National Geographic

Lost Village

Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, 26°37'36" N, 37°54'50" E

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.

There are 68 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. barbara
    November 29, 2013

    i never fail to find poetry in your postings. today’s i commit to memory: “curator of honeyed childhood memories.”
    blessings, thank you.

  2. Erin Atkinson
    November 29, 2013

    “Honeyed childhood memories” is such a perfect phrase. Thank you for sharing your journey with the world. You inspire me to get out and experience everything that the world is, was and can be. Bon voyage!

  3. Sara
    November 29, 2013

    Will it not die from being preserved? No one to maintain it, no one to repair the fragile mud house. Will it still be there in 50 years?

    • Paul Salopek
      December 2, 2013

      It’s dead already, Sara. Old people from the nearby “new” town of Al Ula sometimes come to walk through the ruins of their former homes to reminisce, much as they would through a graveyard. Saudi Arabia has an ambivalent relationship with its past. It has gone from a largely pastoral society to an overwhelmingly urban one in three generations. Like a lot of rapidly industrialized nations, it has focused on the future, often at the cost of old lifeways—of collective memory. The conservative form of Islam practiced there has also tended to downplay or even erase all history that precedes the birth of the Muslim faith in the seventh century. This is changing slowly, however. The fact that the government would see merit in preserving old Al Ula is a huge step forward in reclaiming the extraordinary cultural heritage of Saudi Arabia. The amazing Mr. Almutlaq is one of the people making this happen.

      I’m told that historical preservation is about managing change, not arresting it. This sounds like a good personal philosophy as well.

  4. Linda Timmins
    November 29, 2013

    It makes me sad, somehow, that no one is living there now…hopefully the people are happier in their new homes….

  5. Eva Maria Huschka
    November 29, 2013

    How do the young people feel about preserving old towns? What will happen when the generation of the “honeyed childhood memories curators” have died out?
    How does the government think about the preservation of cultural heritage?

    • Paul Salopek
      December 2, 2013

      Sadly, most of the young Saudis I met cared little for their own history. It isn’t their fault. An appreciation of where we come from—crucial knowledge to plan for where we are going—begins with the education system. And apart from general lessons on Islamic history and the history of the Kingdom since the 1930s, when the country was unified under Ibn Saud, the past gets only cursory treatment in Saudi elementary and secondary schools. No amount of preservation will safeguard the world-class cultural treasures of Saudi Arabia unless its children are taught early to value them.

  6. Jean Thompson
    November 29, 2013

    I’m 76 today and have been following your journey online. I just returned from a cruise. Am reading the NatGeo article and saw the map of your planned journey. It looks like that you will be in California in 2018. If I’m still around, I would love to host you for a night…in a real bed with bathroom.

    Good luck in all your travels and so glad you’re sharing it.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 2, 2013

      I may come knocking, Jean. Many thanks.

  7. Betsy Spiegel
    November 29, 2013

    I’m moved by your poetry and the ancient village. It’s part of the remembering and forgetting. Keep writing Paul.

  8. Al Beckley
    November 29, 2013

    Are the soda cans not going to be disposed? Kind of takes away from the antiquity of the place.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 2, 2013

      The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities begins the cleanup and renovation next year. In the meantime, the soda is a recent remnant. So it belongs there.

  9. Paul
    November 29, 2013

    I worked for many years in Saudi Arabia. I a remember visiting Al Ulah. I am happy to see that it is being preserved.

  10. ASMA
    November 29, 2013

    Hi Paul,
    You have given me a respite from the “car brain” while reading through your postings and experiencing the journey through your words. I was born and raised 400 miles south of Jeddah on the Sarawat Mountains. When I first saw it, I literally did not stop until I finished (I took break to go to work!) Crazy, I know, but that is how good your journey and writing are. I felt homesick at times too.
    I still laugh hard on many occasions (e.g. the joke about your name!) that my neighbors thought I went crazy laughing hard alone in my apartment! One amazing aspect of cross-cultural encounters is that the similarities are too many while the differences are too few. So, we tend to focus on the differences since they are easier to create distinctions between (or more accurately “barriers” to) our shared human experience and its base of the “genetic soup” that makes the human animal. I have been astonished by the huge similarities in religions, idioms, tricks, skills, expressions, food preparations…etc. that I stopped calling things after a country or a culture. When I first moved to the states and began to cook “Saudi” food to my friends, I was humbled to see that many other far flung cultures prepare their food the same way and can actually lay claim on it better than I do. Religions also turned out to share so much backbone that it puzzles me how it has been used to divide people and justify atrocities against relatives across a sham border or even within the same society.

