Of Hegra Sat Untouched For 2,000 Years — Now It’s Open For Tourists
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Thousands of years ago, Hegra (or Mada'in Saleh, or Al-Hijr) was a bustling trade hub of the kingdom of Nabataean. The site features astounding architecture carved into the cliffs, drawing comparisons to the famous ancient city of Petra in Jordan.

Besides this similarity, however, much of Hegra's appeal is that it has remained virtually unknown. That is ... until now. For the first time in 2,000 years, the ancient city of Hegra in Saudi Arabia will be open to the masses.

Archaeological Relevance

According to Smithsonian Magazine, Hegra has been an important archaeological site for researchers trying to unlock the mysteries of an ancient empire.

Hegra is unique; it bears over one hundred monumental tombs with intricate carvings. The water wells date back to the 1st century B.C., and the style of the decorations reflects design influences from a mix of cultures.

The inscriptions dotted around its structures also bear several different ancient languages. In addition to Nabataean, there are epigraphic traces of Lihyanite, Thamudic, Latin, and Greek.

"For a tourist going to Hegra, you need to know more than seeing the tombs and the inscriptions and then coming away without knowing who produced them and when," said David Graf, a Nabataean specialist, archeologist, and professor at the University of Miami.

"It should evoke in any good tourist with any kind of intellectual curiosity: who produced these tombs? Who are the people who created Hegra? Where did they come from? How long were they here? To have the context of Hegra is very important."

Clearly, there is still much unknown known about the kingdom. With little archaeological remains left, Hegra plays an important role in unlocking the mysteries of the Nabataean.

The Nabataeans

Hegra is the largest archaeological site conserved from the ancient civilization of Nabataean. The Nabataean Arabs were one of the most enigmatic ancient peoples, but are known today only for their beautiful rock-carved capital of Petra.

They were an intriguing civilization; one that many have never even heard of. They were ancient Arab desert-dwelling nomads before they built a thriving empire. Nabataeans ultimately succeeded through their mastery of trade. They controlled it through the routes in Arabia and Jordan stretching to Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, and the Mediterranean.

They dealt in everything from spices to aromatics, selling bins of ginger root, sugar, peppercorn, frankincense, and myrrh among other things. Such commodities were highly-prized for cooking, manufacturing, and religious ceremonies during Antiquity, making Nabataean a wealthy kingdom.

The kingdom remained a sizable influence in the region from the 4th century BC until the 1st century A.D. when the Roman Empire annexed parts of the kingdom's territories which encompassed modern-day Syria, Israel, Jordan, and parts of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

"The reason we don't know much about them is because we don't have books or sources written by them that tell us about the way they lived and died and worshipped their gods," said Laila Nehmé, an archeologist and co-director of the Hegra Archeological Project, which is a collaboration between the French and Saudi governments to excavate the site.

"We have some sources that are external, so people who talk about them. They did not leave any large mythological texts like the ones we have for Gilgamesh and Mesopotamia. We don't have their mythology."

Hegra Site

Royal Commission for AlUla

The Future Of Hegra

The ancient city is no longer closed in order to accommodate research. In fact, plans for a new subterranean luxury resort nearby. This is likely in anticipation of the crowds of visitors to Hegra now that it's open.

Saudi officials are actively moving toward accomplishing the Saudi Vision 2030 initiative announced by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a roadmap for the country's shift away from oil toward trade and tourism over the next 20 years.

With the new tourist visas the country launched in September 2019, it looks like the government is already taking major steps to reach its goal. What effects this will have for precious historical sites like Hegra remains to be seen.

Now that you've had a glimpse into the newly-opened ancient site of Hegra, read about the ancient Trojan city uncovered by archaeologists. Next, take a look at these fascinating photos of Jerusalem before the foundation of Israel.

Natasha Ishak
Natasha Ishak is a staff writer at All That's Interesting.