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A tour through art and history in Saudi Arabia’s desert canyons.
I WONDER HOW many days it might take for me to get used to opening my eyes and gazing upward at sandstone cliffs towering above, the bases of which start 60 feet from my bed. While not actually another planet, AlUla, an area in the northwest Medina region of Saudi Arabia, some 7,000 miles from my home in Tennessee, is the most otherworldly landscape I’ve experienced.
The hotel room I am staying in is a cabana, built in the desert canyons of the Ashar Valley. Stepping outside onto the Bedouin lounge, my personal outdoor patio, the first thing I notice is the quiet. Some combination of the surrounding mountains and the dampening effect of the desert sand creates an unnerving stillness. It is unlike anywhere I have been before. Then the wind picks up and I wonder just how long the grains of sand that are swirling at my feet have been doing that dance. Millennia?
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When offered the opportunity to travel to Saudi Arabia, I leapt at the chance. After several years of pandemic-dictated sameness, the prospect of journeying into a landscape and culture so different from my own felt compelling — essential, even. My husband was intrigued and mildly concerned. Would I require a male chaperone to move about? What would I need to wear? And most urgently, could I be sure to bring him back some Arabian oils?
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I also wondered what it would be like traveling in Saudi Arabia as a woman. I soon learned that with the launch and successful implementation of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s multipronged initiative to wean the country off its reliance on fossil fuels and diversify its economy, Saudi Arabia has been undergoing rapid social change. With the explicit aim of broadening tourism, the country now allows live music concerts, unchaperoned women in public, and women drivers. The most conservative apparel mandates for women have been lifted as well. While men and women are still expected to dress modestly — and, as I discovered, still mostly do — foreign women are no longer required to wear the hijab or the traditional abaya, the (historically black) floor-length long-sleeved robe worn atop clothing.
While not obligated to wear an abaya, I was unsure whether my existent wardrobe would provide enough modesty for my own social comfort. Traditional black abayas are available online in the United States (mostly in itchy-looking synthetic blends), but I ended up purchasing a few hand-dyed monochrome tie-dye tunic garments instead, and a long-sleeve linen dress (albeit in red) from Etsy. Though I was mocked by my sister for my color choice (she sent me screenshots of the “Sex and the City” movie, featuring the cast riding camels in full Patricia Field fashion), I figured I would just stick with my neutral linen garb if the red felt totally inappropriate in situ.
Toward the end of the 13.5-hour flight from New York to Riyadh, I observed many women who had boarded in leggings and sweatshirts pull out their abayas in preparation for landing. It was a transition I hadn’t anticipated but that now seemed obvious. I was glad I’d packed my drapey scarf and tunics in my carry-on.
On my layover in Riyadh, I traipsed through an upscale mall where local women in full abaya, hijab, and niqab — the veil that women wear that covers the face, exposing only a slim slit of the eyes — walked in and out of Victoria’s Secret and Zara. I took in the contrast between the shoppers and mannequins clad in revealing crop tops and short shorts.
AlUla is 565 miles from Riyadh, about an hour-long flight (there are direct flights from Paris and Dubai, and more cities forthcoming). The region covers approximately 11,300 square miles, an area about the size of Belgium. A central trading crossroads along the Silk Road (linking the Western world to the Middle East and Asia), the Incense Route, and the Road to Mecca, AlUla has been home to settlements for over 7,000 years. Named Dedan in the Torah and Bible, AlUla was long referred to as haunted and cursed in a (now contended) Hadith by Mohammed.
I recommend arriving at night to this area to maximize the wow factor upon awakening. We touched down in AlUla around 9 p.m., arriving at our hotel in time for a midnight dinner of saffron shrimp, pickled vegetables, and a hazelnut-encrusted ribeye. We then stumbled back to our rooms and crumpled into bed.
The recently opened Habitas is the standout property of the area (it will be soon joined by a new Banyan Tree, opening later this year). The Habitas model is conscientiously unobtrusive; all building elements are CAD-designed and then flat-packed, and installed.
The result is spaces that have a certain ephemeral feel, as if the whole place might be picked up and moved, a modern-day very luxurious Bedouin encampment of sorts. The hotel’s sister property, Caravan by Habitas, is located within a few minutes’ drive, and features a series of 22 Airstreams turned modern hotel rooms, unified by a large common lounge tent that encourages guests to intermingle and connect.
Every Habitas guest is given an e-bike to travel between the restaurant, spa, and lobby areas (golf-cart service is available for the less intrepid). I loved the e-bike, and felt as though I could spend a whole day just circling the property, desert wind in my face.
The Habitas AlUla grounds were the inaugural location of Desert X AlUla in 2020, the site-specific contemporary art exhibition that originated in California’s Coachella Valley. The hotel kept some of the installations from that exhibition, creating an atmosphere of surreal playfulness throughout the property. Notably, the piece by Manal Aldowayan entitled “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t” is comprised of a group of small black circular trampolines tucked between the mountainous rocks. A commentary on water scarcity, these “puddles” invite the viewer to engage physically with the piece, cleverly demanding a focus shift away from the vistas.
For most visitors, the principal draws to AlUla are the heritage sites and the contemporary art scene, of which a cornerstone is the Desert X AlUla biannual show. The first site-responsive curatorial effort in the country, Desert X’s second installment had just opened when I visited. Free to the public, the 2022 show features 15 installation pieces by (predominantly Middle Eastern) international artists themed “Sarab,” exploring ideas of mirage and oasis.
