Story highlightsAs Saudi Arabia gears up for tourism, a massive archaeological survey has been launched in the kingdom’s north westCutting edge technology is revolutionizing the work of archaeologistsArchaeologists are astounded by their findings. Remains date back to the Neolithic.
(CNN)Leaning out of a helicopter’s open door, 500 feet above the ground, David Kennedy is treated to bird’s eye views of immense sand dunes and lava fields strewn with giant black domes and boulders. Among these natural wonders are mysterious triangular constructions, a beautifully preserved ghost town and elaborate ancient tombs — the archaeological treasures which Saudi Arabia hopes will earn it a place on the heritage tourism map.
This other worldly landscape is Al-Ula county. Covering nearly 9,000 square miles (22,500 sq km), in north-west Saudi Arabia, it is about the same size as New Jersey. Kennedy is part of an international team carrying out what they say is the Kingdom’s largest ever archaeological survey, which began in March. Unlike its regional neighbors Egypt and Jordan, Saudi Arabia is not well-known for ancient history. But that might be about to change.Team members say they have already identified thousands of archaeological sites, found evidence suggesting that people have lived in the area for much longer than was previously thought, and encountered bizarre structures, the function and meaning of which are shrouded in mystery. Photos: Exploring Al-UlaAl-Ula – A massive archaeological survey has been launched in Al-Ula county, in north west Saudi Arabia, as the Kingdom prepares to develop the area and open up to mainstream tourism. Covering nearly 9000 square miles (22,500 sq km), Al-Ula county has a dramatic desert landscape. Hide Caption 1 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaAl-Ula valley – Much of the survey is concentrated in Al-Ula valley, a historical oasis where date palms flourish.Hide Caption 2 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaAncient Dedan – These tombs are carved into cliffs near Dedan — the first major city built in Al-Ula valley. Now called Al-Khuraybah, Dedan prospered thanks to passing trade in valuable commodities including frankincense, myrrh and precious stones. It had its heyday around 500 BC.Hide Caption 3 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaLion tombs – The lion carvings above these tombs near ancient Dedan indicate that high status people were buried here. Hide Caption 4 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaMada'in Salih – The Nabataeans established their major southern city just north of Al-Ula valley. They carved spectacular tombs into rocky outcrops at Mada’in Salih, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.Hide Caption 5 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaAl-Ula Old Town – Occupied from at least the twelfth century right up until the 1980s, Al-Ula Old Town contained around 900 houses and 400 shops made of stone and mudbrick. Hide Caption 6 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaAl-Ula Old Town – The labyrinthine streets were protected by a defensive wall. Hide Caption 7 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaRock formations – Carved by the elements, some of Al-Ula’s rocks have taken on surprisingly sculptural — and human-like — forms.Hide Caption 8 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaElephant rock – Known locally as Jabal Al-Fil, Al-Ula’s iconic elephant rock looks just like … an elephant.Hide Caption 9 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaCairn – The most common man-made structures are cairns — piles of stones arranged on top of a grave, often surrounded by a circular wall. “When I first saw them from the air, I thought they must be only hundreds years old because they were so well preserved,” says archaeologist David Kennedy. “But when we landed, we realized they were built thousands of years ago. They were built with such care that they are still intact.”Hide Caption 10 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaCairn – The cairns in Al-Ula’s hinterland measure up to 65 feet (20 meters) in diameter.Hide Caption 11 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaCairn and triangle – Some of the cairns have one or more associated triangular structures which point towards the grave. Hide Caption 12 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaCairn and triangle – The triangles are a mystery — archaeologists have no idea what they symbolize.Hide Caption 13 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaTriangle – Most take the form of isosceles triangles and have been constructed with great precision so that the longest point is directed towards the grave.Hide Caption 14 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaGates – Some of the most enigmatic features in the landscape are “gates”. So-called because they resemble field gates when viewed from the air, the structures consist of short, wide stone walls linked by long parallel walls.Hide Caption 15 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaGates – Archaeologists are baffled by the gates. “There are no entry points and we don’t know what they were used for,” says David Kennedy.Hide Caption 16 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaKite – “Kites” are another intriguing feature. It is thought that they were used to funnel herds of animals, such as gazelle, into a killing enclosure for slaughter.Hide Caption 17 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaInscriptions – Some of Al-Ula’s rocks and cliff faces are adorned with inscriptions written in a number of languages including Arabic (seen here), Aramaic, Nabataean, Greek and Latin.Hide Caption 18 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaHunting scene – Other