Four Unesco sites to visit in Saudi Arabia

In addition to the city of At-Turaif, the Kingdom has four sites and each offers a unique historical glimpse into a land less visited

Al-Asfar lake ecosystem
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Saudi Arabia's festivals are currently acting as the tourism gateway for the Middle Eastern country but it won't be too long before the Kingdom expands its offerings further. That's good news for visitors who'll have plenty to see from ancient archaeological sites and the rock-hewn tombs of the Nabataeans to natural springs and a Red Sea coastline that's waiting to be explored.

Al-Ahsa Oasis

epa06850276 An undated handout photo made available by UNESCO on 29 June 2018 shows a view of the Al-Ahsa Oasis in the desert of Saudi Arabia. The palm tree oasis has been added to the UNESCO World Heritage list, it was announced during the 42nd session of World Heritage Committee held in Manama, Bahrain on 29 June 2018.  EPA/Francois Cristofoli / UNESCO / HANDOUT ATTENTION: Reissuers most attribute the work to the copyright holder when they use it. Reissuers are not allowed to distribute derivatives of the work. Essentially the work cannot be modified. HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
A view of the Al-Ahsa Oasis in the desert of Saudi Arabia. Courtesy Francois Cristofoli / UNESCO 

Home to more than 2.5 million date palms, Al-Ahsa Oasis is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest oasis on Earth. Sandwiched between Riyadh and Dammam and stretching over the Empty Quarter, it was added to Unesco's list of World Heritage Sites last year. While rainfall there is scarce, the area is extremely verdant, thanks to a huge natural underground aquifer that turns the land into fertile soil, so the oasis produces five tonnes of some of the best dates in the world every day. There are also more than 60 natural springs, a huge lake, historical buildings and ancient archaeological sites where history buffs can trace details all the way back to the Neolithic period.

Al Hijr Archaeological Site

AL-ULA, SAUDI ARABIA - JANUARY 23: Nabataean tomb in madain saleh archaeologic site, Al Madinah Province, Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia on January 23, 2010 in Al-ula, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Art In All Of Us/Corbis via Getty Images)
AL-ULA, SAUDI ARABIA - JANUARY 23: Nabataean tomb in madain saleh archaeologic site, Al Madinah Province, Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia on January 23, 2010 in Al-ula, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Art In All Of Us/Corbis via Getty Images)

If it's ancient ruins in a Bedouin land that you seek, then Al Hijr is a must-visit. Also known as Madain Saleh, in 2008 it became the first Unesco World Heritage Site in Saudi Arabia. If Jordan's Petra represents the northern capital of the Nabateans, then Al Hijr represents the south. It is nicknamed "the capital of monuments", no mean feat given that Saudi Arabia has some 4,000 archaeological sites. Wander this one site and discover rock carvings, ruins and more than 100 monumental tombs. Thanks to its location as an important crossroads in travel and trade routes for many years, many of the detailed facades are also inscribed with a medley of languages, scripts and art forms.

Historic Jeddah

Historical buildings are seen in the UNESCO-listed heritage site in the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah on July 7, 2015. Residents of the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah are slowly returning to its historic centre, where a Ramadan cultural festival and UN heritage status are giving new life to the old quarter.  AFP PHOTO / AMER HILABI (Photo by AMER HILABI / AFP)
Traditional buildings in the UNESCO-listed heritage site of Historical Jeddah. AFP PHOTO / AMER HILABI 

A point of great importance for traders and pilgrims for centuries, Historic Jeddah was traditionally the gateway to Makkah for all Muslims arriving in the Kingdom by boat. Nestled on the eastern shore of the Red Sea, this site was added to the World Heritage list in 2014 and is a world away from the modern metropolis that we know the city of Jeddah to be today. Wander the labyrinthine streets and twisted cul-de-sacs of the old town to discover traditional architectural styles peppered with influences from all over the world. It is known for its imposing tower houses – multistorey structures built by the merchant classes that are unique in the region. They showcase large wooden window enclosures, intricate stonework and no lack of marble. As one of the best preserved examples, Naseef House is worth a visit. 

Rock art in the Hail Region 

Several Thamudic inscriptions and camels are
depicted on a rock lying at the base of
Jabal Umm Sinman, Jubbah.
Rock art in the Al Hail Region shows inscriptions and camels on a rock at the base of Jebel Umm Sinman in Saudi Arabia. Courtesy UNESCO / Saudi Commision for Tourism and Antiquities / Dr Majeed Khan

Once upon a time, in the hills of Al Hail, ancient civilisations made use of freshwater resources to feed animals, raise families and grow crops. The societies later vanished, but what they left behind is fascinating. This Unesco site is spread across two areas, one at Jebel Umm Sinman Jubbah and the other 250 kilometres south of Hail at Jabel Al-Manjor and Jabal Raat at Shuwaymis. Between them, they offer an amazingly intricate selection of rock art, one of the world's oldest continuously practised art forms. Well-preserved carvings of people and animals, including camels, ibex, ostriches, and oryx, depict a detailed record of the world from days gone by.