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We went to the desert and fell in love…
7 reasons why you should plan a trip to AlUla & Jeddah
Around the Globe 03 Mar 2023

Lovelies, the northern hemisphere is slowly pulling itself out of the grasp of winter – but it might still take a while and some of us are planning a little escape into warmer realms to quench that mini-seasonal depression before it gets too heavy.

Here is our hot tip for you: The best trips got a bit of everything, culture, sunshine, reading, adventure, and art… and AlUla & Jeddah are just the place, here’s why: 

1) The Ladies

Dr. Afra Atiq

Since 2017 Saudi has implemented major women rights reforms and on our journey we met/encountered the work by a LOT of amazing trailblazing women such as Manal AlDowayan – منال الضويان the artist behind the super fun Desert X build-in trampolines you’ve been seeing on your insta since 2020 when Desert X expanded from its original Coachella Valley realm into the Saudi Desert, Dr. Afra Atiq accomplished poet, visual artist, diplomat, who shared with us her first ever art installation as part of the AlUla Residencies and read us her incredibly moving bilingual poetry, Sumayya Vally, the Joburg based architect and curator of the Islamic Arts Biennale or Abir Abu Sulayman  the first Saudi female licensed tour guide in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since 2018, fluent in 3 languages, Arabic, English and French, a founding member of Jeddah’s Heart that aims to revive the historical areas, who gave us an unforgettable tour of the city and many more. Sure we are a bit in an art bubble but a country on the rise, where women are actively co-creating their role in society is super exciting to visit and see. Just imagine a few days without ever encountering an almost nude female body in advertisements for stuff that has nothing to do with women. On our trip, we’ve seen women publicly breastfeeding as well as wearing full coverage. The freedom to “choose your appearance” is what we salute. And most cool girls rock the latest sneakers, jeans, and a t-shirt with a loose abaya thrown over. It is a very sunny country after all and you gotta protect your skin.

2) The Ancients

AlUla is a very special place. With 7000 Years of successive civilizations and 200.000 years of human history, it sits at the crossroads of the merchants and traveler routes between the Far East, the Middle East, and the West. In her foreword to the Arabian Nights, Wen-Chin Ouyang amazingly explains how this collection of stories roots not only in the Arab world but retold tales and taken influences from China, and India, with additions by European storytellers. AlUla is a place where you can feel all those incredible influences coming together. And somewhere between a meal sourced from the local oasis, a Saudi coffee (made from green beans with cardamon and sometimes clover), or a flat white that would win any competition with a NY barista you see it is both: Ancient and contemporary in loving conversation with its past, but looking into the now and a sustainable future.

3) Wadi al Fann

Render of Ashab Al-Lal by Ahmed Mater at Wadi AlFann. Visualization by Atelier Monolit. Courtesy of ATHR Gallery

Wadi AlFann, meaning ‘Valley of the Arts’, an ambitious, unique project. The first set of commissions will include site-specific works by Manal AlDowayan, Agnes Denes, Michael Heizer, Ahmed Mater, and James Turrell. Under the leadership and guidance of Annette GibbonsWarren & the Royal Commission of AlUla the aim is to create a series of public art commissions for the ages ( and we are not talking a decade or two but think more like a hundred years or two). While we love a good Turrell or fangirl over Agnes, we are most looking forward to seeing Ahmed Mater’s mirage piece come to life. At the museum in the old town of AlUla, you can see the stunning models and envision what is to come.

4) Nabatean tombs

Remember when in part three of the Indiana Jones series they are looking for the holy grail amongst these incredible tombs? Jup? Not all about this series from the 80s still holds up, but we surely watched it as kids thinking, oh my, I wanna see that. While Petra is in Jordan (where the film was shot) you have the unparalleled opportunity to explore the second largest tomb site, by this ancient culture: the Nabateans in the Saudi desert, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site btw. And as one person whispered: it is much nicer than Petra as they only recently opened it up to tourists and it is not yet crowded with people trying to elbow their way toward the perfect pic. 

5) Nature

You are walking on the seabed. And you can tell. The now desert of AlUla used to be the bed of the Tethys Sea a body of water that existed roughly 200 million years ago. The stunning rock formations you can see, hike and explore are mostly formed by the water and then the winds. Take time to explore and you will find ancient rock drawings, possibly by the Nabateans or other ancients that came through this magical place. The desert is so alive, from small edible plants to all kinds of critters, watch out for foot/paw prints by all the incredibly resilient camels, foxes, and birds … who call this nature reserve their home. There is even talk of attempting to reintroduce the nearly extinct Arabian Jaguar. And you will never forget a desert night sky… 

6) Jeddah

While you are down there, make sure to have a day or two in the “Grandmother” of all cities (جدة Jaddah means Grandmother in Arabic). According to ancient belief when Adam and Eve were kicked out of Paradise, Eve came down in Jeddah and until the 1950s one could visit her tomb there. While that has been debunked (but how I still wonder 😉 the old town is a delightful place to explore and learn. If you are there book a tour with Abir Abu Sulayman (her email is mentioned in the introduction). No one will explain the city better, all with a feminist view and a twinkle in her eye. Careful and mindful restoration is underway for many of the over 100-year-old buildings and it is again a testament to the international ancient trading that has always happened there, Indian carved doors, ancient important neem trees, Old town delights with its spice shops, book shops, and cafes.

7) More Contemporary Art and the Biennale

Not only once on this trip the notion was raised (by some who were alive and around for that) that Jeddah and Riyadh feel like Berlin did in 1989 and 1990 on the cusp of a new beginning. Exciting and exhilarating, and on its way into a new chapter. From a cool local gallery scene ( for example, Athr showing not one, not two, but three female artists in their multistoried gallery in the Serafi mall with a famed rooftop supposedly hosting the best parties. There is also Jameel Art Centre that houses a movie theater showing local and global arthouse films, two exhibition spaces, a baking school, and studio spaces…) and the incredible first-ever Islamic Art Biennale hosted near the pilgrims terminal of Jeddah Airport. Running until April 2023 this inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale brings together historic pieces and contemporary artists, some of them on display for the first time ever. As Sumayya, the curator said: “A site imbued with the memories and imaginations of millions of Muslims the world over as a major point of entry to the holy sites.” You can feel the magic of this place. 

Text by Anna Maja Spiess 

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