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
Map of Al-Hijr
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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