Mysterious, remote and undiscovered, Madain Saleh is one of the most significant archaeological sites in the Arabian Peninsula.
The historic name of Mada’in Saleh is Hegra, or al-Hijr in Arabic. Madain Saleh is located in Al Ula, in the Hijaz region of western Saudi Arabia, some 300 kms north of Medina and 500 kms south-east of its sister city, Petra in Jordan.
In this comprehensive guide you can read in detail about Madain Saleh’s history, learn in depth knowledge about the different types of tombs and fascinating areas that can be found in Madain Saleh, Saudi Arabia’s mysterious desert city.
THE HISTORY OF MADAIN SALEH
Historically, Hegra had a lucrative position in the desert with an underground water supply that permitted agriculture, which in turn made it one of several indispensable stops along the incense trade route from Yemen to the Levant. This strategic location brought a certain wealth to its inhabitants, and with it, a number of passing kingdoms and civilisations since early history. It began in the 3rd millennium BCE with the tribe of Thamud, infamous in Islam for rejecting the calls to worship the one and only God by their prophet Saleh. It is from this very prophet that Hegra’s modern name, Mada’in Saleh which means “Cities” of Saleh, was derived.
The Dedanites and Lihyanites were other tribes who settled in the area in the 6th – 4th centuries BCE, followed by the Nabataeans in the 1st century BCE. The latter made Hegra their second capital city in case their main capital, Petra in today’s Jordan, was threatened by the Romans. Hegra’s golden age thus ensued and for the next century, while the city flourished, its inhabitants carved rock-cut tombs similar in style to those found in Petra.
The Roman threat did finally materialise in 106 CE when the entire Nabataean kingdom and its civilisation, including Hegra, were usurped by the Roman Empire. The city’s decline, however, had already begun when, in 70 CE, King Rabbel II transferred the Nabataean capital from Petra to Bosra in modern day Syria, rather than Hegra. Although Hegra continued to exist for at least another century after the Roman takeover, it later mysteriously disappeared from history, only leaving behind its many magnificent rock-cut tombs as a reminder of a glorious civilisation.
These tombs, coupled with a fun desert adventure and visits to the many other historical sites in nearby al-Ula, make Madain Saleh the most remarkable place to visit in all of Arabia. Its importance has led the UNESCO finally to list it as a World Heritage Site in 2008.
MADAIN SALEH OVERVIEW
The Madain Saleh archaeological site covers a vast area. It is entered by car either from the south or from the north next to the Ottoman-period Hijaz Railway station, and both entrances join an unpaved road that loops around the whole site, making a few detours along the way. The ruins of the town of Hegra itself, where the Nabataean inhabitants once lived, is located at the centre of the site, but is currently under excavation in two distinct fenced-off areas.
Otherwise, nearly all of the visible ruins are in the form of rock-cut tombs, 131 in total, carved mostly in the first century CE, but only 86 come with a monumental façade. Though a few are isolated, these tombs were typically carved in clusters around the perimeters of large rock outcrops scattered around the site.
They are divided into seven areas (A to G), plus one additional mountain (Jebel Ithlib) used for religious rituals. In addition, there are more than 100 ancient Nabataean wells spread out across the site, and the dismantled Hijaz Railway Station, the aforementioned late Ottoman-period construction associated with Lawrence of Arabia.
At first glance, the tombs in Madain Saleh may all appear to be the same, but upon a closer look, the variety in styles and sizes becomes noticeable. The smallest carved façade is tomb N°3 (Jebel al-Mahjar Group), measuring under 3 by 2 metres, while the largest finished façade is Qasr al-Farid (N°110), measuring nearly 22 by 14 metres.
Some of the differences in architectural styles are quite obvious, but others require a sharp eye and some basic understanding of architecture to distinguish between them. With the exception of the signature Nabatean column capitals, Hegra’s funerary architecture exhibits strong borrowings from nearby civilisations, including features from Egyptian, Assyrian, and Hellenistic styles, and anyone who has visited Petra in Jordan would immediately recognise the similarities in architecture.
