Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih) covers the remains of an ancient city from the Nabatean civilization.
It is the largest Nabatean site south of Petra, which lies 500km to the north. Its ancient name was Hegra.
It dates from between the second century BC and the second century AD. The site consists of four necropoles, which include 111 tombs, a siq, walls, towers, water conduits, and cisterns. Many of the monumental rockcut tombs have inscriptions.
The designated core zone also includes two historical sites from later date:
- the Ottoman Fort: built from 1744 to 1757 to protect the pilgrimage route to Mecca
- Hedjaz railway station: built by the Ottoman Empire between 1901 and 1908 to link Damascus and Jerusalem to Medina and Mecca
Solivagant - June 2008
So, in a couple of weeks Saudi Arabia may get its first WHS with the inscription of Al-Hijr Archaeological Site - more commonly known as Madâin Sâlih. We were there in 2002 and found it an interesting place. It is set in the desert country of NW Saudi around 250kms from the Jordanian border. This provides a clue to its history:- It is most famously a Nabataean city, built as they expanded out of their home area around Petra and with its peak around 100BC -100AD. In fact its history reaches much further back but the main sites you will see are Nabataean and consist mainly of tombs (over 100!). Its location was well placed on the trade routes to from Syria to the Hadramaut and later for the pilgrimage route from Damascus to Mecca.
Generally its location and remains are less spectacular than Petra (it does however have its own “Mini Siq” passageway between the rocks!) but the tombs are better preserved. They all follow a similar design of a flat facade with a step motif above and a triangular portico above the doorway. Inside are funerary niches etc and some carvings. Apparently one of the unfinished tombs was important in “proving” that the rock carving started “from the top down”. Qasr Farad (photo) is particularly impressive being carved into a single rock outcrop and is usually chosen to feature in books/posters about the site. Everything is very spread out but you are not going to arrive here without transport anyway. Most of the tombs have notices in Arabic and English explaining their history and with translations of the carvings. These provide a fascinating insight into the practical concerns of those arranging the building of these impressive structures. I quote from one “May Goddess Dushara …. curse whoever sells, buys, pledges or grants this tomb or takes out any corpses or bones from it or buries anyone other than Kamkam and her daughters and their descendents. Whoever disregards the above written shall be cursed 5 times by the goddess Dushara and pay the priest a fine of 1000 haritha”!!! On which point Wiki has an interesting comment that the locartion is mentioned in the Qur’an as being a cursed place due to the inhabitants turning away from the word.
I will be interested to discover if the site is inscribed alone or whether the nearby Hejaz railway sites are included. There seems no obvious logical reason for them to be connected into a single inscription but the description of the site on the Tentative List covers both aspects. The railway remains are interesting and include a railway shed still containing (restored) old German locomotives from around 1907, together with a station and marshalling yard with rather less well preserved rolling stock.We followed the railway for over a day and there are better, more atmospheric remains elsewhere along its track including some wonderful rusting locos in the middle of nowhere looking as if they had been left untouched since the day that Lawrence of Arabia blew up the track around them – though in fact Lawrence never operated this far south!
The site will also be of interest to those interested in the History of Exploration. Charles Montague Doughty who wrote “Travels in Arabia Deserta” is credited with being the first European to visit it in the 1880s. He stayed in the Turkish fort which was the raison d’etre for there being a railway station here – you will probably use it as a picnic stop away from the midday heat!
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Full name: Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)
2008 - InscribedReasons for inscription
2008 - Advisory Body overruledBy ICOMOS (later overruled by the Committee) fo a management plan
The site has 18 connections. Show all
- Cisterns some 200 cisterns of various shape and size (nom file)
- Railways The archaeolgoical area of Al hijr (and thus the inscribed area too) includes remains of the Hejaz railway which the Saudis offer as a "Historic Site" (Restored and unrestored locomotives, Station, Railway shed etc). The Railway is NOT included in the justification criteria though it gets 3 pages of description in the nomination file and its existance is mentioned by ICOMOS.
- Incense Route On the Nabataean incense land route between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea and Mediterranean.
- Irrigation and drainage It bears witness to the development of Nabataean agricultural techniques using a large number of artificial wells in rocky ground. The wells are still in use. (unesco website)
- Writing systems From the Advisory body evaluation "Epigraphic traces of the pre-Nabataean period remain,and consist of some fifty inscriptions in Lihyanite script,which is specific to northern Arabia," and its conclusion "Through its epigraphy, the site bears testimony to the presence of many ancient languages over the course of history: Lihyanite, Talmudic script, Nabataean, Greek and Latin. It is of outstanding interest for the study of the origins and development of later Arabic languages and scripts."
- Charles Montagu Doughty Seeing the Nabatean inscriptions which he had heard were at Mad?in S?lih was a major objective for his journey. Having reached the site (probably the first Westenrer to do so?) he joined the Bedouin and lived and travelled with them for 2 years instead of returning north. Extract from "Travels"
- Ibn Battuta "In the 14th century, the celebrated traveller Ibn Battuta admiringly described the Nabataean tombs of Al-Hijr, cut into the red stone. He did not mention any human activity at the time." (AB ev)
- Built in the 1st century "The most active period was between the first two thirds of the 1st century CE, but the site was worked on by the Nabataeans from the 1st century BCE and probably from even earlier" (AB) 3 of the 4 necropoli have been dated to the 1st century (en wiki)
WHS on Other Lists
- Memory of the World Earliest Islamic (Kufic) inscription
World Heritage Process
- Slow Starters 1978-2008 : 30 years