The ancient past of one of the world’s most closed countries is beginning to be revealed.
Mada’in Saleh, about 200 miles north of Medina in northwestern Saudi Arabia, is an impressive remnant of the Nabataean civilization, the same people who built Petra in Jordan 2,000 years ago. Massive tombs carved out of cliffs tower over the desert. Some are decorated with carvings or bear ancient inscriptions dedicated to the dead who lie within. Around the tombs are the ruins of a once-thriving city at a key node of an extensive trade network.
The Nabataean Kingdom stretched from its capital Petra in what is now Jordan deep into the Arabian Peninsula. It grew wealthy from trading in incense from southern Arabia to the Mediterranean. Incense was used in religious rituals and burials and was vitally important for many cultures, including the Romans. The Nabataeans had a powerful kingdom from 168 B.C. until the Roman Empire annexed it in 106 A.D.
Mada’in Saleh was near the southern edge of Nabataean territory, perfectly poised to control the trade route. Even though it’s in the middle of a desert, there are good wells at the site and the Nabataeans managed to cultivate sizable tracts of land.
The most visible remains are the 131 rock-cut tombs with carved facades of a style similar to those in Petra 300 miles to the northwest. There are less grandiose attractions too. Here and there on the sandstone outcroppings are little niches that once held statues of pagan gods. Other stones have carved designs of animals dating from before the kingdom, back to an earlier people called the Lihyanites.
%Gallery-167884%Despite being alongside one of the main pilgrimage routes for the Hajj, the ruins of Mada’in Saleh were ignored for years by Saudi authorities who had no interest in civilizations before the advent of Islam. Now that’s changing, AFP reports. Saudi Arabia is slowly opening up to tourism and the site is drawing an increasing number of tourists. Last year Mada’in Saleh attracted 40,000 visitors and site managers want to double that figure this year. Most visitors are curious Saudis, but the country’s tourism office is encouraging foreigners to visit as well.
There are two museums on the site, although neither is about the Nabataean civilization. One is about the nearby pilgrimage route and another is dedicated to the Hejaz railway opened by the Ottomans in the early 20th century.
French archaeologists are currently excavating the site so hopefully more information about this southern outpost of the Nabataean civilization will come to light.
[Photo courtesy Flickr user Sammy Six]