There are eight main stylistic categories in Hegra:
#1 Madain Saleh Simple burial chamber:
This type of tomb is a simple burial chamber devoid of any ornamentation. It was used by poorer inhabitants of Hegra who could not afford more lavish tombs. There are over 40 such tombs in Hegra.
#2 Madain Saleh Single Row of Merlons:
This style is the simplest of the monumental façades in Hegra. It consists primarily of a single row of merlons at the top of the façade, but some additional decorative features may be used in some cases. These may be in the form of two large pilasters to support the row of merlons, a pediment and pilasters to frame the entrance, or statues above the doorway to honour a deity. Twelve tombs in Hegra are attributed to this style.
#3 Madain Saleh Arched tomb:
Only one tomb in Hegra follows this style, Tomb N°92. It is a small façade consisting of a single arch over the doorway resting on two pilasters and topped by three urns.
#4 Madain Saleh Double Row of Merlons style:
This style consists of a double row of merlons at the top of the façade. Other features, such as pilasters, or face sculptures are added in some cases. In total, 14 tombs in Hegra follow this style.
#5 Madain Saleh Half-Merlons style:
Eight tombs were carved in this rather simple style. It consists of two large half-merlons arranged symmetrically at the top of the façade, resting over an Egyptian-style cornice. No pilasters or other entablature is used, but in some cases, the entrance may be framed. The half-merlons at the top create a five-step design that is the signature feature of most Nabataean tombs. Some speculate that the five steps – never more, never less – represent the five major Nabatean deities, including Dúshara.
#6 Madain Saleh Proto-Hegra 1 Style:
This is the first of three styles that are the trademark of grand tomb façades in Hegra and is the most widely used. It is crowned by two large symmetric half-merlons surmounted on an Egyptian style cornice and an architrave resting on two large pilasters, often with Nabataean capitals. The doorway may at times be framed by an aedicule consisting of a triangular or arched pediment. In total, 24 façades in Hegra follow this style.
#7 Madain Saleh Proto-Hegra 2 Style:
It is nearly identical to Proto-Hegra 1 style, except for one minor detail. The entablature below the large half-merlons is wider, consisting of an Egyptian-style cornice, an undecorated frieze and an architrave. The frieze is the extra feature in Proto-Hegra 2. Twelve façades in total were carved in this style.
#8 The Hegra (MADAIN SALEH) Style:
This is the ultimate design in Hegra, thus dubbed the Hegra Style. It is similar to the two Proto-Hegra styles, except that it includes a second entablature above the two pilasters flanking the façade. The grandest tombs in Hegra follow this style, including several in Qasr al-Bint Group (e.g. N°21, N°22, and N°44) and Qasr al-Farid (N°110). The latter, though, is unique in that its façade contains four pilasters instead of two. In total, 14 tombs follow this style, though not all of them are particularly large.
As many as 38 of the tombs in Hegra contain a dedicatory plaque with carved inscriptions in the Nabataean alphabet, a precursor to Arabic. These inscriptions are legal in nature and often state the date the tomb was completed, the name of its sculptor and the family or person to whom it belonged, and sometimes also describe the punishment or requirement for anyone else who uses the tomb.
THE TOMBS IN MADAIN SALEH
Hegra’s plaques date the tombs to the period between 1 BCE and 75 CE, usually stated as the year of the reign of a specific king. They have shed important light on the life and practices of Nabataeans in general and brought to life the cosmopolitan nature of Hegra’s population, and have thus been tremendously valued by archaeologists, in particular because Petra (in Jordan) by comparison has only one such inscription! Many of the other façades in Hegra contain a space for a plaque but no inscription, which led some archaeologists to believe that wooden tablets with inscriptions may have been inserted in that space.
As-Saneh Tomb group
Upon entering Madain Saleh from the southern entrance, one first encounters a group of tombs known as as-Saneh Group, numbered 102 to 108 and designated as Area G. It consists of only seven tombs across two rock outcrops flanking the unpaved road: the first has a single tomb with a large carved façade, known as Qasr as-Saneh (N°102), which gave the group its name, while the second contains the rest of the tombs in the form of simple unadorned burial chambers.