rock faces feature engraved art. In this scene ibex — a type of wild goat — are being hunted with bows and arrows.Hide Caption 19 of 20 Photos: Exploring Al-UlaOstrich – This carving dates from the period before 6,000 BC, when ostriches lived in Al-Ula. Climate change records show that after this time, the landscape transitioned from savannah to desert. As the environment dried up, the ostriches were driven south to their current range in Africa.Hide Caption 20 of 20Amr Al Madani, CEO of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula (RCU), which was established last July to drive the development, hopes the region will welcome its first visitors in four years and that by 2035, once the project is complete, up to 1.5 million tourists will visit annually. Read MoreTo put that in perspective, 464,000 tourists visited Petra, in Jordan, and 5.4 million visited Egypt in its entirety in 2016. “Al-Ula will be a living heritage, nature and cultural museum — a destination that both surprises and delights,” says Al Madani. The birth of Saudi tourism?Until now, almost all international visitors to Saudi Arabia have been either business travelers or religious pilgrims, but the government says it is opening up the country to mainstream tourism as part of economic reforms designed to end its dependency on oil exports, outlined in its Vision 2030 plan. As well as Al-Ula, the Kingdom is developing a string of resorts along the Red Sea coast, and a Six Flags-branded theme park in Riyadh. However, a tourist visa that had been expected to launch in April has not yet been released — a representative of the Saudi government told CNN that regulations are still being reviewed by the Royal Court. The potential jewel in Saudi Arabia’s heritage tourism crown is Mada’in Salih. A collection of 111 spectacular tombs carved into rocky outcrops, and one of four UNESCO world heritage sites in the country, Mada’in Salih was built by the Nabataeans, the same civilization that created the much better-known settlement at Petra in Jordan. Along with other key sights in Al-Ula, Mada’in Salih is currently closed to the public. It will re-open when the RCU has decided how best to showcase its heritage to large numbers of visitors, while ensuring that it is carefully preserved. Last September, the commission hired Rebecca Foote, a London-based American archaeologist, to establish an archaeology and cultural heritage department. Her first project is the survey: its aim is to identify and document all remains of past human activity, and create an inventory that will help to determine which sites merit further study, conserving and being developed for tourism.”It’s an extraordinary opportunity,” says Foote. “You rarely get the chance to carry out a best-practice, state-of-the-art integrated survey on such a large scale and in a landscape that’s largely undisturbed.”Down in the valley While Kennedy leads the survey of Al-Ula’s “hinterland” another group within Foote’s team is focused on the project’s “core area.” Covering 1,100 square miles (2,890 sq km), it encompasses a valley — also called Al-Ula — hemmed in by sheer-sided mountains that rise 1,000 feet on both sides. Once rich in water, the Al-Ula valley has channeled people, and trade, along its wide, flat floor for thousands of years. Early settlements prospered thanks to passing traders transporting frankincense, myrrh and precious stones. Foote says that the first major city here, Dedan — now called Al-Khuraybah — was established during the first millennium BC. “The route from the south to Mesopotamia, Egypt and beyond ran up the western side of the Arabian Peninsula,” says Foote. Well-trodden paths linked oasis to oasis, like a dot-to-dot drawing. “The oases provided water for people and animals,” says Foote, adding that camels — which can survive with only occasional access to water — enabled long-distance trading. The trade route eventually diminished after seacraft that could safely navigate the treacherous Red Sea were developed. The valley remained relatively quiet for several hundred years and then boomed again, when Islam was established in the Middle East. “Mecca and Medina became the heartlands of the religion and a destination for pilgrims,” says Foote. “Al-Ula lay on the route south from Syria.” In recent years, archaeologists have conducted research around the core area at Mada’in Salih, Al-Khuraybah and Al-Ula Old Town, a ghost town labyrinth of stone and mudbrick houses which — according to Foote — was inhabited from at least the 12th century right up until the 1980s.But the new survey extends to many areas that have never been studied, and involves the use of cutting-edge technology that is revolutionizing the field of archaeology.A Nabataean tomb carved into the rock at Mada’in Salih.Flying machinesJamie Quartermaine, who is leading the survey in the core-area, is a pioneer in high-tech archaeology. “The scale of the work we’re doing wouldn’t have been possible in the past, using conventional ground survey methods,” he says. The process begins with a flight in a light aircraft equipped with a scanner and camera. “We take very detailed high-resolution photographs from the air,” says Quartermaine. “The camera captures objects four inches (10 cms) wide from altitudes up to 5,000 feet (1,500 meters).” The scanners use LIDAR (light imaging, detection and ranging) technology to shoot laser beams to the ground and calculate the precise altitude of each survey point.The photographic and LIDAR data is then combined to produce a 3D relief map. “It’s like GoogleEarth but with a much greater level of detail,” says Quartermaine. A drone takes photos of Al-Ula’s archaeological sites.Once he has identified promising sites, Quartermaine zooms in with drones fitted with powerful cameras. Finally, the team goes in