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  • Writer's pictureChris Wright

Arabian Rock Stars

Updated: May 8, 2018

Discovery Channel Magazine, August 2010

Deep in the deserts of Saudi Arabia sits one of the great archaeological marvels of the Middle East: Mada’in Saleh. Like Petra in Jordan – carved by the same ancient tribe, the Nabateans – the site is made up of hundreds of tombs and facades carved deep into the surface of golden sandstone rock, showing incredible precision and artistry for a people who lived 2,000 years ago.

But there’s one major difference between Mada’in Saleh and Petra, or Palmyra, or Persepolis, or any of the region’s great historic treasures: there’s no-one there. No tourists, no touts, no tour buses. Foreigners rarely come because it’s so hard to get visas; Saudis tend to view the tombs with some superstition. In an entire day at the site, I saw perhaps a dozen people. And that is part of the charm.

To see the article as it ran in Discovery, with photography, follow this link: Medain S’aleh (2)

Mada’in Saleh (“cities of Saleh”), also known as Al-Hijr (“rocky place”), was first occupied by humans as long as 5,000 years ago, and at one stage hosted members of the Arab Lihyanite kingdom. But it’s the Nabateans, an empire that rose and fell from 120BC to AD106, who left their mark here.

Their grand and intricate carvings are as remarkable today as they must have been when they were diligently carved into the rock around the time of the birth of Christ. Unlike Petra, whose community included a treasury, theatre and other buildings, Mada’in Saleh’s main sites are mainly tombs: simple chambers cut deep into the sandstone, with ornate facades in front of them, as much as 50 feet high. They are decorated with patterns, vases, eagles, snakes, sphinxes, griffins and suns – but never people. And best of all, more than 30 of them carry inscriptions in Aramaic allowing us to date them (almost all were built between 1BC and 75AD) and in some cases even telling us who carved them: several, for example, were made by a skilled craftsman called Aftah.

Two millenia on, I am being guided around the ruins by Abdul Aziz, who ten years ago retired from a career in the Saudi air force and police department to become a guide to the area. His family, which he reckons has been in the broader area for 1,000 years or more, moved to the nearby town of Al-Ula in his grandfather’s generation; his uncle was effectively the Saudi government’s representative for Al-Ula under King Abdul Aziz, who unified Saudi Arabia into roughly its current form in the 1930s. “At that time they don’t use the word governor,” today’s Abdul Aziz recalls. “They say ‘one of King Abdul Aziz’s people’.” Even then, as de facto head of the town, there was little involvement for his uncle with Mada’in Saleh, barely 20 kilometres to the north; “They don’t know about this place then,” Abdul Aziz says.

Standing in front of one of the tombs in the traditional Saudi dress of white thobe and ghutra, Abdul Aziz explains how the Nabateans would design and carve their tombs. “They started digging from the top down, not the same as if you are building something from the ground up,” he says. In two places in Mada’in Saleh one sees this clearly illustrated where facades have been started but never finished; they remain there, as if suspended, high in the sandstone. The reason for their abandonment continues to puzzle archaeologists today. “Was there a sudden economic or military catastrophe?” asks Professor John F Healy of the University of Manchester in one of his many books on the Nabateans.

The tombs all bear a similar style. “At the top, all of them have five steps coming down towards each other,” says Abdul Aziz. “That is because if anyone attacks or uses the tomb without permission, they feel in their mind it will come five times.” Some scholars suggest the steps represent five gods the Nabateans worshipped.

Most tombs bear clear marks of the chisels used to carve them – either hard stone or iron. The sandstone, so beautiful and ornate yet fragile, is perfect carving material: Abdul Aziz cheerfully takes a hard stone to an outcrop near a tomb to demonstrate how easily it comes away. For bigger blocks, iron chains were inserted into carved grooves in order to remove slabs, and then the facade was smoothed. There doesn’t seem to have been any revolutionary science involved, just talent, patience and hard work, with some tombs taking years to complete.

Different tomb designs reflected status, with the biggest and grandest apparently devoted to the wealthiest and most important families. The biggest are Qasr Al-Bint (castle of the girl), a rock mass containing 31 individual tombs and the largest single facade, 52.5 feet high; and the extraordinary Qasr Al-Farid, hewn out of a single isolated rock. The jagged Jebel Ethlib mountains and spires, reminiscent of the angular formations of Arizona or Utah, provide a stunning backdrop. Every bit the match of Petra’s Treasury, Qasr Al-Farid has the most ornate facade, with four columns where most have two. “Maybe he was rich,” Abdul Aziz concludes.

