Mada’in Saleh: Capital of Monuments

The following article is about Mada’in Saleh, a pre-Islamic archeological site, and arguably the most interesting in the country. It is only for the last few years that the Saudi authorities have become aware of the tourism potential the Kingdom has apart from religious tourism, and slowly they are developing sites to attract tourists. For the time being, they focus on peoplefrom within the country, but who knows, the country may open up for international tourism any time when oil revenues alone are not enough anymore to keep the country running.

Surroundings of Mada’in Saleh

The article appeared in Arab News on August 1, 2012. It also appeared in the English version of Sayidaty, a weekly (in Arabic) and monthly (in English) women’s magazine in the October 2012 issue.

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While most mortals are currently fleeing the blistering Saudi heat, those who stay in the Kingdom do not need to feel bitterness. Saudi Arabia has numerous touristic sites of cultural and historic importance. One of the most interesting, indisputably, is Mada’in Saleh, a pre-Islamic archaeological site located in the area of Al-Ula in the northwest of the country, some 400 km north from Madinah. So, for those unable to leave the office this summer to go on a long holiday, Mada’in Saleh — also called Al-Hijr, Arabic for “rocky place” — is a good way to escape the daily grind for a couple of days. A long weekend is all that is needed to visit the place and see everything.

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Mada’in Saleh’s most important remnants date from the Nabatean Kingdom, which was established in 168 BC. In the first century AD, the kingdom gradually became encircled by the expanding Roman Empire, until it was annexed by the Romans in 106 AD. Situated between the Sinai Peninsula and the Arabian Peninsula, its capital and wealthiest place was the city of Petra in Jordan. Mada’in Saleh was the second city in importance and the most southern settlement of the kingdom. The Nabatean Kingdom flourished due to its location at the crossroads of several trade routes and its monopoly on incense, myrrh and spices.

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The surreal site of Mada’in Saleh covers an area of about 12 square kilometers. It is located on a plain, at the foot of a volcanic rock plateau. Yellow and pink sandstone rock formations, sculptured by the wind into the most fascinating shapes, are scattered all over. The geology itself already makes the place worth a visit and resulted in the Nabatean invention of carving stones into houses, temples and tombs, with decorative elements and scripts inscribed on their facades.

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Little is left from Mada’in Saleh’s residential zone, which is fenced off from the public, as the houses were mainly built with sundried mud brick. However, the necropolis built around it was sculptured from the sandstone rock formations, and a total of 131 rock-cut tombs have survived the ravages of time.

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The tombs are grouped in four areas of the cemetery. Some rocks contain only one tomb, whereas bigger rocks have tombs on all sides. Their facades are decorated with inscriptions as well as images of birds, human faces, and other creatures. Clearly, the several international trade routes that crossed the Nabatean Kingdom resulted in Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, and Roman influences on the facades. Some of the tombs also contain writings on top of their entrances, giving information about the person or family buried in it, the date of the carving, and the name of the carver. The interior of the tombs, on the other hand, is empty and without any decorations.

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Once the area of the Nabatean Kingdom became part of the Roman province of Arabia, it fell into abandonment, as the Romans used the Red Sea for their trade routes instead. Mada’in Saleh remained merely a station of minor importance to provide water and supply to pilgrims traveling to Makkah. The Ottomans, however, built a fort in the place in the 18th century to protect the pilgrimage route. In the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottomans decided to construct a railway, connecting Damascus and Jerusalem to Makkah and Madinah. The largest station of the so-called Hijaz railway was built in Mada’in Saleh. It included a maintenance site for locomotives as well as offices and dormitories for railroad staff. This railway was not in use for a long time when World War I saw its destruction.

Mada’in Saleh railway station

In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia officially identified Mada’in Saleh as an archaeological site, and from 2000 onward, the government is keen to promote cultural heritage and develop the site into a tourist attraction. This led its recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 — the first UNESCO site in the Kingdom — and construction of an airport in Al-Ula, which has started operations recently, although flights are very limited. The Al-Hijaz Railway Station is currently under restoration.

The restored Mada’in Saleh railway station

The Nabateans, apart from being traders, also excelled at oasis agriculture. They drilled more than 56 wells and dug rainwater tanks in the rocks to irrigate their crops. Some of these wells can still be found in the area. The largest of them, near Al-Mehjir Mountain, is located north of Mada’in Saleh.

The heritage site of Al-Ula, locally known as Al-Deerah or “the old town,” is another must-see. The village was built in the 13th century and abandoned only 40 years ago. It consists of over 800 dwellings surrounded by a wall with 14 gates, which used to be closed every night so as to protect the inhabitants from invaders. Walking in this town feels like being in a maze, but the place is small enough to prevent visitors from getting lost in the narrow alleys, many of which are covered as a protection from the heat of the sun. The foundations of the two-story buildings are mostly in stone, whereas the upper floors are made from mud bricks. Palm tree trunks and reeds, covered with mud, were used for the ceilings. The stones were taken from nearby ruins, and as a result, some still carry inscriptions, writings and ornamentations from the time of the ancient Lihyan Kingdom on them.

Al-Ula’s restored Old Town

Adjacent to this old town lies an ancient castle, whose origins date back to the 6th century BC and which was used to protect the town. Visitors who climb up to the top will be rewarded with astonishing views of the valley full of palm trees.

View from the castle: Al Ula’s old town and on the background the new town

Al-Ula valley

The Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography, located in Al-Ula’s new town, is an outstanding way to learn more about the region’s geology and pilgrim routes. It contains many artifacts from the several civilizations that inhabited the area throughout history, including the Nabateans. One to two hours are enough to visit this small museum.

View from the castle: Al-Ula’s Old Town that was under restoration when we visited it three years ago.

After a long day of exploring the intriguing historical sites, make sure to watch sunset from the cliffs above Al-Ula. The rocks and oasis in the valley assume exceptional colors at this time of the day.

Sunset from the cliffs above Al-Ula

Getting there

Al-Ula and Mada’in Saleh are easily accessible by car. To date, flights to and from Al-Ula’s Prince Abdul Majeed bin Abdul Aziz Airport are infrequent and limited to Riyadh. (Update: Appearently, Saudia starts flying from Jeddah directly to Al-Ula this month) Therefore, most travelers choose to fly to Madinah Airport and drive from there to Al-Ula, a four-hour long ride through a remarkable landscape. It is also possible to do the whole trip by car, as the roads from the major towns are in a good state and provide basic amenities like petrol stations and some restaurants. From Jeddah, the journey takes around eight hours, while 14 hours from Riyadh. Hail and Tabuk are a five-hour drive away.
Another option is to arrange an organized tour with a travel agency or join a group.

The Arac Hotel in Al-Ula

The Arac Hotel in Al-Ula

Where to stay

There are two good four-star hotels in Al-Ula: Mada’in Saleh Hotel and Resort and Arac Hotel Al-Ula. Both can arrange the permit of SR100 that is necessary for visiting Mada’in Saleh if you apply at least one week in advance. The permits can also be obtained at the National Museum in Riyadh.

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