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Architects of Ancient Arabia

By: Carolina Ramirez Herrera

Located in the northwest of Saudi Arabia, 200km from the Red Sea along the incense road, a trade route linking Arabia with the Mediterranean lies AlUla. A destination of global significance with over 200,000 years of human history, culture- and more importantly, the latest home for the Habitas family. Thanks to a recent documentary produced by Discovery Channel, we take a look inside some of the most recent significant archaeological finds in AlUla – dating back to the first building blocks of human civilization and proving rituals have been keeping us grounded for generations. 

Amid a vast and breathtaking landscape, layers of history and forgotten civilizations are finally being explored by both local archaeologists and international historians alike – “While it’s a huge opportunity, it is also a huge challenge for us because there just hasn’t been anybody studying this part of the world in such detail.” says Saeed Al Amari, part of Royal Commission for AlUla, which has been established by the government of Saudi Arabia to preserve the heritage of the AlUla region. “The land here hides a wealth of ancient treasures.” AlUla lies beneath one of the richest archaeological regions on earth, the fertile crescent. Around 10,000 years ago people began to farm and domesticate animals like cattle. This era, also known as the Neolithic – Chalcolithic era led to what we now know as the birth of civilization.

“The land here hides a wealth of ancient treasures.”
Saeed Al Amari

For years AlUla was seen as a transient region, however given recent discoveries it is evident it served as a home for complex communities across thousands of years. One of the most fascinating recent discoveries show mysterious structures dotted around the desert in northwestern Saudi Arabia – called “mustatils” from the Arabic word for “rectangle” – making them perhaps the earliest ritual landscape ever identified. To put into perspective, the most well known ancient structures such as the pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge only came 2,000 years later. 

Researchers believe they may have been built to guide a procession from one end to the other. “We are talking about over 1,000 mustatils. These things are found over 200,000 square kilometers and they’re all very similar in shape … so perhaps it’s the same ritual belief or understanding.” says Melissa Kennedy, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth and an author of the study. The archaeologists also found rock art in the area from the same time period that supports the idea that the mustatils were used as part of a cattle cult. The rock art shows “scenes of both cattle herding and hunting,” the team wrote. So much regarding the mustatils discovery remains to be solved. Why were a few mustatils constructed on the slopes of volcanoes? Why were some highly visible while others almost hidden? The mysterious stone structures are just the tip of the iceberg in piecing together AlUla’s rich history.

“There is something magical about this place, something spiritual that just brought me to tears.”

Another compelling finding has been the depiction of animals, primarily canines in the rock art panels dating back to 4000 BC.  The team of archaeologists uncovered the earliest evidence of dog domestication by the region’s ancient inhabitants, proving the Neolithic civilization used dogs when hunting ibex, wild asses and other animals. The researchers found the dog’s bones in a burial site that is among one of the earliest monumental tombs identified in Arabia, evidence showing early use of tombs and burials for at least 600 years, an indication that the inhabitants may have had a shared memory of people, places and the connection between them. “They show that this part of the world is far from the eternal empty desert that people often imagine, but rather somewhere that remarkable human cultural developments have taken place.” says archaeologist Huw Groucutt. 

These discoveries are inspiring a new generation of exploration, to once again make AlUla a global cross-roads. Until now AlUla has been the modern world’s best-kept secret. For those craving new perspectives and the unknown, Habitas AlUla welcomes you home this fall.

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