Wadi al Qura has a singular place in the history of AlUla and Islam. The earliest texts of the Muslim religion also mention it as the stopping point of a military expedition by Zaid ibn Haritha, a faithful companion of Mohammed, which cost the lives of nine members of Ibn Haritha's squad.
Of this strategic oasis, nestled between the city of AlUla and the ancient city of Mada’in Saleh, only a small asphalt path remains on the edge of a regional road. The plot is home to a small attraction called Tantora, a kind of sundial that allows locals to mark the winter solstice, and thus gave its name to the Winter at Tantora festival. During the festivities, the place is taken over by local craftsmen and creators, exhibiting to the few national and now international tourists, perfumes, cosmetics and other handicrafts with the local stamp.
Perfume and calligraphy
Rym is one of those exhibitors. Behind her display of perfumes, essential oils and body balms, and despite her irremovable black hijab, you can tell by the squint of her eyes and her laughing voice that the young woman is delighted to see Westerners at her door. She does not hesitate to mention that she is a “graduate of the European University of Flavours and Fragrances” and offers anyone who enters her perfumed stand to leave with samples of various scents.
In a neighboring stand, the young Rashi exhibits her calligraphic works, whether Arabic or Nabatean. For the artist, it is above all a question of transcribing, on rock and sometimes on paper, “the essence of AlUla and its history”.
Rare but excited tourists
Unfortunately, the enthusiasm shown by these women behind their workbenches is hardly rewarded by the flow of visitors today. Among the few dozens of locals wandering around Wadi al Qura, we still come across a few curious, ostensibly Westerners. Two of them are sitting at a popular café. Tom is English, and from the Fedora screwed on his skull, you can tell he’s a backpacker. I have a certain fascination with Saudi Arabia,” admits the Briton. It is probably because this country was inaccessible. When the visas were opened, I thought, “I’ve got to go. I’ve got to go.”
For Hans, his friendly Batavian sidekick, the story is different. “I wanted to see the solar eclipse on December 26th, but I had too much work to do,” says the Dutchman. Since I had paid for the visa, had three weeks off, was interested in Saudi Arabia and liked the Middle East very much, I decided to come these days.” Of their stay, the two men will remember, in addition to the wild beauty of Mada’in Saleh, the kindness and “warm welcome of the locals”, even if Hans, just arrived from Riyadh, admits to having been impressed by “the avant-gardism of Saudi contemporary art”. The discussion is interrupted by the first percussions of a troupe of traditional Saudi musicians. The evening, which until now has been rather quiet, can now begin…