The Ancient Kingdoms Festival in Al-Ula showcases the treasures of Saudi Arabia in Tayma and Al-Khaybar
DUBAI: For centuries, the importance of the ancient cities of Tayma, near the modern city of Tabuk in northwest Saudi Arabia, and Khaybar, an oasis north of Medina, was forgotten.
Now, the Royal Commission for Al-Ula, or RCU, is reviving these precious sites as part of the inauguration of the Ancient Kingdoms Festival, reconnecting the ancient oases of Al-Ula, Taima and Khaybar to celebrate their distinctive heritage and culture.
“This year we have created an extraordinary moment by reconnecting the trinity of Al-Ula, Khaybar and Tayma in a thoughtful approach founded on years of research,” Iman Al-Ankari, executive director of the RCU’s Department of Cultural Sites, told Arab News.
“For the first time in recent memory, cousin sites can be accessed and understood in parallel, in a continuous historical narrative.”
Tayma is mentioned in Assyrian texts dating back to the fourth century BC, and it is referred to numerous times in the Hebrew Bible. During the first century AD, it is believed that Tayma was primarily a Jewish settlement.
However, its history goes back much further than that. Archaeological discoveries reveal that Tayma has been inhabited since the Bronze Age, around the fourth millennium AD
In 2010, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage announced that a team of Saudi archaeologists had discovered the first hieroglyphic inscriptions in the kingdom referring to an Egyptian pharaoh, in this case Ramesses III (1186-1155 BC).
The discovery showed that Tayma was once an important land route between the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula and the Nile Valley in Egypt.
The first known modern records of Taima date back to the 19th century when English traveler, poet, writer and explorer Charles Montagu Doughty visited and mapped the area in 1877.
Doty had visited AlUla a year earlier, and mentioned it in his 1888 book Travels in Arabia, which constitutes the first comprehensive Western work on the geography of Arabia.
Between 1878 and 1882, French orientalist and explorer Charles Huber also visited Al-Ula to explore ancient inscriptions in the region. During this trip he discovered the Tayma Stones – a group of tablets inscribed in the Aramaic language – which were brought to the Louvre Museum in Paris in 1883 where they remain to this day.
The inscriptions describe how an Akkadian king invaded the city of Tayma, killing and enslaving its people. The Akkadians (2350-2150 BC) built the first ancient empire of Mesopotamia after the Sumer civilization.
The historical importance of Tayma stems from its strategic location on the ancient Incense Trail, which is a network of trade routes extending for more than 2,000 kilometers that transport frankincense and myrrh from Yemen and the Sultanate of Oman in the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean Sea.
Tayma is also known as the “Land of Kings,” mainly because of the mysterious Babylonian King Nabonidus, who resided there during the mid-6th century BC and once ruled the Babylonian Empire, which included modern-day Iraq and Syria.
Nabonidus was the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, ruling from 556 BC to the fall of Babylon to the Achaemenid Empire under the Persian king Cyrus the Great in 539 BC.
A remarkable person to study, some archaeologists see Nabonidus as a religious reformer and the first archaeologist.
Nabonidus conquered Taima and lived there for ten years worshiping and researching prophecies while entrusting the throne to his son Belshazzar. It remains a mystery why he chose to stay.
Today’s evidence for Tayma provides one theory as to why Nabonidus neglected his empire and moved to Tayma. Some say he may have fallen out with the basic religion in Babylon and moved to Tayma to worship a deity of his choosing, but no one can prove this hypothesis.
His exile is hinted at on a stele discovered by Saudi-German excavation teams in 2005. After his defeat at the hands of Cyrus the Great, it remains unclear whether he was executed or forced into exile.
While we will never know why Nabonidus mysteriously abandoned the city of Babylon for a remote oasis in the Western Arabian Desert, part of his legacy highlights the importance of these until recently unknown desert kingdoms.
The ancient treasures of Tayma and Khaybar form the centerpiece of this year’s AlUla Moments, and in particular, the inaugural Ancient Kingdoms Festival, which brings life to the three interconnected oases in northwest Arabia.
The festival organizes a variety of cultural performances, workshops and sightseeing opportunities, re-enacting the history and traditions of these cities, which for thousands of years served as crossroads for merchants and explorers.
Since its opening to tourists, Al-Ula has been welcoming visitors to its ancient sites, particularly the UNESCO World Heritage site of Al-Hijr.
“The Royal Commission for Al-Ula works closely with an international team of antiquities and heritage management experts to discover, revive and protect heritage sites in our region,” Al-Ankari told Arab News.
“Our vision is to create the world’s largest living open-air museum and share the treasures that are being uncovered by taking the world directly to the sites, to where history occurs, and discoveries continue.”
Festival-goers can visit the ancient Salem Temple, which overlooks a vast landscape where there once was an ancient lake, and the remains of Iron Age buildings.
They can also see Hadaj’s Well, a well believed to be the largest in the ancient world, built during the reign of Nabonidus in the mid-6th century AD.
In the fifth century AD, the well fell and was buried for several centuries until a Jewish resident, Suleiman Al-Ghuneim, discovered its location and restored it. Fast forward to 1953, and it was the turn of the modern Saudi state to add four pumps to help local farmers get enough water for their crops.
At Khaybar, which was opened to the public for the festival, visitors can explore mysterious prehistoric stone structures – best seen by helicopter flight – and the volcanic site of Hart Khaybar, where they can enjoy adventurous trails through lava tubes in Umm Jarsan.
Highlights of AlUla include trips to Hegra, the ancient kingdom of Dadan, once the capital of the Dadanite and Lihyanite kingdoms, where visitors can join a “trainee archaeologist” program and interact with experts in the field.
A trek up Jebel Ikmah, a mountain near the ancient city of Dadan, reveals ancient petroglyphs, winding rocky paths, and stunning night vistas of ancient Arabian desert landscapes.
However, the festival’s crown jewels are undoubtedly Taima and Khaybar, where visitors can get their first glimpse of these ancient Arab cities still under renovation.
Taima is open for a limited time until March 31, 2023, after which it will be closed for further excavation and restoration work.
The fascinating stories that emerge from these bustling trading hubs of ancient Arabia shed light on a world long lost to the sands of time.