MADA’IN SALEH (TWIN CITY OF PETRA)
Mada’in Saleh, also know as al-Hijr, Hegra or the Twin City of Petra, is 2 min drive from the Hejaz Railway Station or a 20min drive from Al Ula. In 2008, Mada’in Saleh was announced as the first World Heritage property to be inscribed in Saudi Arabia. Although Mada’in Saleh lacks the magnificent grandeur of Petra, it is still one of the most mysterious archaeological sites in the world. It has several large boulders that rise abruptly out of the flat desert landscape. The area is a popular place for settlement because of the proper climate and natural conditions in adaptation to the availability of freshwater in the area.
The Qur’an places settlement of the area by the Thamud people after Noah but before Moses. According to the Islamic text, the Thamudis, who carved out homes in the mountains, were punished by Allah for their practice of idol worship and were struck by an earthquake and lightning blasts. The site has earned a reputation as a cursed place and many locals do not travel here, or when they do, they are supposed to mourn the death those killed during Allah’s strike. The national government is attempting to overcome this image as it seeks to develop Mada’in Saleh into a tourist hotspot.
The extensive settlement of the site took place during the 1st century AD, when it came under the rule of the Nabataeans king Al-Harith IV (9 BC –40 AD), who made Mada’in Saleh the kingdom’s second capital, after Petra in the north. The Kingdom of Nabataean with its capital Petra in Jordan expanded to dominate Madain Saleh, which reach during that period, the peak of civility and civilization. They innovated in carving stones, drilling wells on the rocks, digging rainwater tanks and carving places of worship on the rocks.
Situated on the overland caravan route and the crossroad of commerce, Mada’in Saleh was referred to as the Trading Capital of the South. Nabataeans kingdom flourished, holding a monopoly for the trade of incense, myrrh and spices.
In 106 AD, the Nabataeans kingdom was annexed by the contemporary Roman Empire and became part of the Roman province of Arabia.
The area is still in the process of being excavated by French archeologist, who comes for 3-month periods over the winter to work. It is too hot to work in the desert in the summer.
I had been to Petra before so naturally I wanted to see Mada’in Saleh. We were fortunate enough to visit the site twice. Five minutes into our first visit, a downpour greeted us; this was quite a rare and awesome experience given very few people can claim that they have been to the site, yet alone seen the site in rain since it only rains 12 days a year as I mentioned before. Mada’in Saleh is different in many ways to Petra.
The first difference is its sheer scale. Petra is only accessible by foot or donkey where as Mada’in Saleh is only accessible by car. You definitely need a car to get around the large site, it is not like Petra where all the site are next to each other. The bouldering landscape means tombs are spread out and a few 100m apart of each other.
The other difference is the preserved detail of the carvings. It only rains approximately 12 days out of the year in Mada’in Saleh where as Petra sometimes even gets snow. This means that the carvings in Mada’in Saleh have been less exposed to erosions.
Many of the tombs have Sphinx’s carved at the top of the entrances but all of the heads have been broken off except for one. This can be found on the tomb that has a layer of 4 crowns, and two crown pillars. A tomb with this many crowns were for someone very powerful. It is unknown why all the sphinx heads have been broken off.
Among the dozens of ruins located in Mada’in Saleh is one that stands literally alone. Carved into a massive boulder Qasr al-Farid, which translates to “The Lonely Castle”. The name is misleading because it is actually a stunning ancient tomb that was created around the 1st century CE.
The Nabataeans had an unique construction technique that saw their tombs being chiseled right out of the rock from the top down. Such is the case with Qasr al-Farid, although the site appears to never have been completed so the craftsmanship and precision of the tomb slowly deteriorate closer to the base of the structure. The incomplete portion of the tomb is a terrific window into the steps taken by the ancient carvers before the rougher work was polished away and is clear in the three-layers of smoothness that is seen at the base of the carving.
The most impressive view of the site is definitely from the top of what is known as the Nabataeans religious mountain. It is a bit of a hike to the top but story has it that an 89-year-old Japanese female traveler managed to climb to the top. The view looks over the whole of Mada’in Saleh. The rock formations are also a stunning site from up close.
A few years ago, there was a kidnapping of foreigners in the area. The government has since stepped up the security in the area. Local police followed us, from a distance, around the site. In the past they used to escort people from Al Ula to Mada’in Saleh but they are more relaxed now. However, we got an escort back to Al Ula from Madian Saleh.