The pilgrims would probably have seen the date trees first: A sea of spiked green palms, verdant against the barren backdrop of dramatic sandstone mountains. This welcome sight, perhaps the first lush vegetation they’d seen for days, promised respite from the harsh privations of their desert journey. Nestling close to the palms lies a dense network of buildings—houses, shops, markets, and mosques—everything the weary traveler wants. Tonight, the pilgrims will drink fresh water, eat fresh food, and sleep in safety. For this is AlUla Old Town, one of the oasis cities that sustained the pilgrimage routes to Makkah over the centuries.
Crossing the deserts of Saudi Arabia was always dangerous, an almost impossible journey without the lush oases that punctuated the sandy wasteland. Here, where quirks of geology brought water to the surface, villages, towns, and cities emerged so that by traveling between these green havens, the vast expanse of desert became navigable. Even so, people needed a good reason to make such perilous journeys. From at least the beginning of the first millennium BCE, the main reason appears to have been trade, bringing valuable aromatics such as frankincense, myrrh, and other luxury goods from southern Arabia to eager markets in Egypt, the Mediterranean, and Mesopotamia. Profit made the desert crossing worthwhile, and the Incense Route through AlUla stimulated the growth of oasis cities like Dadan and Hegra. Then the routes shifted, the incense trade slowed, and AlUla’s deserts may have quietened—until the rise of Islam.
For nearly 1,400 years, the pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca), known as the hajj, has been an important milestone for Muslims, forming one of the essential religious practices that make up the Five Pillars of Islam. Every Muslim who is physically and financially able is obliged to visit the holy city of Makkah at least once in their lives. As the Islamic faith expanded across the Middle East and into North Africa, devout Muslims needed to find ways to visit the Holy City, and for many this meant crossing the deserts of Arabia. AlUla’s waters helped make this possible.
A main overland pilgrimage route relied on the oasis of AlUla to help pilgrims reach Makkah for the hajj and the holy city of Madinah. Thousands of pilgrims would gather in cities such as Cairo or Damascus where they could join great caravans often arranged by local rulers. Traveling in a caravan offered pilgrims greater safety, comfort, and company on the long journey—from Damascus to Makkah took about 40 days. Crossing the desert, the camel was the animal of choice for its ability to carry great loads and live on little water. Tied together in lines and columns, thousands of camels might wind their way through the sandy landscape following a route marked out with rocks. Depending on the terrain, the caravan might cover five kilometers an hour for 14 hours a day, driven by the need to reach the next oasis and to arrive in Makkah before the eighth day of the Islamic lunar month of Dhū al-Ḥijja, when the hajj rituals would begin.
To do this, many early pilgrims passed through AlUla’s city of Qurh, an established trading center that grew even more prosperous with the coming of the caravans of pious Muslims. The 10th-century geographer Al-Muqadassi described Qurh as a town “most flourishing and populous, and the most abounding with merchants, commerce, and riches.” Excavations have shown that the “pretty houses” he describes were elaborately adorned with decorative brickwork—a welcome contrast after the desert. From the 12th century, AlUla Old Town became the main stopping point for pilgrims in the AlUla valley. In addition to its densely packed houses, AlUla Old Town had many mosques and markets. Camped outside the city, pilgrims could rest, wash, and stock up on essential supplies, often selling trade goods they had brought to help cover their costs. Any excess baggage could be safely left as the caravans set out once more for Makkah.
And these travelers left their mark: As well as writing evocative descriptions in journals, many engraved inscriptions on the sandstone rocks along their route, especially as they approached Qurh and AlUla. Among them are the earliest dated Arabic inscription in stone and the more than 450 inscriptions carved into the rocks of Jabal Aqra’a. Such inscriptions, often prayers or expressions of faith, include imploring God to protect them on their travels, for it was a very dangerous journey. In 1367, Khalid al-Balawi al-Andalusi wrote of the “hardships and obstacles” that must be endured and “the doubt that exhausts travelers and causes companions to perish.” Even with the shelter of the oases, the physical exertion could be fatal, and there were the constant threats of disease and banditry—mortality among pilgrims was high.
With religion and the hajj so central to Arab society, the Muslim authorities did much to improve conditions along the pilgrimage routes. They marked the roads with boundary stones, dug wells, built open-air reservoirs called birkahs, and established fortified rest stops and watch towers to protect pilgrims from attack. Such provisions continued through the caliphate and later centuries until, in 1900, the construction of the Hijaz Railway was begun to connect Makkah with Damascus and, ultimately, Istanbul. For an affordable price, pilgrims would be able to reach Makkah in just four days. By 1908 the railway extended as far as Madinah, passing through several stations in the AlUla region and doubling the number of pilgrims on the hajj. However, the Hijaz Railway never reached Makkah. It was repeatedly attacked during the First World War, and never recovered from the damage: By the 1920s significant sections of the line were abandoned.
Today, pilgrims might glimpse AlUla from the air as they fly into Jeddah, once the historic gateway to Makkah by sea. It’s a far safer and easier journey, enabling over a million pilgrims to perform the hajj each year. But for centuries, without the abundant water, fertile lands, and friendly inhabitants of AlUla, the hajj would have been impossible for all but the most determined. As the 14th-century pilgrim and traveler Ibn Battuta wrote of his own experience crossing the desert: “He who enters it is lost, and he who leaves it is born.”
Journey through time to discover the rich history of AlUla here.