The façade of Qasr as-Saneh is one of the largest in Hegra, carved in the Hegra style, which consists of two symmetrical half-merlons over an Egyptian-style cornice and an entablature resting on two pilasters with Nabataean capitals. The entrance is framed by a triangular pediment on two pilasters, but lacks any statues or figures, and above it is an inscription dating the tomb to the 17th year of the reign of the Nabataean King Aretas IV Philopatris, thought to correspond to 8 CE. It also states that it was carved by the mason, Abd’haretat ibn Abd’obodat, for Malkion ibn Hephaestion and his family, whose name suggests a Hellenistic origin (ibn = son of).
East of as-Saneh Group, just south, south-east of the ancient urban centre of Hegra, Areas C and D are often grouped together. Area C is a single rock outcrop, known as Jebel al-Ahmar, with 19 tombs numbered 112 to 130 around its entire perimeter. Jebel al-Ahmar translates to the Red Mountain named so because of the faint red hues of its rocks. Its proximity to the residential settlement of Hegra meant it was a well-utilised necropolis with nearly all styles of tombs represented, but many badly eroded.
The most remarkable of these tombs are the twin tombs N°112 and N°113, carved on the southern side of the rock outcrop. They are very well preserved, except for the bottom part, which was probably eroded in flash floods over the centuries. Both tombs follow the Proto-Hegra 1 style, but differ slightly in the decoration above the doorway: N°112 on the left has three urns above the triangular pediment, while the slightly smaller Tomb N°113 has an eagle flanked by two urns. Although both façades have a space for a plaque, there is no inscription on either one. Some archaeologists believe a wooden inscription plaque may have been inserted in the space upon completion, but no traces remain.
Qasr al- Farid
Area D is further south and covers a large area with only three isolated tombs, N°109 – N°111. Among them is Qasr al-Farid (the “lone” or “unique” palace, Tomb N°110), Hegra’s most iconic tomb. It is a single tomb carved in its own rock outcrop, hence its name, and measures about 22 by 14 metres, making it the largest (nearly) finished tomb in Mada’in Saleh. The façade is crowned by two symmetrical half-merlons surmounting an Egyptian-style cornice, below which is an entablature resting on four pilasters with Nabataean-style capitals. A triangular pediment, resting on two pilasters and topped by a single griffin statue, frames the entrance, above which is a plaque with a short Nabataean inscription stating that this tomb was carved for bani Lahin ibn Quza (i.e. the family of Lahin, son of Quza).
The style of this tomb is known to archaeologists as the Hegra style, but Qasr al-Farid is again unique in that it is the only one with four large pilasters decorating the façade. The tomb was never actually finished, as seen in the very bottom of the façade, and is thought to have never actually been used as a burial chamber.
Al Bint- Group
North-east of the urban centre of ancient Hegra lies al-Bint Group, another cluster containing 31 tombs, numbered 17 to 46 and designated as Area B. Twenty-nine of these tombs are carved around a single large hill, while two simple unadorned burial chambers are located in their own tiny detached outcrop. Some of the grandest tombs in Hegra are found in this group, which also has the largest number of Nabataean inscriptions.
The name of the group was derived from tomb N°24, Qasr al-Bint (no relation to its namesake free-standing temple in Petra). It is one of the smallest in the series of grand façades in this group and follows the Proto-Hegra 2 design. The triangular pediment above the doorway is richly decorated and topped by an eagle statue and two urns. The inscription is very legal in nature and, unusually, continues inside the tomb stating that it was commissioned by Abd’Obodat ibn Aribos for himself and his daughter, Wa’ilat, and her descendants. The mention of his daughter (i.e. bint) is likely what earned this tomb its name.
The inscription leaves specific instructions, almost like a will, from Abd’Obodat to his daughter and her offspring, forbidding them from selling or transferring ownership of the tomb, even though it belonged to them in perpetuity. It also states that if Abd’Obodat’s brother, Huru, died in Hegra, that he should be allowed to be buried in this tomb.
This inscription is one of two that mention Hegra in name, written as Hijr, the Arabic equivalent (the other is Tomb N°100). Aftah ibn Abd’Obodat is the mason who carved this tomb in the 44th year of the reign of King Aretas IV, equivalent to 35 CE.
