A Drama Unfolds After Dark In The Heritage Site Of Hegra In AlUla

The UNESCO World Heritage Site is renowned for its striking monumental tombs. The "Hegra After Dark" experience takes you on an immersive journey of enticing flavours, captivating storytelling, and illuminated spectacle
Guests assemble in front of one of the tombs in Jabal al-Khuraymat, Hegra, for the "Awaken the Senses" experience
Guests assemble in front of one of the tombs in Jabal al-Khuraymat, Hegra, for the "Awaken the Senses" experience Vijaya Pratap

We ride in chariots into an amber sunset of the stunningly beautiful AlUla in Saudi Arabia. The clouds of dust raised by the horses blur the silhouetted sandstone cliffs. As complete darkness envelops, the iconic Hegra tomb comes into view, surreal and glowing in the radiance of a myriad lamps. Standing alone, proud and regal, the magnificent Qasir al-Farid tomb stands for all that Hegra was: a true representative of the Nabataean Kingdom that left invaluable impressions on the annals of history, more than two thousand years ago. Hegra is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site famed for its spectacular monumental tombs. During the “Hegra After Dark” show, we are taken on a journey of captivating flavours and fragrances, fascinating storytelling and illuminated spectacles. What we see during the day comes alive after dusk.

Who Were The Nabataens?

Originally pastoral nomads herding sheep, goats, and camels across the arid expanse of the Arabian Desert, the Nabataeans were famous for their ability to locate and transport water as they made their way between grazing sites. Surviving in harsh environments, from pastoral nomads they turned master merchants by controlling the incense and spice trade routes through Arabia and Jordan to the Mediterranean, Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. Supplying the highly prized frankincense, myrrh and other aromatics further added to their wealth. As their influence and resources grew, so did their desire to create a permanent base and expand their territory. Once established, the Nabataean Kingdom went on to reach as far north as Damascus – in what is now Syria.

The Many Inventions

In the middle of the 1st century BCE, the Nabataean Kingdom extended to its southernmost point when it reached Hegra: which also possessed some geological advantages that meant it was an ideal source of food and shelter for travelling merchants. Camel-drawn caravans laden with piles of fragrant peppercorn, ginger root, sugar and cotton passed through Hegra and paid them taxes. The highly creative Nabataens pioneered the development of Arabic script; produced outstanding architecture to rival their contemporaries in Greece, Rome and classical Egypt; and came up with innovative water management systems. However, there is hardly any written evidence of their existence, culture and beliefs. 

A Metropolis Turned Necropolis

The jewel in the crown of AlUla, Hegra, once a thriving international trade hub is now an interesting archaeological site that was left practically undisturbed for almost 2,000 years. Recently Saudi Arabia opened the site to tourists with more than a hundred sandstone tombs spread over 13 km, many over five stories tall. The two-dimensional structures have Greek columns, Roman pediments, Egyptian sphinxes, Mesopotamian and Iranian elements, mostly influences of cultures they were in touch with. Images of lions, gryphons with spread wings, snakes and ceremonial motifs like rosettes and vases are seen on the tomb facades; names of the people buried, their professions (mostly military officers, governors), their relatives and at times names of the tomb carver are found. A Nabataean “crown” consisting of two sets of five stairs, rests at the uppermost part of the facade, waiting to transport the soul to heaven.

It is interesting to note that some wealthy women too owned tombs and passed them on to their descendants. Often the inscriptions on the tombs warned people of misusing the same and the consequences through curses. Natural water pipes were built around the tombs to protect their facades from erosion, which helped preserve the structures to date. Hegra’s oldest tomb dates from 1 B.C. while the latest from 70 A.D.

The Hegra After Dark Show

Set in this milieu, the “Hegra After Dark” is an immersive experience that blends the spirit of the Incense Road with multi-sensory storytelling; it evokes intellectual curiosity in a tourist to go beyond seeing tombs and inscriptions, to know who made them and when. Thanks to the Royal Commission for AlUla, Hegra is brought back to life in all its glory. As we alight from our carriages, actors dressed in period costumes as Nabataens warmly welcome us. We are seated in the Nabataean style (cushions placed on the ground) and offered hot kahwa, dates and other traditional drinks.

Nearly 3,000 candles light up the Hegra necropolis, an  archeological marvel, and a UNESCO Heritage Site
Nearly 3,000 candles light up the Hegra necropolis, an archeological marvel, and a UNESCO Heritage SiteVijaya Pratap

Presented in Arabic and translated into English, the show gives context and information about the history and tombs of Hegra, while every element pays homage to Nabateans, providing unique insights into their way of life. A short play about the Nabatean Queen Shaklith takes us to the time of the warrior queen and her battles. Filled with recreated markets and spiced with drama and dialogue, the three-and-a-half-hour-long event takes us back to a bygone era. Engulfed in the aroma of incense we wander in the Nabataen markets enjoying the sensory experiences: kohl for the eyes, henna for the hands while musicians sing ballads to the accompaniment of ancient musical instruments.

A woman dressed as a Nabataean welcomes us
A woman dressed as a Nabataean welcomes usVijaya Pratap

A man demonstrates cloth dyeing while another beckons us to see his incense collection and yet another, to smell the myrrh; a pretty lady’s shop is filled with beads in lovely colours. Amidst all this, skits take place and we gather to watch dramatic events of everyday life and relate – those of love, hatred, quarrel and reconciliation; secret rendezvous, loves declared and denied, matchmaking, negotiation and celebration. Human emotions have not changed despite the passage of millions of years. “Hegra After Dark” is not just an immersive experience- it is an ethereal dream that is created to last fleetingly for an evening; the memories are etched forever, of an era bygone and an era that taught much and to many.

The Information

Getting There: AlUla is connected to India by direct flights from major hubs like Jeddah, Riyadh, and Dammam

Stay: From 5-star luxury to Homestays, all kinds of accommodation are available.  

When To Travel: October to May. Avoid peak summer months.

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