Set in the sandy bed of a striking red wadi, the city of al-Ula provides insight into the history of the surrounding region before the Nabataeans’ rise to prominence in neighboring Mada’in Saleh. Inhabited as early as 500 BCE, modern al-Ula was once a stopping point on the spice trade route between modern-day Yemen and Egypt. Around 400 BCE, the city became part of the Lihyanite kingdom, serving as its capital. Known in antiquity as Dedan, the city is mentioned multiple times in the Bible as a significant trade city in the region.
As the Nabataeans began to gain influence in the surrounding region, Dedan and the Lihyanite Kingdom waned; however, modern al-Ula contains many remnants of this little-known period in the city’s history. The walled Old City of al-Ula, though largely rebuilt in the last few centuries, still utilizes many of the original mud bricks used to build the Lihyanite structures that once stood on the same site. Nearby, the winding staircase of Um al-Daraj (mother of stairs in Arabic) leads up a hill to an ancient Lihyanite altar overlooking the surrounding town and desert scenery.
At a later point in al-Ula’s history, the Ottomans constructed a major station along the Hejaz Railway in al-Ula. The steady stream of foreign pilgrims visiting the town influenced its character notably: local travelers often comment on the abundance of two-story houses, an architectural style brought in by pilgrims and not found elsewhere in the region.