After riding for hours and hours through the barren Al Nefud Desert, small mountains started to appear. We thought at first they blended in with the desert and were ordinary hills of sand. But these weren’t normal looking mountains. Since we arrived at our destination during the night, we couldn’t see much of them. But when we left our hotel room the next morning our eyes popped open in amazement.
Right before our eyes next to our hotel were the original natural creations shaped by rain, wind and temperature for millions of years. These unusual and outstanding mountain outcrops were Mada’in Saleh, of Saudi Arabia, also called the “Number 2 Petra.”
This famous Nabataea necropolis has been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008 because of its well-preserved remains from late antiquity, especially its 131 rock cut monumental tombs with elaborately carved facades of the Nabataea Kingdom of the 1st Century AD. And it is also known in Saudi Arabia as “the Capital of Monuments.”
My favorite of all the Mada’in Saleh tombs was Qasr al-Farid, a single tomb in a stand-alone dome. It also is called the most photogenic and most iconic symbol of all the tombs. The façade is not finished and is heavily carved at the bottom which shows how the mason did the carving from the bottom up. But it’s massive and domineering presence was magnificent.
Another one of my favorites was the Jabel Ithlib. And in the middle of it is a slit, separating 2 outcroppings approximately 1 meter wide (39 inches). Like Petra, that space is called the Siq. It was a refreshing walk from the hot sun through the 131 feet (40 meters) Siq. The walk through it leads to the Diwan, a Muslim council chamber or law court. Small religious sanctuaries with inscriptions were also cut into the rock.
A total of 4 necropolis areas exist in Mada’in Saleh and many have inscribed Nabataea epigraphs on their facades. The Qasr al Walad necropolis constructed 0-58 A.D. includes 31 tombs decorated with fine inscriptions as well as artistic elements like birds, human faces and imaginary beings. It has the most monumental of the rock-cut tombs, including the largest façade measuring 52.5 feet (16m) high that is called “The Palace of the Daughter or Maiden.”
The largest of the 4, Jabal al-Khuraymat, has numerous outcrops separated by sandy zones, although only 8 of the outcrops have cut tombs, totaling 48 in quantity.
Area C has single isolated outcrop containing 19 cut tombs. Jahal al-Mahjar tombs are cut on the eastern and western side of 4 parallel rock outcrops and the façade decorations are small in size.
All the tombs are spread over 8.3 miles (13.4 km) and inscribed with Nabataea epigraphs on their facades. The site constitutes the kingdom’s southernmost and largest settlement after Petra, the capital. Non-monumental burial sites, totaling 2,000, are also part of the place.
Known also as Hegra and Al Hijr, the archaeological site is located 310.7 miles/500 km southeast of Petra. It is on a plain, at the foot of a basalt plateau, which forms the southeast portion of the Hijaz Mountains. Under Nabataea King Al-Harith IV (1 BC-40 AD), the place enjoyed an urbanization movement that turned it into a city and second Nabataea capital after Petra.
Visiting the tombs was relatively accessible because our Top Saudi Arabian guide, Khalid Alqahtani, and our driver took us right up to the different areas which were not adjacent to each other. Then when we finished visiting that area, we rode to the next areas making it easy for those who didn’t want to walk that far in the hot sun or were somewhat handicapped. Khalid and Spiekermann Travel Service Inc. 800-645-3233 www.mideasttrvl.com made this experience in Saudi Arabia an outstanding, educational and fun one for all of us on the tour.
Located at the crossroads of commerce and culture, the Nabatean Kingdom flourished and had a monopoly on frankincense, myrrh, and spices. These products had to pass through the Nabatean Kingdom to be traded on the main north-south trade route.
The motifs of the façade decorations, from stylistic elements of Assyria, Phoenicia, Egypt and Hellenistic Alexandria combine with the native style.
Some facades indicate the social status of the buried person and the size and ornamentation of the structure reflect the wealth of the person. They are finely carved and fairly uniform in their style. Some have plates on top of the entrances providing information about the grave owners, the religious system, the person who carved it, or the military rank.
Inside the tombs, we found roughly chiseled large and small rooms with recesses carved into the walls where bodies were placed. The Mada’in Saleh site is outstanding with its desert landscape with sandstone outcrops of various sizes, heights and shapes.
Right in the middle of the flat desert are small freestanding accessible mountain/hills, perfect for carving tombs. The Nabataea’s carved beautiful facades and tombs for their citizens for the entire world to see and enjoy for thousands and thousands of years. And they made my eyes pop wide open when I first saw how magnificent they are.