Other remarkable tombs in al-Bint Group include the Doctor’s Tomb (N°44), carved for Kahlan ibn Wa’lan, the doctor, and his descendants, and the Lion Tomb (N°37), a small one with two feline sculptures with curly tails above its doorway (are they lions or leopards?). Tomb N°39 is the oldest dated tomb in Hegra, carved in 1 BCE for Kamkam bint Wa’ilat and her daughter Kulaybat and it has an arched pediment and eagle bas-relief above the entrance.
Had the civilization at Madain Saleh lasted longer, then al-Bint Group would have boasted the largest tomb in the city, appropriately nicknamed the Unfinished Tomb (No°46). It would have measured 28 metres in height, but only part of the top step down motif (two half merlons) was completed, which clearly illustrates that Nabataeans carved their tombs from top to bottom, and is only visible from a distance. An inscription near ground level, just below the unfinished façade, states that this space had been acquired by Rabibel, a Nabataean governor, proving that a process of acquisition was necessary before a tomb was created for a particular person or family.
Jebel Ithlib (The Nabatean Holy Mountain)
East of al-Bint Group lies Jebel Ithlib with its most unusual rock formations. For the Nabataean inhabitants of Hegra in the 1st century CE, it was the centre of much of their sacred religious rituals. On its northern side is a rock-cut assembly hall, known as al-Diwan, carved next to the sacred Siq, a natural crevice in the rock used for religious processions, similar but much smaller in scale than the Siq in Petra. Along the walls of the Siq are several carved cult niches for statues of deities, and at the other end of the Siq lies the Sanctuary, a natural basin with the remains of a Nabataean temple used for religious ceremonies and a water canal that channelled water into a cistern.
A small number of other religious sites have been discovered around Jebel Ithlib, including steles, altars, assembly halls and Greek and Nabataean inscriptions, but much more is thought to lie buried in the sand waiting to be discovered. For those with time and energy, a short hike up the slopes surrounding the basin offers a rewarding view over the whole of Mada’in Saleh.
Jebel al Mahjar ( Quarry Mountain)
West of al-Diwan and just north of the ancient urban centre of Hegra is another cluster of tombs known as Jebel al-Mahjar (Quarry Mountain), designated as Group A. Fourteen tombs are attributed to this group, numbered 1-14, and spread across three rock outcrops. An ancient well is also located in the vicinity of this mountain, and the top of its main rock outcrop has the remains of a Nabataean sacred high place. This group also boasts the tomb with the smallest façade in Hegra, N°3, measuring only 3 metres in height.
Only a handful of the tombs in Jebel al-Mahjar come with inscriptions. One of the more interesting ones is N°9, known as the Taymanite’s Tomb, which has as many as 53 burial niches, more than any other tomb and is one of three tombs in Hegra with two inscriptions, one on the façade and the other inside. The façade is moderate in size and was carved in the signature Hegra style, but is devoid of any sculptural or floral ornamentation. It is raised well above ground level and comes with a small platform in front of the entrance, plus a couple of exterior burial niches as well.
The façade inscription states that the tomb was carved in the 13th year of the reign of King Aretas IV (5 CE) for Hawshab ibn Nafi, a Taymanite (i.e. from the city of Tayma) and his extended family, many of whom are named. It also warns of severe punishment for anyone else who attempts to use, buy or sell the tomb. The interior inscription is shorter but marks the exact niches where the bodies of Hawshab and his two sons, Abdalga and Habbu, were placed.
The eastern rock outcrop of Jebel Khraymat contains three tombs. One on the northern side and two adjacent ones on the western side, numbered 12, 13 and 14, respectively, but only Tomb N°12 contains an inscription. Written in the Nabataean language, it states that the tomb belonged to Shubayt ibn Aliyu, the Jew, his wife Amira and their children, and that it was carved in the 3rd year of the reign of King Malichus II, equivalent to 43 CE. This inscription is interesting because it demonstrates that Hegra was a pluralistic society with prominent Jews, along with Greek or Hellinistic families as some other tomb inscriptions have indicated.
West of the urban centre of Hegra is the most extensive group of tombs in the archaeological site, known as Jebel Khraymat. It contains 53 tombs, numbered 48-101 and is split into Areas E and F. Tomb N°64 is known as the Centurion’s Tomb. The geographic location, prone to winds and flash floods, has caused severe erosion in many of the tombs in this area, and N°64 was no exception.