    I do wish you had started from Jazan not Jeddah so you could, maybe, have gone up the mountains (would have been a lot cooler until you get down from Taif to Mecca). I know logistics, time and distance all have to be factored, but I am sure you would have seen wider range of geographical and cultural phenomena. In certain places, you would actually have experienced cultures and costumes that are at least 60 years behind compared to the average of that country (unless my long absence fogged my memory!) Walking up 6000 feet or more to get there, then having to go up and down hills would have taxed your knees even more. So flying to selected points would have been more logical/doable!
    That does not change anything about how amazing and inspiring you and your journey are to all of us. Stay safe, well and cool. Stay safe, well and cool. Stay safe well and call (3 times in honor of the Syrian captain!)

    • Paul Salopek
      December 2, 2013

      I wanted to walk up the Tihama Coast from Yemen, Asma. I would certainly have witnessed some of the most colorful and enduring cultural traditions in Saudi Arabia among the mountain people of the southwest. But security constraints in Yemen blocked my way. So it will have to wait for another time, another walk.

  11. Mohammad
    November 29, 2013

    Dear paul
    Since the time i knew about your journey,i decided to be with you all the way,all the 7 years of advantures,to read all of your dispaches by heart.
    Bon vouyage dear paul.hope to see you one day, walk with you and spend a few precious days with you.
    About this fascinating abandoned village: we easterneres,specialy the poor countries,dont pay much attention to this beautiful ancient places, why not let the owners stay in their homes ,live their way of life,wear their own style and fasion?
    Mohammad from IRAN

  12. Kaisa
    November 29, 2013

    Hi Paul,
    Heard you on the CBC (the Current) this morning and just want to let you know that I will be looking forward to your updates as you go along. What a crazy wonderful idea….. to walk the old migration routes. I am walking with you in Spirit. Happy Slow Walking. Kaisa in Toronto, Canada

  13. Hilda Hecker
    November 29, 2013

    I am 85 as of yesterday, been receiving Nat. Geo. Since I was 11 yrs old, enjoyed every issue, give my 4 children subscriptions, hope I live long enuf to follow your trip til the end, blessings good health.
    .blessings, god health on your trip

    • Paul Salopek
      December 2, 2013

      Very kind, Hilda. Looking forward to having you walk along.

  14. Asit
    November 29, 2013

    pAUL, YOU ARE NOT ONLY A GLOBE TROTTER BUT A POET ALSO. I T IS SO FASCINATING TO READ YOUR WRITINGS. I ALMOS T FEEL TRANSPORTED TO THE SITES,SCENES AND SOMETIMES I GET A WHIFF OF SMELL TOO. I MAY NOT LIVE LONG ENOUGH TO READ THE LAST OF YOUR DISPATCHES. BUT WHEREVER YOU ARE MAY YOU BE BLESSED WITH GOOD HEALTH AND GOOD LUCK.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 2, 2013

      Thank you, Asit.

  15. meenakshi
    November 30, 2013

    Dear Paul,thanks for your postings.This historical village can only be preserved if they can be repaired time to time by the same villagers.They have love for this village still now and they only know the particular technique of repairing them.Yeah,always stay safe.Stay lively with good health.

  16. Valerie
    November 30, 2013

    I am fascinated by your descriptions and enchanted by the poetry of your insights. Be safe — I’ll be following you every day!

  17. Divya Uppot
    November 30, 2013

    Hi Paul, Amazing story in the National Geographic, am now following your posts.To experience humankind and the earth at this level during your journey, and share your experiences with the world, is truly inspiring!! Wish you safe travels on the remainder of your journey.Walking – a two beat miracle, you have a way with words !

  18. Dolly Yates
    November 30, 2013

    Fascinating undertaking! I enjoy your accounts of the lands and people you are travelling through. Is it known what the climate and landscape were like 50,000 or so years ago when humans were leaving Africa?

    • Paul Salopek
      December 2, 2013

      Our ancestors made many forays out of Africa, the earliest dating back to Homo erectus more than a million years ago. The relatively recent dispersal I’m following—the rise of Homo sapiens as a planetary species—probably occurred during a wetter period when the continental crossroads we call the Middle East was a grassland or savanna populated by large herds of antelope and other prey animals.

  19. Dennis Tuel Sr. PHD
    November 30, 2013

    I just started writing a book titled- CAVEMAN ENTREPRENUER

  20. Major Ray Warner
    November 30, 2013

    Paul, I am intrigued by your journey. God speed to you and all those supporting you in this amazing pilgrimage. Ray.

  21. Dennis Tuel Sr. PHD
    November 30, 2013

    Your journey is included in my research of a new book ‘CAVEMAN ENTREPRENUER

  22. Lynn
    November 30, 2013

    Enjoying the journey with you.

