The lush oasis must have seemed surreal to weary traders and religious pilgrims, and it’s possible these historic trade and pilgrimage routes would have never been established without the refuge of the oasis. But along with the welcoming haven offered to travellers, the oasis has provided the civilisations of AlUla with water, sustenance and shelter for thousands of years. To this day, the verdant canopy of date palms shades inhabitants from the elements, a variety of crops flourish in the fertile soil and the oasis continues to nourish life in the middle of the desert.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE OASIS
According to local folklore, there are 80 natural springs in the AlUla oasis. They have provided water — the essence of life — to the region over the millennia. Before civilisations cultivated the region, indigenous plants, like juniper bushes and acacia trees, grew around these sources of water.
Over the years, the oasis evolved as successive civilisations developed increasingly sophisticated agricultural systems for cultivating crops. The area’s inhabitants found great success with their three-storey gardens, which mirrored the natural ecosystem of the oasis.
Using this method, the taller date palm trees sheltered the more delicate trees, like Moringa Peregrina and citrus. Beneath that second level, smaller plants, such as fragrant mint, basil and other herbs thrived on the oasis floor. Throughout the ages, the crops grown in the second and third storeys have evolved depending on the needs of the reigning civilisation; however, the top layer of date palms has remained a constant.
Below, trace the legacy of farming in the different civilisations that have established roots in AlUla.
THE DADANITE OASIS
Modern-day AlUla stands on the site of the ancient city of Dadan. Prosperously set along the oasis and trade routes to Mesopotamia and Egypt, Dadan was the wealthy capital of the North Arabian Kingdom of Lihyan, which ruled from the 6th to the 3rd century BCE. During this era, the date palm tree was introduced to the oasis and water management systems were implemented. Thus, agriculture came to Dadan.
Beneath the cover of the date palms, Dadanites grew olives, grapes and figs on the second level, while their third-storey gardens consisted of barley, wheat, oats and millet.
THE ISLAMIC OASIS
In the 7th century CE, AlUla became the cradle of Islam, and the region’s prosperity grew from its reputation as a welcoming resting place on routes travelled both for trade and religious pilgrimage to holy cities. During this era, the three-storey gardens ushered in lemons, oranges, carob, roses, jasmine and henna, as well as sesame, carrots, eggplants and aromatic herbs.
THE NABATAEAN OASIS
The Nabataeans were a tribe of nomadic traders who controlled many of the region’s incense trade routes. They became a settled civilisation in the 2nd century BCE, and Hegra in the AlUla region was their most important city to the south. The Nabataeans ruled over the oasis until the 2nd century CE, and were experts in engineering and water management. They built channels to collect rainwater that gushed down mountainsides, thereby controlling flooding, and built more than 130 wells.
The Nabataeans also took innovative steps to domesticate cotton plants. In fact, the word “cotton” has Arabic origins and is rooted in the word qutn or qutun. In the ancient Nabataean Oasis — or the Oasis of Hegra — farmers introduced new crops to the second-storey gardens, such as pomegranate shrubs and peach, apricot and wild almond trees. Below that, they grew nourishing legumes, including peas and lentils.
THE MODERN-DAY OASIS
Though the crops grown in the oasis have shifted throughout the millennia, several have withstood the ages. Date palm trees continue to play an essential role in the agricultural economy of AlUla. The oasis is currently home to 2.3 million date palm trees, and the region produces more than 90,000 tonnes of dates each year.
Likewise, citrus remains a key crop in the oasis, and today 29 varieties of fruits are grown on more than 200,000 trees. Oranges, grapefruit and lemons comprise the majority of citrus fruits cultivated in AlUla.
Native to the region, the Moringa Peregrina tree is renowned for the premium oil extracted from its seeds, considered more luxurious than that produced by other types of Moringa trees. The date palm canopy of the oasis shelters the region’s 90,000 cultivated Moringa Peregrina trees, and the oil is used today in high-end cosmetics and fragrances.
AlUla is open to visitors. You can see its agricultural wonders for yourself at AlUla Fresh, Hijrat Nora Farm and Princess Noura Farm. You can further expand your understanding of the oases role in agriculture via self-planned tours or with the assistance of knowledgeable local guides who can lead you to farm tours, oil-extraction demonstrations, shopping excursions and scenic nature hikes.