Al- ‘Ula, sometimes referred to as Al Ola, was once a bustling oasis town in Saudi Arabia, located on the old incense trading route. The walled city was built in the 13th century and was inhabited until modern times. It was abandoned by its inhabitants for a nearby new town, also called Al- ‘Ula, about 40 years ago and the old walled settlement is now a ghost town.
Al-ʿUla was the capital of the ancient Arab kingdom of Lihyan, one of the most powerful and culturally significant kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula. The Lihanite Kingdom began around the 7th century BC and last until it was captured by the Nabateans around 65 BC. It was they who had carved the temples into the rocks at Petra in present day Jordan. After taking the Lihyanite Kingom, they built Hegra, or Mada’in Saleh today, as their second capital. It was the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Saudi Arabia and is located just 22 kilometres (14 miles) north of Al- ‘Ula.
The ancient city of Al- ‘Ula prospered because of its location. The oasis has fertile soil and a plentiful supply of water. Its position on the Incense Road made it a popular trading post and visitors from Arabia, Egypt, India and beyond passed through regularly.
The prophet Muhammed is said to have passed through the oasis in 630 AD on his campaign to Tabuk. The town declined thereafter and was left in ruin. Around 1230 AD, the walled city of Al- ‘Ula was atop the former ancient city. It prospered again for many years.
By the early 1900s, the city was under the control of the Ottomans. They built the Hejaz railway connecting Damascus and Medina with stops at both Mada’in Saleh and Al-‘Ula. By the middle of the 20th century, a new modern town was built and the people of Al- ‘Ula began to abandon the old settlement for this new location nearby. The last family left in 1983.
The abandoned town consists of a walled settlement of about 800 dwellings around the perimeter of the more ancient castle with narrow winding alleys, many of which were covered to shield the people from the heat of the sun in the Arabian desert. Most of the foundations of the buildings are stone, but the upper floors are made from mud bricks, while palm leaves and wood are used for the ceilings.
Although many of these houses were probably rebuilt over time, their foundations are likely to be from the original construction of the town in the 13th century AD. Some of the stones used, however, were extracted from the ruins of a very ancient settlement elsewhere in the valley and some still carry Lihyanite inscriptions on them. The specific location of Al- ‘Ula around the ancient castle was chosen because of its slight elevation relative to the rest of the valley, not only for defensive purposes but also for protection from occasional flooding of the valley.
Some work has been done to preserve the old town for tourism purposes, but much more is needed to protect the buildings from collapse. A walk through the town is most fascinating and gives the visitor a feel for what life might have been like in Hijazi villages for centuries before modernisation wiped out the traditional way of life.