Fancy a virtual hot air balloon trip over Saudi Arabia's ancient tombs? Now, you can

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By Theo FarrantAP
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Saudi Arabia's Hegra Archaeological Site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been recreated in the metaverse, offering virtual tours of its ancient tombs.


Have you ever dreamed of taking a hot air balloon over an ancient tomb in the Saudi Arabian desert?

Well thanks to the emerging digital space of the metaverse, you can now do just that.

In November last year, Hegra became the first UNESCO World Heritage Site to enter the burgeoning digital space, via the platform Decentraland. 

"We found that we're able to to bring the culture and the heritage we have to a much wider audience and at the same time expose what we have to offer to a lot more people than we normally would be able to through traditional channels," Ahmed Daoud, Executive Director of Innovation at the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), told Euronews Culture. 

What is Hegra?

Cyclist ride past ancient Nabataean carved tombs as they cross the archaeological site of HegraAFP

Carved into the rock, the Tomb of Lihyan towers over the Saudi desert.

It’s part of the Hegra Archaeological Site, a stunning remnant of the Nabataean civilisation dating back to 1 BC.

"Hegra used to be the southernmost principal city of the Nabatean kingdom, which most people know of existing in Petra, but it also in AlUla," explains Daoud. 

"But it was also the southernmost border of the Roman Empire, and also the path through which the majority of trade routes went through, including the spice trade route, as well as the Ottoman trade route."

The UNESCO World Heritage Site includes 111 tombs, most of which have decorated facades, as well as water walls and inscriptions in the rock left by ancient people.

What to expect from the metaverse experience

Royal Commission for AlUla
A screen grab from the Hegra metaverse experienceRoyal Commission for AlUla

The new metaverse experience allows its visitors to visit an accurate and to scale virtual recreation of the Tomb of Lihyan, which they can enter inside - something which is not possible for real-life visitors due to conservation.

According to Daoud, "For conservation purposes, you're not able to enter the tomb (in real-life) because it would over time degrade the integrity of the tomb itself. But we have scanned the inside of the tomb with LIDAR, and on the metaverse you can enter the tomb all you like and experience a physical digital representation that's extremely accurate of the inside of this tomb."

Now, in cooperation with the Saudi Arabian Hot Air Ballooning Federation and to celebrate the AlUla Hot Air Balloon Festival, visitors can also enjoy an interactive hot air balloon experience which offers hyper-realistic and 360-degree views of Hegra's most famous landmark.

“Just the terrestrial experience on the ground may not do it for justice and experiencing it aerially will give you a true feeling of the scale of this magnificent site,” emphasised Daoud.

Going forward, the RCU has plans to introduce more metaverse experiences around the AlUla metaverse world, teasing potential gaming options one day.

But even without the virtual hot air balloon rides, this first dip into the virtual world has shown there’s great fascination with the ancient site.

“One thing that's worthy of note that's extremely interesting and caught us by surprise is that we found people, before we launched any experiences around it, people were so interested and intrigued by the site that they were spending an average of a half hour each, every time they visited the site,” says Daoud.

“So obviously there was something magical that we stumbled upon that even exceeded our own expectations in terms of how engaging this was going to be to a digital audience that's inundated with a massive amount of content, but maybe lacking some of the substance that what we have to offer brings.”

The experience is accessible through Decentraland, one of the most popular public platforms in the metaverse. 

Check out the video above for our full chat with Ahmed Daoud

Video editor • Theo Farrant

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