There is truth in the saying "a picture paints a thousand words". But words and photographs cannot convey fully the beauty and essence of a place.
I found this to be true when I visited Madain Saleh in the northwestern part of Saudi Arabia. My readings about the place and the pictures I had seen did not prepare me for what I was to find. Madain Saleh reveals its splendor and unleashes its charms only to those who come. There is nothing like being sheltered in its valleys, being surrounded by the stunning shapes of its geological formations, being lulled by the tranquil atmosphere of its desert, and haunted by its mysteries.
Having been to Petra in Jordan and enthralled by it, I was very curious to see this place, touted as Petra's sister city in the south. At the first opportunity, I gathered a few friends and planned the trip to coincide with the three-day feast following the fasting month of Ramadan.
From Jeddah, where we were based, we drove off at 8:30 in the morning through unremarkable desert landscape along the Red Sea coast. We passed the towns of Rabigh, Yanbu, Umluj, and Al Wajh, where we turned right towards the hills to Al Ula. Arriving after dark at the Madain Saleh Hotel in the Al Ula oasis, the first thing we noticed was that we were surrounded on parallel sides by towering mountain ranges. Bathed in soft light (I couldn't figure out the source of the light), it gave them a silvery glow that contrasted with the darkness on the ground, the mountains looked like the snow-covered Alps.
As we went out of the hotel after sunrise, we were overwhelmed by the grandeur of the sandstone mountains that had now turned to a reddish hue. Al Ula sits on a narrow valley (called Wadi Qurra) bound by mountain ranges on the eastern and western sides. In the lush green palm groves around, I saw that it is blessed with life-giving water and fertile soil (from volcanic eruptions ages ago).
By itself, the Al Ula oasis is a tourist attraction that matches the beauty and history of Madain Saleh, 22 kilometers to its north. Many different people had lived there, from the Neolithic man to the Nabataeans.
The area south of Jordan was a part of biblical geography. It was inhabited by the 'Ad tribe whose prophet was Hud, and later by the Thamud tribe whose prophet was Saleh (ninth generation from Noah).
As narrated in the Qur'an, the Thamud people disobeyed their prophet and persisted in idol worship which earned them God's wrath; they were destroyed by earthquake and lightning blast. The Thamuds were followed by the Nabataeans who ruled the area from Al Ula (biblical Dedan) to Madain Saleh (Al Higra) around 150 B.C., when it was known as the Lihyanite Kingdom. The caravan trade of incense, myrrh, and spices from southern Arabia, which they controlled, gave them wealth that enabled them to build palaces and carve houses, temples and tombs on the rocks. Their northern brothers built the city of Petra.
Important archaeological sites are to be found in this area: the old City of Al Ula that had been inhabited until the 1970's, is a rare example of an Islamic city dating back to the eleventh century A.D. Al Khuraibah is a site attributed to the Lihyanite Kingdom, where there are large number of tombs; Ikmah, a small wadi in which stones bearing Lihyanite and Minaean inscriptions were discovered; Al-Mabiyat, where buildings of a large Islamic city were excavated; and, of course, the Madain Saleh necropolis. Also there can be found remains of the Hejaz Railway which used to transport pilgrims from Damascus to Madina.
As we left Al Ula oasis, the valley opens up to a sweeping vista of desert sands dotted with sandstone walls and formations. Two visiting Americans best described the scenery: "Suddenly, unbelievably, we were no longer in Saudi Arabia but in the American Southwest – Utah, perhaps, with its Monument Valley, or Arizona with its Painted Desert".* "For about forty miles the valley stretched north-south like a sea of yellow sand from which rose innumerable great islands of tawny pink sandstones, often sheer walled and several hundred feet in height, sculptured by wind and sand into columns, pinnacles, spires, saw teeth, natural bridges, profiles of every oddment of erosion conceivable to man's imagination. The width of the great valley varies from perhaps ten to twenty-five miles, larger than the Grand Canyon."** In this magnificent setting lies Madain Saleh's city of the dead.
There are 131 tombs, scattered over an area of about 12 square kilometers, according to published brochures. (All the hotel tour guides did not come to work on this day of feast.) I could see that the biggest concentration of them was in an area of a few square kilometers. The tombs were carved on yellow sandstone rocks or mountains separated by hundreds of meters; some were small and had only one tomb while others were huge with many tombs carved all around their sides. The tomb facades were finely etched with decorative elements showing Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, and Roman influences, but the interior chambers were plain. The main chambers were about four to six square miles in area with smaller niches on their sides. Some facades had plates on top of the entrances providing information about the grave owners, the religious system, and the masons who carved them – a feature that distinguishes them from those in Petra.
In comparison, Petra is contained in a compact area of a few square kilometers enclosed on all sides by steep rose-red cliffs on which the facades of tombs were carved. It has the feel of a complete city. During the Roman occupation more structures were added such as a theater, a colonnaded street and a nymphaeum.
The street of facades gives visitors a feeling of walking down a city lane. Amidst the graves of Madain Saleh, I wondered where its former inhabitants lived. Perhaps the answer is buried in the sand, waiting to be discovered.
It is difficult to decide which is more beautiful, the man-made tombs or the wind-sculpted rocks and formations. For me it is this whole landscape of rare beauty that is unforgettable. Yet this treasure of a place has remained hidden from most of the world, due to the inaccessibility of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the hordes of tourists. This conservative cradle of Islam has until recently restricted visitors to religious pilgrims. Only recently has it allowed organized group tours.
The situation may soon change. The kingdom is working hard to promote tourism, perhaps realizing its huge earning potential and its role in promoting international understanding, especially given the current historical milieu. Another development which augurs well for the opening up of the kingdom to mass tourism is the elevation of Madain Saleh to the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some, however, fear that this status may bring in "uncontrolled tourism and ill-planned development" that can cause physical and social damage to the site and the communities surrounding it.
For better or worse, this treasure of Arabia may soon be hidden no more.
* This is from Paul F. Hoye's article in North From Jeddah, published in Aramco World Magazine, September/October 1965. Paul F. Hoye is a former editor of Aramco World magazine.
** Parker T. Hart, former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, as quoted in the above mentioned article.
Photos: Danny Hizon, Kiel Erida, Orly Reyes
Madain Saleh is accessible by car from any location in Saudi Arabia. To cut driving time, fly to and drive the rest of the way from either Madina (400 kilometers), Hail (400 kilometers), or Al Wajh (230 kilometers) to Al Ula.
Where to stay and eat
For a small fee, the hotels will secure entry permit to the archaeological sites on behalf of the visitors; foreign visitors should send copies of their passports and expatriate residents copies of their residence permits two weeks in advance to the hotels for this purpose. The hotels also organize group tours to the various tourist sites.
Good restaurants are hard to find. Hotels are the best places to eat.
When to go
Best from November to March.