Walking through the narrow corridors of Al ‘Ula in northwestern Saudi Arabia is like traversing a maze, with ancient history at each turn. Once a bustling civilization, these 800 tightly packed mud-brick and stone houses — parts of which are more than 2,000 years old — are now abandoned ruins, decaying in the hot desert sun.
The walled city of Al ‘Ula was founded in 6th century BC, an oasis in the desert valley, with fertile soil and plenty of water. It was located along “Incense Road,” the network of routes that facilitated the trading of spices, silk and other luxury items through Arabia, Egypt and India.
Al ‘Ula stands on the site of the biblical city of Dedan, but was founded with the ancient North Arabian Kingdom of Lihyan, which ruled from the 5th to 2nd century BC.
Though most of the original houses in the old town were rebuilt over the centuries, there are many remnants of traditional Arab architecture among the ruins. Some of the old stones used in the building foundations came from ancient ruins, and still have Lihyanite markings on them. The abandoned city has religious significance as well; Muslims believe Muhammad passed through Al ‘Ula — located about 380 kilometers (240 miles) north of the holy city of Medina — in 630 AD on his way to the Battle of Tabuk between the Arabs and the Byzantines.
After being reconstructed in the 13th century, old town Al ‘Ula was inhabited until modern times. When the cramped space and poor infrastructure didn’t meet 20th century standards, it was abandoned by residents for a new town nearby, called Al- ‘Ula. The last family left town in 1983, and the last mosque service was held two years later, in 1985.
The tourists that now visit Al ‘Ula often find themselves completely alone in the ruins of an ancient civilization, enjoying the silence and imagining what life in the winding streets would be like when there were hundreds of people living in the mud-brick huts.
Unfortunately, visitors may not have this pleasure for long. As time goes by, the mud huts of Al ‘Ula are becoming increasingly decayed. Despite the Saudi government’s efforts to restore the old city, perhaps before long Al ‘Ula will be turned to dust.