Trudging up a caramel-hued cliff pocked with ancient tombs, guide Bandar al-Anazi gazed at the stunning view: a windswept desert landscape of pre-Islamic ruins at the centre of Saudi-Franco preservation efforts.
Al-Ula, an area rich in archaeological remnants, is seen as a jewel in the crown of future Saudi attractions as the austere kingdom prepares to issue tourist visas for the first time – opening up one of the last frontiers of global tourism.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is set to sign a landmark agreement with Paris on Tuesday for the touristic and cultural development of the northwestern site, once a crossroads of ancient civilisations.
All of Al-Ula is an open air museum,” Anazi said during a media tour just days before Prince Mohammed’s trip, revealing a patchwork of rock-cut tombs containing niches for burials.
“There is so much history here still waiting to be discovered.”
The tombs, some containing pre-Islamic inscriptions and drawings such as hunting scenes, are a legacy of the Nabataean artistic tradition. The chiseled rock art forms could help unravel the mysteries of millennia-old civilisations on the Arabian Peninsula.
The area, roughly the size of Belgium, served as an important way station and bedouin watering hole on the trade route linking the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and India. It is home to the kingdom’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Madain Saleh, built more than 2,000 years ago by the Nabataeans.
“Every day something new is being discovered,” Jamie Quartermaine, an expert from the Britain-based Oxford Archaeology group, told AFP.
“The potential is endless. Look behind you,” he said, pointing at ancient animal art depictions engraved on a rocky spur inside an Al-Ula hotel resort.