The second largest city of the Nabatean Kingdom
The most iconic historical site of Saudi Arabia
Madain Saleh is the most iconic historical site of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the first to be listed as a UNESCO Word Heritage, back in 2008. It is located in the north of Madinah Province, in the area of Al-Ula, where many other fascinating archeological sites attest to the thousands of years of human occupation of the area thanks to the underground water available for millennia.
Madain Saleh means the "cities of Saleh" after the name of the Prophet Saleh who tried to convert the ancient people of Thamud to Islam. But this name started to be used only during the Ottoman occupation of the Hejaz, whereas the people who built this city, the Nabateans, called it Hijra (as it appears in some ancient inscriptions at the site), and the Romans used to call it Hegra. The historical site is still known today in Arabic as Al-Hijr, after which a Surat of the Holy Quran is named.
The Nabatean Kingdom
The Nabatean people were Arab merchants actively involved in the frankincense trade originating from ancient Yemen from which they gained their great wealth. The Nabatean Kingdom developed from the 2nd century BCE until the beginning of the 2nd century CE and stretched from the area of Madain Saleh to Damas in the north, and from the Sinai desert in the west until at least the city of Dumat Al-Jandal in the east.
But their influence on the Arabian Peninsula was much greater as their presence is attested to in the ancient trade city of Qaryat Al-Faw in the south of Riyadh Province, and Nabatean inscriptions are found as far south as Najran Province.
The Nabatean people even had trading posts in the Mediterranean Sea: at Kos in Greece, Kourion and Amathonte in Cyprus, and also in Italy where there was a small but flourishing Nabatean community in Puzzuoli, the great port of Rome until the reign of Emperor Trajan.
In 106 CE the Nabatean Kingdom was conquered by Trajan and integrated into the Roman empire as the Province of Arabia until at least the end of the 3th century CE.
A major site on the frankincense trade road
Madain Saleh was the second largest city of the Nabatean kingdom whose capital was Petra (in today's Jordan) where the Nabatean people created more than 600 tombs.
The importance of Madain Saleh is due to two main factors:
- Its strategic location on the frankincense trade roads as the valley of Al-Ula (20 kilometers south) was the only easy path from the north to the south in between the lava fields of the Harrat al-Uwayrid on the west and the steep canyons of the Ra's Ash-Shatub on the east.
- Its resources of underground water supplied by the surrounding reliefs from where the rain flows down to the low plain that surrounds Madain Saleh and feeds the table water that was just 10 meters under the surface at the time of the Nabatean Kingdom.
The ancient Nabatean city of Hijra
The extensive settlement of the site took place during the 1st century AD, when it came under the rule of the Nabatean king Aretas IV Philopatris (Al-Harith IV) (9 BCE – 40 CE), who made Madain Saleh the kingdom's second capital, after Petra, located 500 kilometers to the north.
The residential area that is still being excavated by the Saudi-French archeological team was surrounded by a compound wall probably built during the 1st century CE and that provided shelter to an area of about 60 hectares.
The excavations have shown that the south of the city probably hosted a military garrison, what is confirmed by inscriptions on four tombs which indicate that their owners were officers in the Nabatean army. After the Roman conquest in 106 CE a Roman military detachment was present in Madain Saleh for about a century. The Romans participated to its development by taking control of the frankincense trade and by maintaining and even renovating parts of the city such as its compound walls.
The city was populated until at least the 4th century CE and some parts may have remained inhabited until the 6th century. After that time the population probably moved to the nearby city of Al-Ula that is still inhabited today. Since then Madain Saleh remained frequented by merchants traveling on the trade road and from the Islamic era by pilgrims coming from Syria.
In the early 19th century CE the Ottomans built a railway station at Madain Saleh that was along the Hejaz Railway linking Damascus to the holy city of Makkah.
The importance of Madain Saleh is ostensibly displayed by its 111 monumental tombs, among which 94 were decorated with majestic facades on the sandstone massifs of the area, especially the Jibal Ithlib. The smallest tomb is barely 2,7 meters tall but the biggest reaches an impressive 21,5 meters!
The sculptors always started to cut the rock from the top and then dug downwards. By doing so they created a platform they could stand on as a scaffolding. They also made their work as useful as possible by cutting neat blocks that were then used to build the city.
If the oldest monumental tombs of Petra are dated to around 50 BCE, the construction of tombs in Madain Saleh probably started some 50 years later during the first year of the CE.
Their architectural style is a unique mix of contemporary cultures with features the symmetrical stairs-shaped structures on the top called "merlon" that are typically Mesopotamian, while other features like the pediments, the metope and triglyph entablatures, and capitals are of Greek-Roman style.
People were buried naked, without shoes, with only a collar of fresh dates around their neck. The bodies were wrapped in three layers of fabric impregnated with resin, the closest to the body being tinted in red.
But those monumental tombs were reserved for the elite of the ancient city of Hijra for whom it was a way to display their importance, which explains why nearly all the monumental tombs were turned towards the city. The rest of the population was buried in tombs dug in the ground, sometimes even on the rock. Although those more modest tombs are less visible, more than 2 000 of them have been found in the area of Madain Saleh.
The site also has places called triclinium (or diwan in Arabic) that were once dedicated to banquets and rituals. They are composed of three benches where people used to seat while musicians were playing.
At least six of them were found in Madain Saleh with the names of owners and possibly invitees carved nearby. The most famous triclinium is in Jibal Ithlib and was probably shared by several groups of people.
If Madain Saleh does not have as many tombs as Petra it has a special feature with the numerous inscriptions written on the monumental tombs.
Indeed, whereas in Petra a mere two percent of the tombs carry an inscription, in Madain Saleh two thirds of the tombs have a cartouche above the door containing a text in Nabatean script.
Those inscriptions are judicial documents giving the name of the owner of the tomb, naming the persons having the right to be buried. Interestingly they also indicate a date showing that all the monumental tombs were dug between 1 and 75 CE. But in an inscription next to a simple tomb a man mentions the burial of his mother in 267 CE.
Nabatean inscriptions are also found next to the Triclinium, the places where the Nabateans used to gather for festivities or rituals. These inscriptions indicated the ownership of the triclinium they were written next to.
Other Nabatean inscriptions carved on the rock are found at Madain Saleh but also some Thamudic and early Islamic ones in Arabic.
From the Roman occupation in 106 until the 3th century CE several inscription in Greek and Latin were carved on rocks, the city walls, and even a well.
Management of water resources
The Nabatean people mastered the management of water resources with drainage systems to collect rain waters and direct them either towards a cistern or towards the 130 wells discovered so far along the main wadi (dry valley) that crosses the site of Madain Saleh.
From those wells irrigation systems were installed supplying surrounding cultivated fields that could provide cereals and legumes for the local population and travelers.
How to visit Madain Saleh?
The site of Madain Saleh is easily accessible by road and is indicated on Google Maps.
Visits require prior permission by Saudi authorities. It is advised to check several days before traveling there with one of the hotels in Al-Ula who can arrange the procedures.
The site of Madain Saleh is quite large so if you don't want to spend time searching for the historical remains and for deeper information we advise you to contact our tour guides that can organize your trip there.
The second largest city of the Nabatean Kingdom (author: Florent Egal)