Saudi Arabia’s 2,000 Year Old Ghost Town of Al-`Ula


The ancient city of Al-`Ula is arguably one of the Middle East’s most impressive ghost towns, located along the Incense Road in northwestern Saudi Arabia. Once the capital of the Ancient North Arabian kingdom of Lihyan, its patchwork of stone ruins – some over 2000 years old – blend seamlessly into the surrounding desert.

According to the Harran Inscriptions, Nabonidus of Babylonia led a military campaign in the region around 552 BC, conquering the Tayma oasis, Dedan (old Lihyan) and the ancient city of Yathrib (modern Medina).

Hundreds of years later, Lihyan was ruled by the Nabataeans until their capital at Petra was overthrown by Rome in 106 AD. The Nabataeans thus relocated to Hegra, now known as Mada’in Saleh (above), 13 miles from Al-`Ula.

The old settlement played host to the Prophet Muhammad in 630 AD while allegedly en route to engage Byzantine forces at the Battle of Tabuk. But it wasn’t until the 1200s that Al-`Ula became a major hub, the foundations of its ancient buildings reused in the making of the ruined city we see today.


The Nabataeans

  • They inhabited northern Arabia and the southern Levant from the fourth century BC until AD 106


  • Their capital was Petra in Jordan, but Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia was also an important centre


  • Their sophisticated architectural tradition was influenced by the Mesopotamians and Greeks. They carved the fronts of temples and tombs out of rock cliffs


  • There are many examples of Nabataean graffiti and inscriptions, but no substantial texts or literature have been found


  • Their status as an independent civilisation came to an end with the conquest of Nabataea by the Roman emperor Trajan


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