The Desert Rocks

In a peaceful sandstone canyon, within the mirrored walls of Maraya, a multi-purpose conference and entertainment venue, global superstar Alicia Keys entertains her audience. It’s a high-energy set: everyone is on their feet, singing, dancing, and revelling in an electrifying performance, a stark contrast to the tranquil desert outside. But this is as it should be, for AlUla has long echoed to the rhythms of memorable performances: the poetry, music, and dance that is the beating heart of Arabic culture has its roots in the depths of the desert. This is the perfect place to perform.

In recent years, many artistic disciplines have been going through a renaissance in AlUla, but perhaps none more so than music and dance. It was always there in the hearts of the people, but now the young, the not-so-young and everyone in between can celebrate the joy of song and dance openly.

A resurgence of festivals celebrating poetry, music, and dance with local, national, and international flavours started with the Kingdom’s first music and cultural festival - Winter at Tantora, and now music and dance can be found all over the country. AlUla is also home to the electronic music festival, AZIMUTH, as well as many other concerts taking place in Maraya, in the heritage sites and in the streets of AlJadidah. Celebrating local, regional and international music, AlUla is alive with performance once again.

Among the earliest performances in AlUla were the poetry recitals of the Bedouin tribes that so romantically roamed across the desert dunes. Early Arabic poetry was a powerful oral tradition, stories to be recited rather than written down. A tribe, gathered around a campfire by night, would listen to enchanting tales of love, war, chivalry, heroism, and desert life crafted by their revered tribal poets. Their works were preserved and passed down the generations by rawis, tribal storytellers entrusted with memorising and performing the poems, often adding their own dramatic embellishments. This was more than entertainment; it was a way of life that both reflected and reinforced tribal history and values.

To this poetic tradition, the Bedouin added music. Arabic poetry has a particularly musical rhythm and tone, and recitals would sometimes be accompanied by singers whose voices enhanced the poetic pattern. The choir was usually made up of women, with some playing the drums, oud, or rebab, instruments that can still be heard in modern Arabian folk music. Evolving out of these Bedouin traditions, the music developed distinctive regional styles, from the enchanting melodies of AlUla’s Hejaz to the powerful pulsing beats of the central Najd. And it was to the compelling rhythms of this poetry and music that dance emerged.

In the streets of Old Town, a troupe assemble to perform the ardah, the national dance of Saudi Arabia. Dressed in glowing white and carrying gleaming curved swords, two lines of men stand shoulder to shoulder facing each other. Between them, the drummers strike up a rhythm and a poet boldly chants verse about the occasion, the ensemble rocking harmoniously to the beat. Steeped in ancient tradition, the ardah is performed to celebrate notable events, births, marriages, religious holidays, and ends with everyone gathered around the national flag. The perfect blend of dance, music, and poetry it is exhilarating to watch—a truly compelling performance.

And this is important to a people who are used to the relative solitude of the desert. Here, perhaps more than elsewhere, performance brings a crucial sense of community. It binds people together in a shared experience, a shared appreciation of beautifully expressed emotions that range from joy to sorrow. It’s easy to imagine how such performances built essential societal bonds in and among the tribes of Arabia—that it remains so treasured today is a testament to its enduring importance.

Because the spirit of performance more than survives in AlUla—it thrives. And its beating heart is Maraya, an extraordinary structure with a mirrored façade that shimmers in the desert light, reflecting the sun’s rays like a cultural beacon to attract world-class performers from Andrea Bocelli to Usher and Seal. As the dynamic beats of Usher echo through the venue, so the timeless spirit of performance lives on in the deserts of AlUla.