Old Town and the Oasis

The ability to develop verdant vegetation is precisely the reason why AlUla has attracted so many settlers, travellers and animals for millennia, and why it was able to write its extraordinary tale in the history books. 

Thanks to the geologically fortunate presence of an aquifer – a layer of underground rock that traps groundwater and raises the water table close to the surface– an area of wetland emerged,a rare source of water in the desert which supported a rich biodiversity of plants and animals. Coupled with the gift of fertile soil, this precious supply of water enabled AlUla to thrive.  It welcomed travellers with a place to stop and rest, giving merchants a marketplace in which to trade, and handed farmers an essential ingredient with which to develop irrigated agriculture. By the 12th century, AlUla Old Town had emerged as an essential stop along the pilgrimage route from Damascus to Makkah and a forum for intellectual fulfilment. Water had been a constant source of life for AlUla well before Old Town was established. Evidence has been found to show that agriculture existed in AlUla since the Iron Age and possibly as early as the Bronze Age. It was this layer of water that the Nabataean Kingdom became so adept at extracting thousands of years earlier, creating wells to sustain the residents of Hegra and offering traders refreshment and revitalisation along the Incense Road.

But it was the industrious residents of AlUla Old Town who made the oasis their second home, building summer homes underneath the towering palms as Old Town quickly prospered. AlUla Old Town’s labyrinth of streets teemed with life from the 12th century to as recently as the 1980s. Lined by 900 tightly-packed mudbrick buildings including more than 400 shops, and five town squares, giving rise to a close-knit community. Inhabitants of the Old Town slept soundly, comforted by the knowledge that their future was assured, thanks to the oasis that acted as a lifeline in the arid desert, ensuring a secure food supply while enticing pilgrims and traders to visit and contribute to the local economy. 

Blessed with the transformative oasis beneath their feet, people began to harness the life-giving properties of its water through the construction of qanats – ingenious irrigation tunnels that transported water to crops. They also introduced a tantora, a sundial on the eastern outskirts of the Old Town that was used to both chart the seasons and help farmers regulate the distribution of water to farmland.

Today, the oasis continues to generously bestow the gift of life. Just look at the more than 200,000 citrus trees – fed by Oasis waters – that have matured over centuries while offering luscious fruits. For more evidence, wander through the two million date palm trees that rely on the Oasis in order to supply abundant harvests of 90,000 tonnes of plump, sweet dates at the end of every summer.

Deeper dives into how the oasis quenched the thirst of AlUla comes along the immersive Heritage Oasis Trail, a pleasant 3km stroll under the shade of date palms and weaving between the remnants of the ancient dwellings. It is led by one of AlUla’s knowledgeable rawis, who will help you to understand how the oasis was so much more than a beautiful back garden to the Old Town.