Saudi Arabia: Archaeologists excavate forgotten kingdom in AlUla’s Dadan

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A new documentary has shed light on some of the rarest treasures found in Dadan, the capital city of the ancient kingdoms, in Saudi Arabia’s AlUla.

The National Geographic’s ‘Lost Treasures of Arabia: The Ancient City of Dadan’ gives a snapshot of a group of archaeologists at Dadan as they work to piece together the history of the lost kingdom.

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Dadan is mentioned in the Old Testament and the Lihyanite kingdom was one of the largest of its time, stretching from Medina in the south to Aqaba in the north in modern-day Jordan, according to the Royal Commission for the project.

Wadi al-Fann in the ancient city of AlUla, Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)
Wadi al-Fann in the ancient city of AlUla, Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)

The archaeologists made startling revelations as they dug up Dadan’s 2,000-year-old history from the rubble of myth and mystery.

Speaking to Al Arabiya English, Iván Bouso, executive producer for National Geographic Europe, Middle East & Africa, said: “More than 2.000 years ago, Dadan was one of the major trade stations on the ancient incense route, that linked South Arabia with the Mediterranean and Egypt. It was a hub of people and talent in its time - like London or New York City,” he said. “I believe it was what we would call a smart city – the way the ancient Dadanies used nature, mountains or the oasis to build an extremely functional city was incredible.”

“However, very few people seem to know about it today.”

The documentary, he said, reveals Dadan’s story.

“Viewers get front-row seats and are guided by two archaeologists – Jérôme Rohmer and Abdulrahman AlSuhaibani – during a rigorous digging season set against the deserts of AlUla, which is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.”

A new documentary has shed light on some of rarest treasures found in Dadan, the capital city of the ancient kingdoms, in Saudi Arabia’s AlUla. 2
A new documentary has shed light on some of rarest treasures found in Dadan, the capital city of the ancient kingdoms, in Saudi Arabia’s AlUla. 2

In the documentary, archaeologists unearth five must-see discoveries:

The sandstone sentinel

Was Dadan an ancient megacity much like present-day London or New York? All signs say so. The documentary records the recent discovery of a sandstone sentinel that welcomed travelers to the city. The discovery lays the groundwork to introduce the complex layout of the city of Dadan – its imposing walls, protected access points, urban sprawl, trading colonies and a monolithic 50-tonne basin carved from a single stone at the foot of a temple, all signaling a vibrant, multi-cultural metropolis.

The cursive curse

In a dramatic reveal at what is believed to be a funerary complex, a stone tablet with cursive Dadanic writing spells out a curse on those who disturb the dead. Undeterred by the threat of divine retribution, the archaeologists continue to make yet another startling discovery – one that leads to more questions about the people of Dadan.

The stairway to nowhere

The documentary follows the archaeologists as they climb an imposing ancient stairway carved into the side of the mountains surrounding Dadan. The long climb, set against an increasingly precarious drop, begs the question – what is hidden at the summit?

The great wall

The archaeologists reveal a wall, preserved to a height of 4 meters and spanning the width of the valley, leading to the city of Dadan. The wall fortified Dadan and acted as a shield between the ancient city and external threats. Despite its protective presence and an elaborate defense system including guardians stationed on the surrounding mountains, Dadan still succumbed to an unknown force. Who or what was it?

The downfall of Dadan

The team world discovers the reasons for the destruction of Dadan. As they sift through evidence, it becomes clear that Dadan experienced a sudden and catastrophic end, destroying a city that had defied its arid environs to flourish into an economic, cultural and social hub.

The show premiered on March 13 at 11 p.m. on National Geographic.

“We were enormously lucky in being able to record the unfolding of Dadan’s story thanks to the Royal Commission for AlUla and the kind of access we were granted,” said Bouso, who thanked the Saudi government for their assistance. “We were on the sidelines of the investigation – because at some point it did become an investigation – and were able to follow these experts as they unearthed some significant clues. It was an honor and privilege for us to film an incredible moment of discovery.”

“Other challenges were the forces of nature. We were capturing reality, so we had to contend with the wind, sand and storms, which posed problems for us and archaeologists alike.”

“‘Lost Treasures of Arabia: The Ancient City of Dadan’ showcases a mystery city that has been in the dark for 2,000 years. I want viewers to be amazed by the location as well as the secrets of the Dadanites – who they were, how they lived and what happened to them.”

“Secondly, this documentary pays homage to two Saudi pioneers – Hussein Abul Hassan and Said al-Said - who for more than 30 years, have made it their life’s work to studying the Dadanite scripts, statues and artefacts. They were digging, discovering and studying the history of this region when very few people were aware of it. That human element is something that I hope they will take away.”

AlUla, a flagship tourist destination since it opened in 2019, is known chiefly for the majestic tombs of Madain Saleh, a 2,000-year-old city carved into rocks by the Nabateans, the pre-Islamic Arab people who also built Petra in neighboring Jordan.

Read more:

Saudi Arabia: AlUla Moments to host inaugural ‘Ancient Kingdoms Festival’ Nov. 11-27

AlUla inks agreement with Louvre Museum to show Saudi Arabia’s cultural legacy

Archaeologists in Saudi Arabia excavate forgotten kingdoms

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