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The ancient tombs at Al-Ula during night time.          Source: OMAR A.THIAB / Adobe stock

Digs to Uncover Secrets of Ancient Enigmatic Al-Ula Civilizations

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In Saudi Arabia a new international archaeology project has been announced, that could help us to understand some long-lost civilizations. Work has begun at the Al-Ula heritage site, which was once an important city for three pre-Islamic cultures. This project is expected to provide new insights into the early history of the Middle East.

Al-Ula or Mada’in Saleh is a massive heritage site that spans many acres in the north-west mountains of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. An ambitious project, which includes the RCU, King Saud University, and the French National Centre for Scientific Research, will conduct digs at the site for two months every year for the next five years. It is believed to be one of the largest archaeological projects of its kind. Local students are expected to collaborate with international students on the planned digs. Arts & Culture states that the project will build “on the excavations completed by King Saud University in seasons conducted since 2004.”

Mysterious Desert Cities

Al-Ula was at the heart of several ancient trade routes that traversed the desert. It was especially important in the frankincense trade. This spice was brought from Yemen and was distributed all over the Near East and the Mediterranean from Al-Ula. Archaeology News Network states that “with oases dotting the area, it offered a much-needed respite for weary travelers, becoming a popular place to rest, commune and recharge.” This is why the location was occupied by several civilizations and based on its astonishing remains became so rich.

Nabatean Conquest

Al-Ula was an important urban center for three civilizations, the Dadan, the Lihyanite and the Nabatean because it was situated on an oasis. The Dadan Kingdom was one of the first urban societies in Arabia and was possibly mentioned in the Old Testament. It mysteriously collapsed and was succeeded by the Lihyan state, which is often seen as a later development of the Dadan culture.

The Lion Tombs of Dadan at ancient oasis of Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia. (hyserb / Adobe stock)

The Lion Tombs of Dadan at ancient oasis of Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia. (hyserb / Adobe stock)

It appears that in the first century BC, the Nabateans from modern Jordan conquered Al-Ula and the Lihyanites. They turned the settlement into a beautiful city and the present-day ruins have been likened to a Saudi Petra, a reference to the Nabatean city, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  When Trajan conquered the Nabateans in 106 AD, the Lihyanites regained their independence and their descendants live in the area between Jeddah and Mecca to this day.

Why Was the City Abandoned?

The new project will focus on the excavation of Dadanite tombs, temples and other examples of monumental architecture. It is hoped this will provide new clues into the reasons why the Dadan culture collapsed and its population fled. Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Suhaibani told Archaeology News Network that “we do know that the Dadan Kingdom came to an end by the 6 th century BC without any strong reason to support this.” One of the aims of the research is to establish why this once powerful kingdom appears to have simply disappeared. 

Outcrops at the Lion Tombs of Dadan at ancient oasis of Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia. (hyserb / Adobe stock)

Outcrops at the Lion Tombs of Dadan at ancient oasis of Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia. (hyserb / Adobe stock)

The excavations will also investigate the many remarkable Nabatean sites in the area. Al-Ula was the Nabatean kingdom’s second city. It is the location of many spectacular tombs, many of which are cut into rock faces. The team will also investigate “the so-called Islamic Fortress,” apparently built when Dadan was reoccupied at some date, reports Arts & Culture.

Archaeological Riddles

Al-Ula is rich in archaeological treasures from a period of many centuries and this is something that makes it unique.  “We’re also hoping to uncover more about the relationship between the Dadanites and the Lihyanites,” Dr. Rahman Al-Suhaibani told the Archaeology News Network. It is also hoped the digs will help experts to understand the relationship between the Lihyanite and the Nabatean periods. Arab News reports that the digs at Al-Ula can “shed light on its role at the heart of the ancient inland trading route.” They could also reveal much about the economic history of the Levant and adjoining regions.

The international project can help to solve many mysteries about the history of early Arabia and the Near East, especially why the Dadanites suddenly disappeared. This massive archaeological project will help to train a new generation of local archaeologists. It is also expected that it will boost the Saudi Arabian heritage sector and encourage more tourists to visit Al-Ula, which is part of the kingdom’s plans to diversify its economy.

Top image: The ancient tombs at Al-Ula during night time.          Source: OMAR A.THIAB / Adobe stock

By Ed Whelan

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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