It was designed in the Proto-Hegra 1 style, but much of the lower façade was completely destroyed. The inscription above the doorway has survived with some damage and is very legal in nature specifying ownership and fine for unauthorised use. It also states that this tomb was carved by the mason, Aftah, for the Centurion, Sa’dallah ibn Zabda, and his extended family and warns that the tomb is protected by the gods Dúshara and Manat. The existence of the title Centurion shows clear Roman influence on Hegra’s military regime. Unfortunately, the tomb’s exact date of completion is damaged, but occurred under the reign of the Nabataean King Aretas IV Philopatris, who ruled from 9BC to 40 CE.
Nearby is another fairly damaged façade, Tomb N°66, known as the Prefect’s Tomb. However, its inscription has survived well and states that it was carved by the mason, Aftah ibn Abd’Obodat, for Matiyu, son of Euphronius the Prefect, and his extended family, whose title and name suggest a military profession and possible Hellenistic origin. The tomb is dated to the 48th year of the reign of Aretas IV Philopatris, which is equivalent to 40 CE.
Jebel Khraymat’s crown jewel, however, is Tomb N°100, the largest in this group and its most richly decorated. Although it was carved in the signature Hegra Style, a few additional features distinguish it from the rest. It is the only façade with carvings in the attic space between the Egyptian-style cornice and the entablature below, consisting of four decorative Nabataean column capitals. The aedicular frame around the doorway is also richly decorated with a row of carved rosettes below its pediment and two griffin statues flanking it.
The left hand statue is the only one in Hegra that has astonishingly retained its head, avoiding the decapitation that befell all other statues in Hegra in the post-pagan period. The inscription dates it to the 24th year of the reign of King Malichus II (64 CE) and states that it belongs to the family of Tarsu ibn Taym.
THE MADAIN SALEH RAILWAY STATION
To complete the tour of the site, one must visit the Madain Saleh railway station. It was one of numerous stops along the defunct Hijaz Railway, which was laid out in 1900 under the Ottoman Empire to link Medina with Damascus and ultimately Constantinople, thus significantly cutting pilgrims’ travel time during the important Haj season.
Plans had been made to extend it all the way to Mecca, but the strategically important railway was blown up by T.E. Lawrence and his Arab allies during WWI in an effort to weaken Ottoman control over the Hijaz region (western Arabia). With the breakup of the Ottoman Empire by colonial powers following the war, the railway was never repaired and its tracks and stations remain a relic of a bygone era. Here in Mada’in Saleh, the red-tiled station and adjacent buildings, including a fortress, are one of the attractions of the visit with the station now turned into a museum exhibiting the old locomotive cars.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING:
- Routes d’Arabie, archéologie et histoire du Royaume d’arabie saoudite (published by Somogy and Louvre)
- The Nabataean Tomb Inscriptions of Mada’in Salih, by John F. Healey (Oxford University Press)
- Discover more amazing places in Saudi Arabia: Explore KSA
- Al Ula Royal Commission
This is a guest post by @zauravoyages, a traveler and writer hailing from Saudi Arabia with a passion for architecture, history and world heritage. All images @copyright zauracvoyages unless otherwise mentioned. Follow him on Instagram here: zauracvoyages
IMPORTANT NOTICE FOR VISITS TO MADAIN SALEH STARTING DECEMBER 15TH 2017 : Madain Saleh, Jebel Hekmah and Khuraybah sites have been closed by the Royal commission of Al Ula for development and archeological research project until further notice. Despite the temporary closure of these sites, Al Ula is a beautiful place to visit full of rich history and otherworldly landscapes. Stay tuned for more posts about Al Ula!
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Hello there, I’m Laura, the founder, author and manager of Blue Abaya, the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia established in 2010. Travel has always been my passion- so far I’ve visited 69 countries and I’m always on the lookout for new adventures inside and outside of Saudi Arabia! Having visited all corners of the Kingdom with over a decade of experience, I have a vast knowledge base about travel and tourism in Saudi Arabia.