Hegra celebrates 15 years as Saudi Arabia's first Unesco World Heritage site

The ancient oasis settlement in AlUla is a testament to the Arabian Peninsula's history as cultural nexus

Hegra is known for its intricately inscribed Nabataean tombs. Photo: Discovery Channel
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This year marks the 15th anniversary of Hegra’s designation as a Unesco World Heritage site – Saudi Arabia’s first entry on the list. To mark the occasion, AlUla will be hosting an international archaeology summit from September 13 to 15, featuring more than 60 experts from across the world.

Located in AlUla oasis, the archaeological site formerly served as the southern capital of the North Arabian Nabataean kingdom, and is the civilisation’s largest conserved site south of Jordan’s famous site of Petra.

Hegra “bears outstanding witness to important cultural exchanges in architecture, decoration, language use and the caravan trade", Unesco said when it inscribed the site 15 years ago.

Known as Al Hijr in Arabic, the area is marked by a stunning array of 111 monumental tombs, carved into the sandstone mountains, 94 of which are adorned with elaborate decorations.

Earlier this year, a multidisciplinary team of archaeologists, academics and specialists in forensic science and model making produced the world’s first digital and physical reconstruction of a Nabataean woman – whose remains were found at a tomb in Hegra.

The lady, known as Hinat, is believed to have been a prominent member of society, who died in around the first century BC, before being discovered 2,000 years later as part of the Saudi-French Mada’in Salih Archaeological Project – which began its work in Hegra in 2002.

Today, Hinat greets visitors upon arrival, as part of a display at the Hegra welcome centre.

Helen McGauran, heritage curatorial expert at the Royal Commission for AlUla, who led the Hinat initiative, tells The National the project was a way to bring people “face to face” with a member of the Nabataean civilisation. Aligning with Hegra's 15-year anniversary is simply “serendipitous”, she adds.

“I think for most people, [Hegra] evokes this idea of the monumental tombs, more so than the understanding of the Nabataeans as a living people, as a culture that had these huge, impressive cities on the ancient incense routes," she says.

Hinat’s skull was selected five years ago based on its level of preservation. Following this, a scientific round-table of experts came together to establish reference points for what she would have most likely looked like, her role in society and what sort of clothes and jewellery she would have worn.

“The Nabataeans were actually really terrible at doing their own portraiture but we've used contemporary portraiture from the time to choose how she would look – the jewellery is based on finds from Hegra,” McGauran says.

The reconstruction process began with a CAT scan of the skull, which allowed the team to build a digital 3D model, followed by a physical reconstruction.

Hinat was probably between her thirties and fifties when she died, McGauran adds, and suffered from various ailments, including nasal irritation, various dental abscesses, a mild defect in her spinal cord and quite severe osteoarthritis, including in her neck.

Aside from her remains, Hinat's tomb also had a story to tell. She was one of 80 individuals buried in what is believed to have been a communal family tomb – which would have been used over the course of decades, if not centuries.

“We know from some of the analysis that's been done, that some of the pathologies were shared, which indicates that they probably were blood relations,” McGauran says.

“What's really interesting about Hegra is that it has this really high concentration of tomb inscriptions, which you don't find really anywhere else in the Nabataean kingdom. And they indicate that women were able to commission tombs as well as men. They also support this idea that the tombs were very much built by relatively wealthy families and they would have been family-based.

“So we can start to understand quite a lot about how Nabataean society is structured around the family.”

The findings at Hegra indicate that there was a hereditary system of rulership in place, where kings often ruled alongside wives. Aside from the monumental tombs, there are thousands of smaller tombs, such as pit tombs, spread across the outcrops.

“And we certainly know that there were obviously wealthier members of society and not-so-wealthy members of society," McGauran says.

“So we know that there was definitely a stratification of society, but how that was particularly structured, there are lots of questions still about that.”

The region also features 50 pre-Nabataean inscriptions, cave drawings and water wells, which stand in testament to the Nabataeans’ remarkable architectural and hydraulic expertise.

“They were clearly very skilled craftsmen,” says McGauran. “There are all kinds of theories and discussions about whether some of the kinds of craftsmen and women who were working on the tombs in Petra may have also come to Hegra and vice versa.”

AlUla’s tradition of stone craftsmanship predates the Nabataeans, going back to the Dadanites and Lihyanites. The tombs themselves present a curious mix of localised and more generic Nabataean influences. They were carved from the top down, which removed the need for scaffolding.

The inscriptions themselves draw from a strikingly wide range of decorative and architectural influences including Assyrian, Egyptian, Phoenician and Hellenistic.

They indicate the epigraphic presence of multiple ancient languages: Lihyanite, Thamudic, Nabataean, Greek and Latin. These speak to AlUla’s role along the historic Incense Road.

“There’s also this idea that the Incense Road was not just about trading goods, but also about the movement of ideas and people.”

Among the diverse iconographic features are Medusa heads, Roman eagles and sphinxes, which represent the cultures and religious structures the Nabataeans were coming in contact with.

“We know that the Nabataeans were worshipping a pantheon of gods that very often had equivalents within ancient Rome, ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, and so on.”

This dynamic mix of cultural and civilisational influences was the result of AlUla’s historic role as a trade hub – a place where valuable commodities such as incense, spices and luxury goods passed through.

By the 1st century BC, Hegra had overtaken the nearby site of Dadan as the main rest stop along the trade routes linking southern Arabia to Egypt and the Mediterranean.

Hegra was the southernmost point that the Romans reached, when they conquered the Nabataean kingdom in 106.

"The Romans established some outposts and a garrison, but I think what's really interesting is that they didn't, as far as we know, take over the city," McGauran says.

“The main reason that that happened was because of this wanting to preserve the trade routes. Understanding AlUla as being at the heart of the Incense Road, and the heart of this network of routes that connected cultures and civilisations, is something that we really are keen to get across."

Earlier this year, the commission announced a new museum about the incense road – which is set to become the world’s first institution dedicated to the ancient network of land and sea trading routes. It aims to celebrate AlUla’s 7,000 years of human history, as well as its ancient role as a place of cultural and material exchange, bridging multiple civilisations.

Speaking to The National at the time, McGauran said: “A museum for the 21st century, it will be a dynamic forum of exhibition, learning and recreation, that celebrates AlUla's legacy at the centre of the incense road story.

"This vital oasis was at the heart of a thriving network of routes that once connected the ancient world, from southern Arabia north to Egypt, Rome, the Levant, Mesopotamia and beyond."

Another key aspect of AlUla’s historic growth is its geographic position as an oasis town, and the locals’ remarkable ability to capitalise on their natural resources. Hegra has more than 130 wells and evidence of water channels and reservoirs cut into the rocks, which possibly date back to the Dadanite period.

“Although it looks relatively arid, there is quite a high water table. The Nabataeans and the Dadanites before were able to really harness and innovate the use of water, so it became an area that could have a thriving community rather than just surviving in the desert.”

The region was also home to a large volume of artificial wells in rocky ground – which are still in use to this day.

McGauran says the continuing discoveries at AlUla represent a “sea change and recalibration of how we see Arabian archaeology”.

Today, she adds, archaeologists are exploring how “these Arabian societies that were very much active agents were controlling these things”.

“They weren't just passive recipients of other cultures. This was a place that was itself an absolute hotbed of creativity and cultures coming together," she says. "And this is a really unique opportunity, being right at the centre point of these networks and relationships.”

Updated: August 31, 2023, 4:11 AM