Mada’in Saleh, literally translated as the “Cities of Saleh”, is an archeological site located in the region of al-Ula about 400 kilometers north-west of Medina. In 2008, Mada’in Saleh was inscribed as Saudi Arabia’s very first UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Mada’in Saleh archeological site covers an area of just over 1,621 hectares located at the foot of Jabal al-Uwayrid, a basalt plateau which forms part of the Hijaz mountains. The setting is notable for its desert landscape.
Alluding to its distinctive sandstone outcrops, the area is also known as “al-Hijr” which means “the stony land” or “the rocky place”. The sandstones are either red-brown (the older ones) or whitish (the more recent ones) and of various sizes and heights. The most impressive among them is Jabal Ithlib, located at the north-east of the site, which rises almost a hundred meters above the surrounding plain. A particularity of Mada’in Saleh is that it has vegetation such as acacia trees and tamarix which are normally only found in valleys.
it came under the rule of the Nabatean king, Al Harith IV, who lived between 9 BCE and 40 CE. He made Al-Hijr the
Nabatean kingdom’s second capital after Petra to the north in what is now Jordan.
As a major staging post on the main north-south caravan route and connected to the Red Sea port of Egra Kome, al-Hijr was soon able to command a monopoly on the trade of incense, myrrh and spices.
The elements of the archaeological site which can be securely dated to the period before this are very scarce.
The most visible pre-Nabataean remains are the Lihyanite inscriptions (a language belonging to the family of north Arabian dialects).
According to Islamic tradition, by the third millennium BCE, al-Hijr had been settled by a tribe called Thamud.
The tribe had fallen into idol worship and the prophet Saleh, to whom the name “Mada’in Saleh” is attributed, called on them to repent. Most of them disregarded the warning and instead challenged Saleh to prove he was a prophet by summoning a pregnant she-camel from behind a mountain.
Instead of caring for it as they had been instructed, they killed the shecamel and the calf escaped back to the mountain. The tribe was given three days before their punishment was to take place. The prophet and those who heeded his warning left the city while those who remained were killed by an earthquake and blasts of lightning.
Extensive settlement of al-Hijr took place during the 1st century CE, when the worshippers who came to worship
The Nabateans also developed basic agriculture by digging wells. Numbering about 130, most of the wells are to be found in the west and northwest part of the site where the water table was most easily accessible.
Dug to a depth of about 20 meters, the diameter of the wells could reach 7 meters although the average diameter
is 4 meters. The wells were dug in the rock, while the upper part, usually dug into the softer soil, was lined with
large sandstone boulders extracted from the ancient quarries.
In 106 CE, the Nabatean kingdom was annexed by the Roman empire and the entire Hijaz became part of the Roman province of Arabia.
As a result, trade shifted from the overland north-south caravan route to the maritime route through the Red Sea graphic material, some rock drawings associated with Lihyanite inscriptions certainly date from before the Nabataean period.
The most interesting among them are representations of two life-size lions.
The archeological site contains the remains of over a hundred Nabataean tombs most of which have decorated façades.
Qasr al-Bint is perhaps the most famous necropolis and the most visited. Its thirty tombs are neither the largest nor the most decorated but they form, as a whole, the most conspicuous and most representative group. The largesttomb is 16 meters high.
However, there is also an unfinished tomb, best visible from a distance, which, had it been finished, would probably have reached more than 30 meters. A beautiful inscription, written just below the tomb, says the owner was one of the local governors.
Some of the tombs display remarkable decorative elements such as masks of monsters, eagles, human faces, and other small sculpted animals. In addition, to the monumental tombs there are more than 2,000 non-monumental burial-places (simple cist-graves or tumuli).
As the residential buildings were partly built in mudbrick, they are much less well preserved than the rock-carved monuments.
However, the city wall, also built in mudbrick, can still be easily recognized.
Jabal Ithlib, located at the north-east of the site, is reached through a narrow passageway between high rocks that are much smaller but similar to the “Siq” at Petra. At the entrance to this pass, to the right, is carved the so-called “Diwan” room, a triclinium where people would gather for meals.
Around Jabal Ithlib, are several small sanctuaries. Most of the niches, altars, betyls and other religious monuments have inscriptions which are either dedications to the deity or signatures which meant that al-Hijr’s importance as a center of trade began to decline, leading to its eventual abandonment.
The history of al-Hijr, from the decline of the Roman empire until the emergence of Islam, remains largely unknown.
It was only sporadically mentioned in the succeeding centuries by travelers and pilgrims making their way to Mecca who stopped at al-Hijr for food and water.
Among these accounts is one by the 14th-century traveler, Ibn Battuta, who described the red stone-cut tombs. He noticed that these “houses”, as he called them, were so well preserved that it seemed they were just built. He could still see many bones inside the tombs.
By 1517, the Ottoman empire had annexed western Arabia from the Mamluks. In early Ottoman accounts of the pilgrims’ road between Damascus and Mecca, Mada’in Saleh is not mentioned until 1672 when the Turkish traveler, Eyliya Celebi, noted that the pilgrims’ caravan passed through a place called “Abyar Saleh” where there were the remains of seven cities.
It is again mentioned by the traveler, Murtada ibn Alawan, as a rest stop on the route called “al-Mada’in”. Between
1744 and 1757, a fort was built at al-Hijr on the orders of the Ottoman governor of Damascus.
It is 18 x 17.8 meters in size and is organized on two levels with rooms and a praying hall on each floor. The thick walls of the castle have arch slits and defensive brétèches above the front door and on the four corners.
A cistern supplied by a large well within the fort was also built and the site served as a one-day stop for pilgrims where they could purchase goods such as dates, lemons and oranges. It was part of a series of fortifications built to protect the pilgrimage route to Mecca.
Following the discovery of Petra by the Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burck hardt, in 1812, Charles Montagu Doughty, an English traveler, joined the pilgrims’ caravan and reached the site of the ruins in 1876 and recorded the visit in his journal which was published as Travels in Arabia Deserta in which Doughty described the Ottoman fort where he resided for two months.
He was followed a few years later by Charles Huber and Julius Euting, two western travelers. However, the largest and most impressive exploration of the site was undertaken in 1907, 1909 and 1910 by two Dominican
Fathers, A. Jaussen and R. Savignac, who published their discoveries in a book called Mission archéologique en Arabie.
This monumental work is still the principal source for those interested in the archaeology and epigraphy of north-west Arabia in general and of Mada’in Saleh in particular.
Mention should be made about the Hijaz railway which was constructed between 1901 and 1908 on the orders of the Ottoman sultan, Abdul Hamid II, to link Damascus and Jerusalem in the north-west with Medina and Mecca thereby not only facilitating the pilgrimage journey but also politically and economically consolidating the Ottoman administration. The railway extended the already established rail links between the Ottoman capital, Istanbul, Baghdad and Damascus.
The railway entered Saudi Arabia through Tabuk province in the north and continued through Mada’in Saleh and al- Ula before reaching Medina. The final segment of the line to Mecca was never built. The railway station complex is located in the northern part of the archaeological site. It is composed of sixteen independent buildings made of sandstone blocks covered by redtiled pitched roofs. The structures, all preserved, include the station building, houses for travelers and personnel, washrooms, a shed for carriage repairs and an engine-shed housing several carriages and a locomotive.