by land. “We use 4X4s to visit sites identified from the air to verify, describe, sketch and photograph them,” he says.Ground research, says Quartermaine, is the only way to see rock art and text found on vertical rock faces that are not visible from above. His team do not have the time or resources to translate the texts, which are written in numerous languages including Aramaic, Arabic, Nabataean, Greek and Latin. Others will do that later. The rock art, however — some of which pre-dates the written word — is already yielding information. “There are pictures of giraffes, ostriches, one elephant, lots of camels and hunting scenes, ” says Quartermaine. The animals provide clues to the age of the artworks. “The giraffes and ostriches date from the period before 6,000 BC, when those species lived here,” he says. “Climate change records show that after this time, the landscape transitioned from savannah to desert. As the environment dried up, these animals were driven south to their current range in Africa.” Desert discoveriesThe level of preservation in Al-Ula is “staggering,” says Quartermaine. In the desert, the remains have not been subjected to water erosion and with so many stones lying around, manmade structures haven’t been dismantled for re-use, as often happens elsewhere.The most commonly found structures in Al-Ula are cairns — piles of stones that mark graves, sometimes surrounded by low circular or square drystone walls — which are older than anyone expected. “We don’t have verified dates yet, but it looks as if some may date to at least 4,000 BC,” says Foote, adding that some may even stretch back to the Neolithic period (10,000 to 4,500 BC). “It’s very exciting because it shows that the history of occupation of the area goes back much further than was known.” Kennedy has been equally astonished by his discoveries in the hinterland. “In 10 days of flying, we found around 4,000 sites,” he says. Some graves in this area are unlike any that Kennedy had seen before, with triangular structures positioned to point towards cairns. Kennedy believes they are unique to Al-Ula. “We don’t know the significance of the shapes,” he says. Most enigmatic of all, though, are the “gates” — stone structures that consist of short, wide walls linked by long parallel walls, which look like farm gates when viewed from above. Some in Al-Ula measure 650 feet (200 meters), the length of four Olympic swimming pools. Even larger ones are found elsewhere in the Kingdom.”Gates are unique to Saudi Arabia. I’ve never seen anything remotely like them anywhere,” says Kennedy. “There are no entry points, and we don’t know what they were used for,” he says, adding that analysis of aerial photos and ground visits might help to reveal their purpose. Will tourists come to Saudi?When tourists arrive in Saudi Arabia, Al-Ula’s standout attractions are likely to be Mada’in Salih, Al-Ula Old Town and Al-Khuraybah. Al-Ula Old Town.Saudi Arabia is collaborating with experts from around the world on the Al-Ula development and in April signed a 10-year deal with France that includes provisions for hotels, transport infrastructure and a world-class culture and art museum. Al-Madani anticipates that 50% of visitors will come from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region, the other 50% will be from overseas. But will Saudi Arabia face challenges reconciling international tourism with its conservative Islamic population and values? It has been reported that only women over the age of 25 will be allowed to visit without a male chaperone, and they will be expected to cover their bodies in searing temperatures. “I think they’ve got a problem selling Saudi Arabia in competition with, say, Jordan, which is a much more relaxed Middle Eastern society,” says Neil Faulkner, an archaeologist and historian who leads tours to Jordan and Egypt. Gina Morello, from Dallas, Texas, toured Saudi Arabia earlier this year — entering the country on a business visa. She admits to some pre-trip nerves, especially around clothing rules. “When I saw Western women … they just had the abayas (long cloaks) on and no head scarf,” she says, adding that she, too, did not don a headscarf for most of the trip. Wearing an abaya made her feel uncomfortable, however, because of the physical restriction and loss of identity. “There just weren’t a ton of women walking around,” she says. But people were unexpectedly friendly and warm. “In one park women wanted to take pictures with us … doing selfies and the peace sign.”Al Madani believes that travelers’ inherent desire to experience new places will outweigh such concerns. “Once here, people will enjoy our hospitality and authenticity, be accepting of the local traditions and customs and respect the norms and values of the communities they are engaging with.”JUST WATCHEDHeritage top of Saudi tourism plansReplayMore Videos …MUST WATCH
Heritage top of Saudi tourism plans 06:36Faulkner says a second barrier is the perception of the Middle East as dangerous, unstable and potentially hostile to Western visitors. “It has had a huge impact on cultural tourism across the region for the last 15 years,” he says, adding that the tourist industry has declined even in relatively safe destinations. He believes that Saudi Arabia faces an uphill challenge, pointing to their involvement in the war in Yemen and long-running regional conflict with Iran. “Security is, of course, an important element in anyone’s decision to travel,” says Al Madani, “but there have been very few, if any, incidents affecting travelers or tourists in Saudi in recent years, and we will continue to work hard to ensure this remains so.”Ultimately, he believes that Al-Ula’s archaeological treasure trove is strong enough to draw crowds to a country that has long captured the world’s imagination.