The mud-walled village is old and straddles a vanished hajj road.
Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Muslim traveler, declared its inhabitants particularly trustworthy: Pilgrims walking to Mecca left their valuables for safekeeping with its inhabitants. A stone fort that guards the village walls perches atop foundations that date back two millenniums.
“The government has bought the entire place,” says Mutlaq Suliman Almutlaq, an archaeologist with the Saudi Commission on Tourism and Antiquities. “It has paid off every home owner. There are 800 homes. It will preserve the site as a museum for future generations.”
Almutlaq remembers when the ancient village was last inhabited: the mid-1970s. That’s when local officials encouraged the last deep-rooted families of “old” Al Ula to move out of their honeycomb of rooms, their medieval alleyways, their cramped little plazas where farmers brought in produce to sell on donkey-back. The government resettled the population, en masse, to “new” Al Ula next door, a modern town of glass, concrete, and cinder block.
Almutlaq loves wandering the empty old village. His face wrinkles into a tender smile, remembering the place still alive, bustling with colors, its women coming and going from the nearby spring, and the sounds of merchants barking out their wares—the intimacy of the hearth, of deep time.
Almutlaq is the official government custodian of old Al Ula.
This is his job description: curator of honeyed childhood memories.