Mada’in Saleh, the largest conserved site of the Nabataeans after Petra, was the first UNESCO World Heritage site the Kingdom.
While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is known for its Islamic heritage sites, which attract millions of tourists, worshipers and pilgrims each year, pre-Islamic heritage and archaeological sites go virtually unnoticed – such as Mada’in Saleh.
Situated almost precisely between Petra in Jordan and Medina in Saudi Arabia, the site that is also known as Al Hijr contains the remains of the southernmost Nabatean settlements, along with traces of Lihyanite and Roman occupation dating back to both before and after the Nabateans.
The area’s dry climate and local superstitious beliefs kept area safe from resettlement for many centuries, leaving 131 rock-cut monumental tombs and villages untouched and preserved for so long.
According to Islamic texts, the area was inhibited by the Thamudi, who due to their idol worshiping practices were punished by God with earthquakes and lightning blasts. This led locals to consider the site cursed – a belief the Kingdom is trying to change as it plans to turn Mada’in Saleh into a tourism destination.
It was proclaimed a site of World Heritage by UNESCO in 2008, making Saudi Arabia’s first.
The ruins include 2,000 non-monumental burial sites that vary in size and ornamentation, reflecting the social status of the graves owner, a residential area with sun-dried mudbrick houses, and a religious area known a Jabal Ithlib, which is considered to be dedicated to the Nabatean deity Dushara.
There are also some 50 pre-Nabatean inscriptions and some cave drawings in the area, as well as an impressive system of 130 water wells.
The largest of the tombs is known as Qasr al-Farid or “The Lonely Castle”, a four-story tomb carved into a single rock, but was never completed for mysterious reasons.
If you’re visiting Saudi Arabia anytime soon, Mada’in Saleh is definitely a site you’d want to explore.