fFrom the outside, Alula’s Madrasat Addira – once the country’s first girls’ school – looks like any regular school building you might find around the world. White stone steps lead up to a glass paneled double door. Pink drapes, tied with gold ribbons, are painted on the walls on either side. They reveal bouquets of flowers, tilted towards the door, presenting it to anyone who walks by.
Although the building looks distinctly unremarkable from the outside, there are some important events taking place inside. Inside, AlUla is reviving its 7,000-year-old artistic heritage. What was once a disused secondary school is now a creative space where adults learn the skills of the artisans who carved the tombs at Hegra, made the ceramics excavated at Kuhr and the statues discovered at Dadan.
Using only what is available locally, as their ancestors did, a new generation of artisans is reviving skills that, elsewhere, might be overlooked in favor of speed and profit. But things unfold differently here in Alula. Heritage, regeneration and conservation are the cogs that turn the machinery here. Hand-collected clay from the desert shapes itself into beautiful pottery. Local plants provide dyes for textiles, and geometric patterns from past civilizations are finding new light in reproduced spaces. The products of this labor provide income to artisans, most of whom are women. It is a circular economy, of sorts, between people and nature. This humble building’s epicenter of creativity is making huge waves across the rest of the valley.
This place of deep canyons and silent desert, where ephemeral civilizations crossed paths and traders traveled from east to west and south to north, was under the continuous civilization of the ancient North Arabian kingdom of Dadan, the Nabataean kingdom of Hegra, and from the Islamic period Quhr. What is happening here today echoes that remarkable past. The revival of traditional arts and ancient crafts is attracting creatives from around the world to massive new landmark projects such as Wadi Al Fan (Valley of the Arts), which is set to open in 2024. James Turrell, Agnes Denes and fellow renowned artists Ahmed Mater, will install permanent artworks that reflect the majesty of the desert around them, rejecting the idea that art can only be displayed in closed galleries and museums.
Between February and March of this year, the Imperial Landscape of Alula was host to Desert X. This site-responsive art exhibition in the desert showcases the works of 15 international artists, exploring the concepts of mirage and oasis. Jim Denevan’s angle of repose shows 365 grains of sand emanating from a central point and casting shadows as the sun passes over them. Alicja Kwade’s In Blur uses double-sided mirrors to reflect naturally juxtaposed trees and rocks to create surprise and illusion.
Alula’s commitment to artist residency programs is a step towards fostering long-lasting collaborations between international names in the arts with local communities. The aim is to create a hive of knowledge-sharing that honors the land as well as the talents of those who came before.
With such thoughtful planning and execution, there is no doubt that Al-Ula is well on its way to becoming the creative hub of the Arabian Peninsula. It would be justly deserved. To experience the start of a movement that will no doubt reverberate around the world, now is the time to visit Alula. From the moment you arrive at the airport, where you will find the exquisite work of Madrasat Addira’s artisans, and all the way to the desert, where masterpieces of international renown sit, this will be a journey that will be hard to miss. forced to forget
Alula: An Undiscovered Masterpiece
One of the oldest cities in Arabia and home to the Nabataean city of Hegra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ancient site of Alulla is being rediscovered. Visitors to this historic crossroads, once on the Incense Trail, will be among the first to discover its pristine desert oases and monumental landscape, 200,000 years of largely undiscovered human history and successive ancient civilizations – a place where archaeological mysteries are still being unraveled today.
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