Sitting on the western shores of Saudi Arabia, inland from the Red Sea and spread across an arid terrain of rocky limestone cliffs and tawny-hued valleys, is the ancient desert city of AlUla. Once the epicentre of an ancient civilisation and a key stop for Pilgrims en route from the west to Makkah, AlUla is a fascinating mix of old and new. In the past five years, the once sleepy and almost forgotten landscape then untouched by tourism has become one of Saudi Arabia – and the world’s – most fascinating and beautiful destinations. Over the years, new hotels and resorts have popped up, an international airport has opened, and the worlds of fashion, luxury and dining have been captivated and inspired by its beauty.
Almost the ancient tombs, valleys and wadis, travellers to AlUla will now find five-star resorts (and soon boutique hotels), pop-ups from Harvey Nichols and Annabel’s, polo events from Richard Mille, art installations from Desert X and a new wave of culinary destinations, championing Saudi cuisine, but also Mediterranean and Pan-Asian. But AlUla hasn’t lost what it is, a historic crossroads of civilisations, and guests can experience this all today. Displaying all of AlUla’s natural glory and new-found shine Assouline, who has immortalised the beautiful landscape in one of its latest coffee table reads. Entitled AlUla Ever, the striking orange book is a must for discerning travellers, filled with beautiful and evocative imagery of the city, from its powerful and enigmatic ruins to its five-star resorts, rocky swimming pools, bustling modern-day town and the captivating global events and pop-ups the city sees each year.
‘Startlingly light, then rose and red at sunset, they stand in a desert that was born before mankind in the stony silence of the world’s first dawn. They are giant monoliths, corroded, chiselled and chipped by eternity into profiled resembling now an Indian wise man, now a Sumerian hound, a satisfied Arabian Spinx, a startled dinosaur, or wry Elephant. Here, more than anywhere, the line from Mallarme’s “The Combo of Edgar Poe” comes to mind: ‘Calm block fallen down here from some dark disaster’, reads the opening lines of AlUla Ever.
Written by French journalist and writer, Jérôme Garcin the former news editor of L’Événement du jeudi and chief editor of L’Express, the forward regales readers with the history and evolution of AlUla, from Nabateans to the present day. ‘It is a necropolis surrounded by the outskirts of what would have been a bustling city. A vast theatrical cemetery stripped bare,’ he writes. ‘It was here amongst the engravings of lions, snakes, eagles and ostriches that they laid their dead to rest, who have lain sleeping for twenty centuries. Such grandiloquence and such humility, such bulk and such fitness.’
‘The loneliness of the place adds to the emotion,’ continues the producer and host of the radio program Le Masque et la Plume on France Inter, and the deputy editor of Le Nouvel Observateur. ‘This is a land where time has stood still and where visitors can still feel alone with just the voices of the past for company. We felt we were entering a lost kingdom, the AlUla region, as large as some European countries (22,500 square kilometres) but far more enigmatic and fascinating.’
Garcin details his travels to AlUla, of walking across the virgin sands, dining at all hours in pop-up restaurants in the middle of ’dizzying canyons’ and eating delicacies beneath palaeolithic rocks. ‘At the end of the road, we slept in a refined hotel that might have been designed for Karen Blixen and Indiana Jones and awoke, eyes agog, in the middle of an age-old circus of jagged orange mountains.’
‘As though no one cared to disturb this kingdom of earthly splendour, but simply bring out its value and beauty,’ he writes of AlUla today and the work of Royal Commission AlUla. ‘This is AlUla’s premise and imperious command: to celebrate it, yes indeed, but without changing it.
‘AlUla of today, one of modern cosmopolitan world singing, dancing, violins and videos, of the Winter at Tantora Festival – now called AlUla Moments, and the ‘vast mirror covering almost ten thousand square metres of high-tech walls, aptly named ‘Maraya’ – which means “mirror” in Arabic’.
The coffee table’s prose continues to discover AlUla Old Town, the almost eerie remains of the last inhabitants who left forty years or more ago, the ruins of the great Hejaz Railway and AlUla’s literary and arts scene, not just for tourists, but fostering and nourishing local Saudi talent.
‘Visitors can stay in the rock-strewn Ashar Valley at Habitas AlUla, a sustainable home of wonder, an immersive experience where nature inspired creative expression, human connection and the persist of adventure’ writes the prologue,’ or Banyan Tree AlUla, a five-star resort offering luxury villas set among the cliffs of the valley, with private pools overlooking Maraya’.
The fashion world’s fascination with AlUla is also explored. ‘What gives this timeless kingdom of AlUla such a harmonious enduring sheen, is none can deface or betray it,’ Garcin writes. ‘Contemporary artists, designers, chefs and fashion designers – we even saw the Dolce&Gabbana show where horses paraded next to models on a runway are allowed to create here only on the clear condition they respect and celebrate this sacred site and its spectacular panoramas.
‘All they know is that they officiate here on a temporary basis. They pass by, AlUla remains. They will pass on, AlUla will remain.’
AlUla Ever, AED420; assouline.com