AlUla’s Kingdoms Institute is heralding a new era in archaeology

Sitting in the middle of a desert oasis in north west Saudi Arabia, AlUla has long been a crossroad for cultures and civilisations, with a wealth of history dating back several millennia.

Flourishing incense and spice routes that passed through here and onwards to Egypt and beyond helped to establish the Dadan and Lihyan Kingdoms at AlUla between the 8th and 2nd centuries BCE.

Then, between the 1st century BCE and 1st century CE, a settled merchant tribe known as the Nabataeans arrived from the north and built Hegra, the most important city on the southern frontier of their kingdom and what’s now Saudi Arabia’s first Unesco Heritage Site.

The Romans made their way here too, establishing a stronghold in the region between the 1st and 2nd centuries CE by annexing the Nabataean Kingdom.

The next major shift came in the 7th century CE with the advent of Islam, when the well-trodden paths of incense and spice traders became the pilgrimage route from Damascus to Mecca.

One of the towering tombs at Hegra (AlUla)

No stranger to change, AlUla is now undergoing a 21st century transformation – this time, by assimilating all the past civilisations to become the largest living museum in the world.

Preserving, protecting and championing AlUla’s rich heritage for the future is the flagship Kingdoms Institute, which has been established as part of the Journey Through Time Masterplan and is set to become a world-class scientific centre for archaeological and conservation research, the first of its kind in the region.

Work is well underway behind the scenes.

A major landscape survey spanning 22,000 square kilometres – one of the largest ever conducted – has already taken place.

From this survey alone, over 30,000 areas of archaeological significance have been identified according to Rebecca Foote, Director of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage Research at the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), who believes that many more will be discovered in the years to come.

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Many of the sites contain rock art or petroglyphs, but there are also thousands of inscriptions in 10 different ancient languages that are waiting to be examined and codified.

With a mammoth task ahead, the Kingdoms Institute is currently focusing on more than a dozen research projects in the area, with Saudi specialists working in close collaboration with international experts.

But its work isn’t just for scientists – the Kingdoms Institute also runs a number of outreach programs that are designed to engage, educate and inspire the people of AlUla.

Before a project starts for example, the scientists will meet with local residents to talk through what they plan to do and why they’re doing it according to Dr Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani, Acting Director of Museums and Exhibitions at RCU. Once the work is complete, the researchers will meet the residents again to update them on their findings.

Kingdoms Institute Show all 9 1 /9 Kingdoms Institute Kingdoms Institute Kingdoms Institute 3.jpg The design of the Kingdoms Institute will be inspired by the works of the Dadan civilisation with the most prominent buildings carved into the mountains opposite the archaeological site of Dadan. RCU Kingdoms Institute Kingdoms Institute 1.jpg The Kingdoms Institute will be a place of discovery, science and knowledge sharing with the local community and visitors from around the globe about the heritage and culture of the region RCU Kingdoms Institute Kingdoms Institute 4.jpg The Kingdoms Institute will be a house of science and knowledge composed of a group of facilities, supporting many scientific functions and welcoming visitors and researchers alike. RCU Kingdoms Institute Kingdoms Institute 5.jpg Three monumental mustatils and a later funerary ‘pendant’ located atop a rocky outcrop on the border of Khaybar and AlUla counties. RCU Kingdoms Institute Kingdoms Institute 6.jpg An excavation team director of the Oxford Archaeology landscape survey project excavates a mustatil, a type of rectangular structure probably for ritual purposes, that is among the oldest large-scale stone structures in Arabia (circa 5300-5000 BCE), east of the AlUla Valley. RCU Kingdoms Institute Kingdoms Institute 2.jpg Extensive aerial surveys of AlUla, conducted by a University of Western Australia team, are providing a fuller picture of its rich archaeological heritage, including this tomb in Sharaan RCU Kingdoms Institute Kingdoms Institute 7.jpg An archaeologist from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) team training students from King Saud University (KSU) during the archaeological excavations at Dadan site. RCU Kingdoms Institute Kingdoms Institute 8.jpg An AlUla resident and his son, trained through the Royal Commission for AlUla, work to record rock art from all eras in the Rukab Mountains. RCU Kingdoms Institute Kingdoms Institute 9.jpg An Archaïos survey team at work in the AlUla Cultural Oasis RCU

Through the Hammayah programme, residents are educated on the importance of the heritage sites in AlUla and given the tools and skills to help safeguard it – an essential part of the conservation efforts in the area. There are also educational programmes specifically for children and young people to inspire the next generation of archaeologists.

The Institute’s research has practical applications too. Some of the research has already influenced the design of the Journey Through Time Masterplan, for example. And according to José Ignacio Gallego Revilla, Executive Director of Archaeology and Heritage Research at RCU, the results of their research will also affect town planning in the future, including the type, style and location of buildings in AlUla.

Kingdoms Institute A first of its kind scientific centre for archaeological and conservation research in the region Years of work have already taken place to establish the foundations for the Kingdoms Institute.

Over 22,675 square kilometres have been surveyed by experts, and 30,000 sites of archaeological interest have been discovered.

Of particular significance are the mustatils, large stone structures that predate the Giza pyramids, as well as evidence of early dog domestication.

The region has over 200,000 years of human history, which will be the focus of the Institute’s research.

It will also establish multidisciplinary programmes to explore and conserve AlUla’s heritage.

There are currently 15 ongoing conservation missions with over 100 archaeologists on site for seasonal fieldwork.

Its headquarters will be on a 28,000 square metre site in AlUla, inspired by the geology of Dadan.

Once completed, it’s expected to welcome 838,000 visitors by 2035.

Alongside that valuable research, the Kingdoms Institute will also gain an outward-facing headquarter in the Dadan district of AlUla. The designs are still a work in progress, says Dr Alsuhaibani, but they will be inspired by the architecture of Dadan while incorporating all the technological advances in modern archaeology.

Once completed, the headquarters can serve as a hub where scientists can congregate, connect and collaborate; testing can be done in world-leading labs; artefacts can be restored and stored safely; and educational initiatives, including the training of archaeology students, can be carried out. For tourists too, there will be an opportunity to delve into the exciting work being done through galleries, museums and other initiatives in AlUla.

It’s hard to underestimate the scale of work involved and the enormity of work that still needs to be done. One thing is clear: the Kingdoms Institute will become the nucleus for research on the region’s civilisations and its work shared with future generations and the world.

Learn more about AlUla and the Journey Through Time Masterplan here.