The most successful pieces find a way to engage the viewer to play with the extraordinary landscape, whether with a series of alternating empty steel frames and mirrors that altered perception, as in Alicja Kwade’s “In Blur,” or with the striking “Gold Falls” by Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey, a glistening golden tapestry that cascades down one of the mountains, the site of an ancient waterfall. Upon closer inspection, the viewer realizes the tapestry is not made from fabric, but woven from plastic water jugs, which the artist’s community relies on to source clean water.
But the real jewels in AlUla’s offerings are the historic sites. Having opened to tourists only recently, they are (at least for now) sparsely visited, almost shockingly so given their rich historical significance. Dadan, the capital of the Dadan kingdom (late ninth to early eighth century B.C.) and Lihyan kingdom (fifth century to second century B.C.), boasts extraordinary tombs intricately carved into the sandstone cliffs 165 feet above ground level. The nearby Jabal Ikmah, AlUla’s “open-air library,” displays thousands of centuries-old inscriptions in Aramaic, Dadanitic, Thamudic, Minaic, and Nabataean that (again, for now) may be viewed from a distance of only a few feet.
The site with the greatest allure, however, is Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. The largest preserved location of the Nabataean people south of Jordan’s Petra was only opened to the public in 2020. Before that, it was largely undisturbed for several thousand years, owing in no small part to that aforementioned curse.
Once a bustling metropolis, Hegra is now mostly a necropolis: the tombs are the primary architectural remains. Visiting Hegra is like entering a shockingly accessible portal to ancient civilization. While Petra is in danger of collapsing due to the preponderance of tourist visitors, Hegra feels remarkably unguarded. Visitors are allowed to enter several of the tombs (those that have not been specifically marked with a curse), but no physical barriers prevent entry to the others. I observed several entitled tourists disregard the request of the guides, instead proceeding to walk in. It’s hard to imagine these sites will remain so accessible for long, but having the opportunity to experience them at such close proximity felt like a singular experience.
Soon, visitors to Saudi Arabia will also have the opportunity to interface with wild animals at AlUla’s Sharaan Nature Reserve, which has initiated efforts to protect critically endangered species such as the Arabian leopard in a concentrated rewilding program. I didn’t get to gaze at a leopard on this trip, but I did ride a camel through the desert and hold a hawk as part of a Bedouin tent experience.
Our group also visited an all-women’s trade school where students learn traditional regional crafting techniques like ceramics, rug design, jewelry making, and palm weaving. Alongside the school, where the women did their best to patiently teach us the weaving techniques they executed so deftly, our experience included a series of voluntourism events, a method of sustainable tourism. AlUla is an oasis in the desert, and as such contains massive orange groves. We didn’t only tour the groves but also learned how to graft non-native orange varietals onto native orange trees. I also planted my first olive tree.
Vision 2030 has implemented the international education of Saudi tour guides, or rawis, and employs many women in these roles. Our agricultural guide, Ebithal, had been working as an occupational therapist prior to experiencing the agricultural tour herself; she became so entranced with the organization she changed trajectories and became a rawi. She traveled to AlUla for the high season to perform this role but, notably, not alone — her brother was our rawi for the next experience, which involved making bricks from mud, sediment, and straw, and contributing to the restoration of the traditional structures in the old town. At one point, we were knee-deep in muck, performing the traditional mud-brick mixing method with our feet. I felt like Lucille Ball crushing grapes; that is to say, ridiculous.
Our final evening in AlUla was spent at Maraya, the Guinness World Record holder for largest mirrored building in the world. At certain times of day, the building itself is a mirage, disappearing entirely into its landscape. A convention center and concert hall with exhibition space, we walked through the “What Lies Within” exhibit, a show curated from the Saudi art patron and collector Basma Al Sulaiman’s private collection, which had previously been exhibited exclusively online in a metaverse type of digital experience.
There was a concert at Maraya that evening. In the ladies’ room during intermission, I watched women freshen their lipstick and fix their hair, then cover themselves up completely under their niqabs. Throughout the trip, I was transfixed by glamorous women in full Saudi burqas who revealed a loyalty to fashion in the form of sneakers (Yeezy, Balenciaga), handbags (Chanel, Fendi), and meticulously applied eye makeup, winged liner, and perfectly curled eyelashes.
I left Saudi Arabia with a deeper fascination for a place experiencing a rapid seismic shift. It wasn’t just the rock formations that delivered the feeling of being somewhere very far away from my Nashville home. It was also in the complex evolving tensions between old and new, religious and secular, male and female — which I knew, as a foreigner, I could only partially understand.
Part of the lure of this trip was the internal discomfort of moving through a foreign landscape and culture. After two years spent largely at home, I needed that sense of dislocation. After all, growth relies on discomfort. I was happy to be suspended in these dynamics for a time (save for the extravagantly long line for the women’s security at the airport. Just like restrooms, the men’s line was empty, the women’s stretching a hundred yards back and moving at a snail’s pace).
Returning home, I wrapped my kids in the Saudi farwas I’d brought back for them, heavy traditional coats used to protect against the chill of the desert nights. I dabbed a bit of the oud oil I’d brought back for my husband on all our wrists, happy to envelop us momentarily in an aroma from the Saudi landscape, right there in the middle of Nashville.
Ivy Elrod is a multidisciplinary creative living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her writing has most recently been published in the new Playgirl Magazine. She is also an actress and a playwright, and was once the youngest Rockette at Radio City. She is now principal designer and founder of Wilder, an experiential showroom and contemporary design firm.
Skye Parrott is the editor-in-chief of Departures. A magazine editor, photographer, writer, and creative consultant, she was previously a founder of the arts and culture journal Dossier, and editor-in-chief for the relaunch of Playgirl as a modern, feminist publication.
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