Madain Saleh: Saudi Arabia’s Hidden Treasure
Madain Saleh, located in northwest Saudi Arabia, is the largest conserved site of the Nabataean kingdom south of Jordan's Petra, and the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Saudi Arabia.
The Nabataeans were originally a nomadic tribe but about 2,500 years ago they started building settlements and cities, including the magnificent Petra in Jordan—their capital. The Nabataeans had created a sophisticated water collection system, which allowed them to prosper and build an impressive trade empire in the heart of Arabia. They controlled much of the spice trade between southern Arabia and the Near East. Nabateans extracted taxes from the camel caravans carrying frankincense, myrrh, and spices that were taken up north to be purchased by the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and others.
In 106 AD, the Nabatean Empire was annexed by the Romans and by the 3rd century AD the incense and spice route was in decline due to the maritime spice trading routes and the economic crisis in the Roman Empire. Consequently, many of the towns along the trade route were affected by the deterioration in trade and ultimately abandoned.
Built between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD, Madain Saleh is an architectural wonder and a testimony to the skill and craftsmanship of the Nabataeans. The 131 tombs were finely carved into solid rock with elaborately ornamented façades. The interiors are simple with recessed shelves carved into the walls where the bodies of the deceased were placed.
The Nabateans left no written history and the tomb inscriptions, unique to Madain Saleh, have provided extraordinary insight into the names, relationships, occupations, laws and gods of the people who lived here.
Of all the tombs, Qasr al-Farid is the largest and the most impressive one, standing alone in Maidan Saleh and carved out of a single rock. Reported to be four stories high, the tomb is an indication of the wealth and the social status of the person or family who commissioned it. The tomb was never finished and we still don't know who it was built for. From Qasr al-Farid, the views of the golden rocky desert are dramatic with crooked spires, carved by wind and rain, in the background.
Unlike Petra with its tourists, souvenir sellers and camel rides, there are no people visiting the tombs. Saudi Arabia does not issue tourist visas yet and some muslims will not come here because they believe the site was cursed when the Nabatean’s refused to renounce their gods in favor of Islam.