From an archeologist’s perspective, it’s the inscriptions that really set the place apart. “Right at the top of the door, they write: this is the owner of the tombs,” Abdul Aziz explains. “It says: you are not allowed to use it, or you must pay.” Scholars who have translated the inscriptions from the Aramaic reveal a remarkably specific range of demands: one forbids violating the bones within the tomb, one altering the inscription, one forging documents about the tomb, and one selling it. The recipients of the fines vary from gods to a king or a governor, and some specify a price, often a thousand Haretite sela’s, or “full price” or “double the price” of the tomb. Some get nasty: “May Dushara [the chief Nabatean deity] curse anybody who buries in this tomb anyone except those inscribed above.” Another: “May he who separates night from day curse whoever removes them forever…”

The fact we can even seen these inscriptions after 2,000 years is an accident of circumstances. “Its desert location has protected it both as a result of its very arid climate and its isolation,” noted the International Council on Monuments and Sites in its report to UNESCO supporting the site’s elevation to World Heritage status, which was approved in 2008. “This has led to the good preservation of the decoration of the facades, and has enabled the conservation of many inscriptions in several ancient languages.” If Mada’in Saleh was as humid or windy as Petra, or as popular, there would probably be much less to see today.

Another reason the tombs have been largely undamaged – and are still little visited – is that local people have appeared nervous about coming. Mada’in Saleh appears in the Qur’an, which says that the tribe there – the Thamud – were guilty of idol-worshipping, forbidden in Islam. Told by the prophet Saleh (whose name the site takes today) to repent, the non-believers instead conspired to kill him and were punished by Allah. Even today, some Muslims – and Saudi is among the strictest Islamic state – may consider it against their religion to visit.

Others just don’t know about it. I met a group of young men wandering around the ruins, who were visiting from Buraydah, about 600 kilometres away. “We have been there for the last 20 years and we hadn’t heard about this place until one week ago,” one says.

For whatever reason, the carvings have withstood the test of time much better than most other attempts at civilisation in the area. In the middle of the site is a restored railway station from the old Hejaz railway the Ottomans built between Damascus and Medina in the early years of the 20th century. But one only has to walk a few yards away from the station to see the tracks disappear, the steel and sleepers long since ripped up and used for other purposes. The railway barely lasted half a century; the Nabatean carvings, unchanged in millennia, look down imperiously upon its wreckage.

Maybe World Heritage status will bring international and local tourism to Mada’in Saleh; Abdul Aziz thinks it’s happening already. “It was crowded last week,” he says. “In total there may have been 100 people.”

But people have been expecting the site to take off for years. Barbara Toy, the intrepid British traveller, passed through here in the 1960s retracing the old incense trade routes. In 1968 she wrote: “One senses that Madain Saleh is preparing to be discovered.” More than 40 years later, it’s still waiting.


The Nabateans seem to have been an Arab group, originating from southern Jordan (where Petra, the Nabatean capital, is found) and Palestine. Around 120BC they decided to form their own state, sustained by their location on the vital overland caravan routes from southern Arabia to the rest of the world. They did have their own goods to sell, like bitumen, but their prosperity seems to have come from taxing the caravans. Mada’in Saleh appears to be as far south as they got, and was their southern capital.

Apart from their magnificent carving skills, they are important as a link between the Aramaic and Arabic languages; their inscriptions were Arabic-influenced Aramaic and they may have spoken informally in Arabic.

They showed smart engineering for their time, too. Mada’in Saleh is supported by more than 100 wells, while a clever drainage system next to the Diwan place of worship channelled rainfall into a three metre deep storage chamber.

Their kingdom lasted just over 200 years before being incorporated, apparently without a struggle, into the Roman empire on March 22 AD106. While their descendants must exist across Saudi and Jordan, it is no longer possible to talk of distinct Nabatean descent; the culture has long since been absorbed into Arabia.


The Nabateans were not the only people to carve their dwellings and temples into rock. One of the most remarkable examples is the town of Lalibela in Ethiopia, where 11 churches have been hewn out of the rock, each one from a single block of granite, with the church roof at the level of the surrounding ground. They were built – or excavated – in the 12th century by King Lalibela, who gives the town its name.

In the Cappadocia region of Turkey, people carved soft volcanic rocks into houses, churches and monasteries. In some towns, they still live in them. And in the Buzau region of Romania, churches and dwellings have been carved into a mountain, inhabited from as early as the 3rd century AD to as recently as the 19th.

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