  23. Stephanie Minteer
    November 30, 2013

    We are living vicariously through your commitment to this long walk. I love your desire to s l o w information down with this grand experiment. Maybe society will learn something too……thank you, Paul.

  24. Aaron Fowlkes
    November 30, 2013

    First of all, I commend you for undertaking on such a challenge. I can relate to your sense of adventure and wanting to do something besides the daily 9 to 5 routine. I will say prayers for you and your companion.
    I have taken a journey of sorts from my birthplace of Jackson, Mississippi to Cambridge, Mass. and now along the seacoast in New Hampshire. Its been quite a contrast as an African American but one that I welcome.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 2, 2013

      A few steps here, a few there. It’s all the same journey, Aaron. Stay warm up on that December New England shore. I used to fish off that coast on a scallop trawler. One of our winter jobs was to knock the overburden of ice off the deck surfaces with a wooden mallet.

  25. Linda Hoernke
    December 1, 2013

    What a wonderful video and story of Al Ulah! It reminded me of a trip I took years ago to Mali and the villages along the Niger River. Almutlaq describes what I had found in those “honeycomb of rooms, their medieval alleyways, their cramped little plazas.” Travel on Paul…I am awaiting your next post~~

  26. Aaron Fowlkes
    December 1, 2013

    Just want to say that adding a “soundscape” lends more intimacy to the journey and links me even more with you and the surroundings you’re encountering. What a great idea for this endeavor!!

  27. Michael. Mader
    December 1, 2013

    Paul. I just joined after I read the article in NG. Like others, I will travel w you. Peace to you & your team. Mike

  28. Dick Heron
    December 2, 2013

    Paul, very intriguing investment of time you’re making. Not many are so wise. Our house in the Bay Area of N. CA it’s also available for a crash pad, maybe a short term walking companion as well.

  29. Dara
    December 2, 2013

    My kids and I are following your journey from Chicago. Thank you for giving us a glimpse of the people and real life in the places we hear about in the news.

  30. Jon Goff
    December 2, 2013

    There’s something magical about pictures and words and video from a place and a way of life that you didn’t even know existed. Thanks as always for the inspiration. I think I could’ve watched video of Almutlaq describing growing up there for hours.

  31. Santiago
    December 2, 2013

    Great video! I would love going there! There’s seems to be something magical about this village that makes me imagine it full of people and life. Keep walking :) I’m looking forward to read your next dispatches and watch your videos.

  32. Barbara
    December 2, 2013

    Hi Paul,
    One of the wonders of this video is hearing the wind blow through Al Ula and listening to Almutlaq’s footsteps over the fallen stone and walkways. The intimacy of the hearth indeed. thanks for bringing this to us.

  33. Ana Paula Engler
    December 2, 2013

    Hi Paul.
    I read today the last issue of Nat Geo and became fascinated about your journey, its purpose and the speed you decided to do it. The human speed of 5 km/ h ” com a esperança de recuperar conexões importantes que se perderam devido à aceleração artificial, à falta de atenção”.
    Thank you for having this wonderful idea and to share it with the world!
    Ana Paula
    Brazil

  34. Aibek Akhmetbekov
    December 3, 2013

    Hi Paul! Do you have instagram?

    • Katia Andreassi
      December 6, 2013

      You can follow the walk on instagram @outofedenwalk. Thanks for reading!

  35. Connie
    December 3, 2013

    Thank you for sharing your journey and reminding me that it is slowing down that we experience the essence of life.

  36. Aaron_of_Portsmouth
    December 4, 2013

    Paul, when I read your comments about the effects of heat I could relate to it to a lesser degree when I journeyed to Liberia back in 2001. The conditions weren’t nearly as difficult as yours. When you get back to the U.S. look me up—contact “Baha’i Faith of Portsmouth” in NH and ask the secretary for Aaron. I will treat you to a lobster dinner and any other seafood you wish. Oh, and I’ll throw in a pizza as well in honor of your brave abstinence over there.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 7, 2013

      New England’s a couple thousands miles east of my projected routing. But anything can happen in this world. Thanks, Aaron.

  37. Tony Roseman
    December 4, 2013

    I really enjoy reading the updates and your descriptive style. I try to read what you post every day.

  38. EA 5th Grade Students
    December 4, 2013

    We wish you good luck on your journey. Where are you going next?

  39. Onni Milne
    December 4, 2013

    I linked to this travel website after hearing your interview on CBC “The Current”. I enjoyed reading the blogs as of the pizza incident. Small world, Global Village indeed. I appreciate the kindness of the pizza maker trying to make you feel at home in a foreign land. The “Fire Cure” makes me think of Traditional Chinese Medicine and moxibustion, placing heated glass on the body to heal. I weep when I think of T.E. Lawrence’s comments and the disaster of the Middle East today, an indication that history is the beginning for more stories.

