Up until a few years ago, few people had heard of AlUla.
In Saudi Arabia’s Madinah province, the ancient oasis was unknown even to many in the kingdom. Recent cultural and political shifts, however, such as an attempt to bring in more foreign holidaymakers as the kingdom relaxes social rules, have brought the area renewed attention.
The otherworldly desert landscape that had once been difficult to access has since been burgeoning as a luxury tourist destination and global film hub.
AlUla’s future is exciting, but perhaps even more inspiring is the fact that more than 2,000 years of history has seemingly and suddenly sprung up from the sands.
Archaeological excavations and studies are gradually uncovering more fascinating facts about the area, getting an insight into the rituals and languages of the people who lived there centuries ago.
A new documentary by National Geographic takes viewers to the front line of some of these discoveries. Lost Treasures of Arabia: The Ancient City of Dadan unpacks the historic city of Dadan, one of AlUla’s major trade stations of the incense route.
The 44-minute film, which had its premiere on National Geographic Abu Dhabi on Monday, explores a city that had been concealed by sand for centuries. With it being named in several Abrahamic texts, experts had surmised of its existence, but it was Saudi researchers who determined its location three decades ago.
Lost Treasures of Arabia: The Ancient City of Dadan highlights these achievements, while following Saudi and international archaeologists as they unearth new information on the Dadanite and Lihyanite kingdoms that ruled over Dadan in its heyday.
The mysteries and legacy of the city are explored in depth and, through footage from AlUla’s archaeological sites, historical re-enactments and story-driven cinematography. The documentary attempts to edge closer to answering the question of why the Dadanite kingdom disappeared.
“The AlUla region has traces of an advanced pre-Islamic society that has been in the dark for more than 2,000 years," says Ivan Bouso, the documentary’s executive producer. “This documentary answers a lot of questions. Who were the people living here? Who destroyed them? How did they disappear?”
The city of Dadan, Bouso says, was a metropolis, or even a smart city of its time. It cleverly made the most of its surrounding environment and its people used the mountains to protect themselves from invaders. The nearby oasis, meanwhile, provided water.
“The city of Dadan was one of the major outposts on the incense road, one of the most important trading routes in history,” he says. “We could compare Dadan with what London, New York or Dubai is now. It is a place that was attracting a lot of people, and a lot of trading was happening. It was a very important place, and it was lying beneath the desert.”
The documentary also captures archaeologists as they uncover new artefacts and bygone technologies that highlight just how advanced these ancient civilisations were for their time.
“We had the privilege of working with an archaeological team and we were shooting them as they were unveiling all these amazing artefacts in front of us,” Bouso says. “We were able to join them while they were digging during the excavation season.”
One of these discoveries was a large basin made from one giant piece of stone. What’s amazing, Bouso says, is that there isn’t a quarry nearby where it could have been sourced from.
“It is a huge and amazing basin,” he says. “It is carved. It’s a bit of a mystery as to where it came from. In terms of technology, it’s also amazing the way they approached the oasis to bring the water into the city.”
Another discovery was a staircase carved into the mountain rock that rose to 30 metres. Bouso was tight-lipped about where the staircase led to, encouraging viewers to see the documentary for the surprise. “Seeing the mountain and the staircase carved into it was one of the most amazing things I’ve witnessed,” he says.
In the documentary, the archaeological team also set out to find an old burial site in the hopes of learning about the funerary practices of the Dadanites.
“I’m not going to spoil it,” Bouso says. “I’m not going to say whether we found it or not, but archaeologists spent a lot of time there, and we were also working with them, looking for traces.”
Bouso has been an executive producer at National Geographic for almost two decades, focusing on documentaries from the Middle East, Africa and Europe. He has travelled to more than 120 countries for his work, but says the project at Dadan has a special significance to him.
“The thing with this city is that it was covered by sand, it was mentioned in three different Bibles and experts knew it had to be there, but they didn’t know where,” he says.
“Thanks to Saudi pioneers who were there more than 30 years ago, studying the scripts that were engraved in stones there, and they were the ones that brought to life something that had been in the sand for more than 2,000 years.”
Lost Treasures of Arabia: The Ancient City of Dadan is being screened on National Geographic Abu Dhabi. More information is at www.natgeotv.com/me