MADAIN SALEH: SAUDI ARABIA'S CURSED LAND
By David Marwood
When a friend of mine told his Saudi students that I had traveled to Madain Saleh in one of Saudi Arabia's northwestern provinces, they were a bit unnerved. It was not a place they would travel to they said, for the land is cursed. It's a belief shared by many Saudis.
The Story of Thamud
According to the story, the tribe of Thamud, which settled the area about the third millennium B.C., worshipped idols. In addition, the Thamudis suffered from tyranny and oppression.
The pre-Islamic prophet Saleh called on them to repent and convert to monotheism. In response, the Thamudis commanded Saleh to summon a pregnant camel as proof of the existence of only one God. Thus, Allah sent a pregnant camel from the back of a mountain.
Saleh commanded the people to care for it and not to harm it on pain of death. However, the non-believers ignored the warning and killed the sacred camel. Saleh then called on them to engage in three days of repentance or face destruction from Allah. They failed to heed the warning and so were destroyed. Saudis believe the land has suffered under a curse ever since.
An Archeological Treasure
It is ironic that the people of Saudi Arabia tend to avoid Madain Saleh, for it is the country's most attractive archeological treasure. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, located about 330 kilometers north of Medina, is home to 131 ancient tombs cut into sandstone formations scattered over an expansive desert plain. Many of the formations are oddly shaped and eye catching. Some of the monoliths look like giant misshapen muffins, while the Jabal Ethlib range features pillar-like towers and mountain peaks that suggest bottle tops.
However, it is the immense facades carved into the rock that are the main attraction of the site. They mark the entrances to the tombs and are decorated with columns and friezes featuring masks, eagles, lions and serpents, as well as stairway crenellations above the doors.
The curse means that the site has few Saudi tourists. Its remote location, plus the need to arrange a permit in advance to visit the site, not to mention the restrictions on getting into Saudi Arabia in the first place, mean that there are few tourists of any kind. If you are traveling on your own or in a small group, the site will be largely empty of people. It's more fun, though, to visit the site as part of a tour group. Then you can share your amazement at its features with others.
The tombs were not built by the Thamudis, but by the Nabataeans, who settled the area later. They carved the stone tombs between 100 B.C. and 100 A.D. and the city that used to exist at the site was the second in the Nabataean empire, after the more-famous Petra, now in modern-day Jordan. Petra was the imperial capital but, today, is a much more accessible tourist destination also famous for its rock-cut tombs and facades in the same Nabataean style.
Madain Saleh was a southerly outpost of the Nabataeans and stood as an important stop for caravans bringing incense and spices from southern Arabia to Syria, Egypt, and Byzantium, among other places. At the time, frankincense was the most precious commodity in the world and most of it had to be transported through Nabataean territory. The rock-cut tombs at Madain Saleh are evidence of the Nabataeans' prosperity. Their construction was financed by a 25% toll the Nabataeans levied on all passing goods.
Madain Saleh was a crossroads of ancient civilizations. Traders, merchants, and armies from all over passed through. Many of the inscriptions on the tomb facades are in late Aramaic script and provide information about the builders, many of whom were wealthy women. In addition to Nabataean imagery, the tombs feature Assyrian ornamentation and Greco-Roman columns.
There is a good dirt and gravel road that will take you past all the major features of the site. From the southern entrance, proceed north to Qasr al-Saneh, a tomb with a soaring but rather plain façade with columns, capitals and crenellation depictions. Like all the other tombs, the interior burial chamber is small, simple and just deep enough for the corpse-length shelves.
About 750 meters north of Qasr al-Saneh is an area of hills called Al-Khuraymat. It has about 20 tombs with facades similar to that of Qasr al-Saneh though mostly smaller. The tombs are some of the best preserved in Madain Saleh and on the frieze of the main tomb are spirit guardians with human heads, lion's bodies and wings. There is a concentration of small tombs forming an enclosure that allows a quite charming view.
Taking the road to the northern end of the site, you come to a complex of restored buildings, including the Madain Saleh Station and a Turkish fort, that used to make up a town of the Hejaz Railway. The line was built by the Turks during the Ottoman Empire to connect Damascus and Medina. However, it was only operational between 1908 and 1917, when it was destroyed by Arabs fighting Turkish rule. The movie Lawrence of Arabia has a scene re-creating this destruction. There is a large workshop building with a First World War-era locomotive that is quite impressive.
After visiting the station, head southeast to the entrance of the Jabal Ethlib range, which is visible from most of Madain Saleh. The view of it is quite striking from afar but is even more wondrous up close.
At the entrance to the range is a huge square-shaped hall cut into the side of a hill. Called the Diwan, or meeting room, it has smooth walls and stone benches. The Nabataeans performed religious rituals and ceremonies at Jabal Ethlib and the Diwan would have been used for religious gatherings, as well as public meetings.
Running south from the Diwan is a narrow passageway between two high cliffs. Nabataean religious images, including deities, and niches that once held statues are carved into the two rock faces of the passage. There are also ancient carvings of human figures and what appear to be camels. In addition, there is an early form of Arabic writing carved into the walls during a later era.
The passageway opens out into a box canyon with imposing and pockmarked sandstone formations towering high above and often ending as an assortment of oddly flattened peaks. You can continue up a slope to the right and on to the flat top of a hill for even better views of the canyon. To the west, enjoy the breathtaking views of the landscapes of Madain Saleh and the area beyond with its high cliff faces and plateaus suggestive of the American southwest.
To the west of the Jabal Ethlib range, and across one of the main touring roads, is Qasr al-Bint (Girl's Palace), a row of tombs and their facades cut into a long, low-rise hill. One of the facades has an interesting frieze featuring urns, a face, snakes, and a headless figure with a lion's body and wings.
In the southeast corner of Madain Saleh is Qasr al-Fareed, a giant monolith with a high façade reaching to the top. Four columns rise from the bottom and a pair of stairway crenellations are at the top. The monolith stands alone in an empty patch of land, thus the name Fareed, which means lonely in Arabic. Across the road from the façade is a sand dune which you can climb to get good views of Qasr al-Fareed and the surrounding landscape, including Jabal Ethlib.
There are other tombs at Madain Saleh that you can stop and take a closer look at. Give yourself several hours to check out all the major features of the site and wear shoes that are good for a bit of climbing.
Madain Salah: Links