    Along with reading your posts, I enjoyed reading comments submitted – from a few lines of appreciation for your journey and the opportunity to walk it with you by teachers and their students/parents and their children to offers of long distance runners meeting you in India.

    Thank you, National Geographic and Paul, for making real a world and societies and experiences that most of us will never see or experience otherwise. This is a wonderful way to bring the world together, one step at a time, one blog at a time.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 7, 2013

      Glad to have you along on the journey, Onni. All that holds us together are stories—stories and compassion. The writer Barry Lopez said that.

  40. Mery Logilde
    December 4, 2013

    Es facinante leer y poder conocer por tus relatos de este viaje tan maravilloso gracias a ti Paul y a National Geographic.

  41. Jonathan
    December 4, 2013

    I wonder what it was like to live there 2000 years ago

  42. Linda Bennett
    December 4, 2013

    I am so happy to be on this journey with you. How fortunate you are to be able to do this thing and how generous of you to share it with us.

  43. Sam
    December 4, 2013

    Hello paul I am very interested in your walk, and I hope you learn a lot through your journeys. Someday I would like to accomplish something like you are now. I hope you fare well through your travels and teach all of us on this website a lot more

  44. Aaron_of_Portsmouth
    December 5, 2013

    Paul, we(those of us following your journey in this forum) are all thinking of you daily and saying prayers for your success. There have been new technological marvels, new and great socio-economic projects, neutrinos discovered in Antarctica, the Higgs discovery, and the great journey out of Ethiopia by Paul Salopek, to name a few, that have occurred so far in this century. All have been propelled by the strength of the human spirit.
    So much more is to come.

    “The Earth is but one country, and humankind its citizens”.

  45. Matías Nicolás Tartara
    December 5, 2013

    Great post, waiting to learn more and more! Your walk is not just amazing from the task itself, but it give us, from the other side of the world, the posibility to learn with your every step too!
    Thanks again from Argentina

  46. Chris, Canada
    December 5, 2013

    Paul
    The concept and undertaking of this journey is both brilliant and at the same time almost unfathomable. The accounts of your travels are described with such lyricism, as your observations of the moment find a connecting thread with the past and a hint of the future. As our common ancestors flowed forth from Africa to populate almost every corner of the earth in 2,500 generations clearly as a species we are all just variations of the same animal. Race is really nothing but a political construct. There are no lines of separation. The world would be a better place if everyone could follow your story.
    Kudos to you and National Geographic.

    • Paul Salopek
      December 15, 2013

      “Race” is a fluid concept, a meandering tidal river, ever shifting, with backflows and oxbows and countless bends. To read more about this, you can take a look at these stories. The science is a tad dated now, but not much.

  47. Petie Gallacher
    December 8, 2013

    I want to follow your journey. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  48. Dennis E Holseybrook
    December 10, 2013

    In my dreams I will accompany you on this epic journey. You fill my heart with envy, to see-taste-feel-smell, life that has brought us to this day. God bless each step.

  49. Mike Compton
    December 11, 2013

    It was difficult for me to understand what Mr. Almutlaq was saying but I could tell from the timbre of his voice and the look in his face that these were happy memories for him.

  50. Hank Ebes
    December 13, 2013

    Aboriginal artists have recorded their dreamtime history for 50 000 years without change having walked out of the stone age as recently as 1984. By joining your journey we will be able to see what they missed out on by turning right at Myanmar and taking a short cut to Australia. Wishing you good health and excitement.

    • Paul Salopek
      January 15, 2014

      Wish I could walk through Australia, Hank. As you note, the human imprint there is old—you can feel the age of it coming up through your boot-soles in that red, red laterite soil.

  51. jackie brown
    January 2, 2014

    thank you, Paul, for intermingling our ancient past with our present as you write/tell our human stories.

  52. emanuel perez
    January 8, 2014

    hi i`m in 7th grade at grant middle school in Denver co we are learning about you and i was wandering what crazy thing happen to you in the lost village

  53. LPHSinger
    February 6, 2014

    Coolio

  54. Linda Stepp
    February 6, 2014

    Of course they didn’t really want to preserve the past or they would not have encouraged the people to move. It is the relationship of the people and the place that keeps the ancient ways and culture alive. It is sad, really and the comparison to a graveyard is very apt because that is what is has become. We cannot imagine what it was like because it was so very different from our experience. It took resilience and imagination to live in the old village and we do not have the right “brand” of those qualities to do it today. They need to bring the people back in order to preserve the old culture. In the US we made the same mistake with the Native Americans and almost succeeded in killing all of them; now we regret it vehemently but it is too late. Wake up Syria and be proud of your roots. Thank you Paul for this brief glimpse of a lost civilization. Peace be with you.

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