When you think of Saudi Arabia tourist places, the Holy Kaaba at Al-Masjid Al-Haram in Makkah, the site and object of the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage, must immediately come to mind. A vision of the Abraj Al Bait, the modern architectural marvel that throws its shade on the Great Mosque and remains visible from 30 kilometres away, must come next. You are also unlikely to forget Ithra, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, in the city of Dhahran, with its fascinating, futuristic and out-of-this-world silhouette.
This is not about them. Instead, this write-up shines a spotlight on the non-mainstream attractions of this beautiful Kingdom. Read on to find intriguing destinations that might fly under the typical tourist’s radar.
- The Desert Ruins of Al Ula – Saudi’s Forgotten Past
This is for you if history and archaeology fascinate you. It should also tickle your fancy if you love sightseeing and visiting unique sites.
The Desert Ruins of Al Ula is an archaeological site in the City of Al Ula in the western province of Al Madinah. Al Ula served as a trade route waystation, used by traders plying the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and India.
Essentially, the Desert Ruins of Al Ula is an open-air museum showcasing the region’s pre-Islamic past. The windswept desert landscape is home to symmetrically chiselled rock facades, stone gates (some are 7,000 years old) and ancient tombs.
These are a few of the things you can see at the Desert Ruins of Al Ula.
Hegra or Mada’in Saleh
Hegra is a UNESCO heritage site. It used to be the Kingdom’s second-largest settlement, next only to Petra.
The site is known mainly for its 131 rock-carved tombs. The graves vary in size; some are small, one-room affairs, while others house multiple tombs. The most popular among these is the large burial site carved on a massive rock. It stands alone, separate from the rest of the graves.
The Elephant Rock refers to a rock formation that — yes, you guessed it — has the silhouette of an elephant. It looks like the rest of the rock formations in the area, except it has an elongated hole near one end, so it mimics the silhouette of an elephant with a chunky body and a long trunk.
The Old City consists of mud-brick houses. Technically, these houses are not ancient ruins. They were recently occupied and abandoned less than a decade ago.
Near the ancient City of Dadan is Jabal Ikmah, a mountain filled with inscriptions in archaic scripts. These engravings have served as a source of knowledge about past civilisations’ beliefs, practices, and ways of life.
Jabal Ikmah has the most concentration and variety of engraved letters and has thus become known as an open-air library.
- Masjid Shuhada Uhud
This is a notable mosque in Al Madinah Province. Loosely translated into English, the site’s name could mean ‘mosque of the martyrs of Uhud.’
Masjid Shuhada Uhud is an important monument to Islamic history. Here, the landmark battle of Uhud, a significant battle in the Muslim–Quraysh War, took place.
Beside the mosque are buried the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings of God Be Upon Him). They were martyred at the said battle, including Ḥamzah ibn ʿAbd Al-Muṭṭalib, the Prophet’s foster brother, constant companion and paternal uncle.
Masjid Shuhada Uhud is located in the valley of Mount Uhud. Beyond the mosque, to the north, is Jabal Uhud. From the south, the mosque is partially obstructed from view by Jabal Ramah.
With its single dome and two minarets, the mosque is made of ivory-white stones. It looks enchanting at night; the way it is lit up makes it look like the entire mosque is glowing.
The mosque is also fairly large, capable of hosting up to 15,000 worshippers simultaneously. In fact, it is the second-largest mosque in the area, next only to the Al-Masjid An-Nabawi of the City of Medina, also in Al Madinah province and the resting place of the Prophet Muhammad.
Masjid Shuhada Uhud lies only four kilometres or approximately 10 minutes away by car from Al-Masjid An-Nabawi. If you are visiting Al-Masjid an-Nabawi anyway, it would be practical to drive out to Masjid Shuhada Uhud, too.
- Masjid al-Jinn
Masjid al-Jinn, or Mosque of the Jinn, sits on al-Masjid al-Haram Road north of the Grand Mosque of Makkah. This is a small mosque, but it is one of the most venerable mosques in Makkah because the Quran mentions the site of the mosque.
This is an old mosque, one of the oldest in Makkah, built in the 1700s. It used to be underground, but the architecture has since been altered, and a minaret added to give it a more modern silhouette. It also now has modern conveniences such as water stations and air-conditioning.
While it is an important pilgrimage site for visiting Muslims, it is also a central figure in the local community. Those who live near the area come to this mosque for their daily prayers.
Since this attraction is located in Makkah, you should find many popular restaurants in Saudi Arabia nearby or a short distance away, so don’t worry if all the walking and exploring leave you feeling parched.
- Jannat Al-Mu’alla
Just a five-minute walk from Masjid Al-Jinn via the al-Masjid al-Haram Road and Al Hujoon St. lies the Jannat al-Mu’alla or Jannah al-Mu’alla.
Jannah is a term that means paradise, so Janah al-Mu’alla means “The Most Exalted Paradise.” Its less fanciful name is “Cemetery of Mu’alla” or “Al Hajun Cemetery.”
Jannat Al-Mu’alla is Mecca’s oldest cemetery and the second most significant cemetery to the Muslim faithful. This is also the resting place of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandfather and other ancestors.
The gravesite looks like a stark, unembellished plot of land with neatly arranged piles of stones to mark individual graves. In the past, though, the cemetery used to have tombstones and domes to mark known graves. However, in 1925, King Ibn Saud ordered many historic landmarks razed to the ground.
None of Jannat Al-Mu’alla’s tombstones and domes survived the demolition. Since people can no longer tell which graves held whose remains, when they come, visitors pay their respects to the entire cemetery as a whole.
Go Off the Beaten Path
There’s so much more to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia than its obvious attractions. Get to know the country further, and let your feet roam the above-listed, non-mainstream destinations.