Mada’in Saleh - A journey into the past


Mada’in Saleh , 400 km Northwest of Medina in Saudi Arabia, is one of the most impressive and interesting archeological sites in the world. Most of us know about Petra but very few of us have even heard of Mada’in Saleh, the second largest settlement of Nabataean people after Petra.
Saudi Arabia is a closed country and does not encourage tourism. Even the expatriates living in Saudi Arabia are required to seek special permission from the government to visit the site. On top of it, the powerful clergy of the country considers it a sin to visit the site since it once belonged to the "cursed people." Therefore, it remains a relatively unknown place although it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Undoubtedly, it would be a major tourist attraction if and when Saudi Arabia opens her doors to the outside world.

The Nabataeans were ancient Arabs who built their powerful Kingdom in the 1st century AD that stretched, at its peak, from Yemen to Damascus and from Western Iraq into the Sinai Desert. In the Qur’an, Nabataeans are referred to as Thamuds who became tyrants and oppressive over the period of time. Therefore, God sent the Prophet Saleh to Thamuds to warn them of their miscreants, but his teaching was ignored by Thamuds. The period of Saleh’s arrival was after Noah and before Moses. Ultimately, the Nation of Thamud bore the Divine’s wrath and was wiped out by the earthquake and blasts of lightning.  

While living in Saudi Arabia, my wife and I had an opportunity to visit Mada’in Saleh with a group of American nurses working in the country. Our trip was organized by a travel company owned and operated by a rich, liberal and knowledgeable young Saudi who passionately guided us during this journey. He came to the Medina Airport in his luxury coach to pick us up early in the morning and then took us to the Sheraton Hotel located outside the haram boundary. The city of Medina is the second holiest place of Islam and non-Muslims are forbidden to enter in the haram area. We joined the rest of our group in the Sheraton Hotel for a hearty breakfast and a brief introductory session.

We embarked on our journey after the breakfast and soon our luxury coach was outside the city’s rush and into the vast desert land. We stopped for lunch and enjoyed Turkish food and herbal teas. After a seven-hour journey, we reached the valley of Mada’in Saleh, translated in English as the 'cities of Saleh.'

It was a breathtaking scene to see the magnificent burial monuments of the Nabataeans. They looked as if they had been recently carved. There were some people in our group who had been to Petra. According to them, these monuments were more impressive than the ones in Petra they had seen. These people thought that Petra had become too commercialized and, therefore, lacked the grandeur and serenity of this place. Our guide informed us that only the burial places of these people have been found so far and it remains a mystery for archaeologists where these people lived, worked and entertained. However, archaeologists have found traces of water wells and canals that indicate that a thriving agrarian industry existed at that time. The discovery of their burial places also indicates that they celebrated death more than life and spent lots of resources to build these monuments. Inside some monuments, the guide showed us the idols of al-Lat, Manat and Al-Uzza, three goddesses of pre-Islamic Arabs. It was interesting to note that same idols would survive for centuries only to be found inside the Ka’bah in Mecca at the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

The sun was about to set and the red desert looked awesome. The crew erected our tents in the desert and started preparations for a delicious barbecue dinner for us. We enjoyed the barbecue and tasted different varieties of local herbal teas. The bright sky with full moon, the glittering stars and the silence of the desert were serene and overwhelming. We were forced to wake up early in the morning and climbed a little hill to watch the sun rise. We enjoyed the breakfast and the tea while watching the beautiful sunrise in the vast red sand desert. After breakfast, we explored the desert to look for desert diamonds and later visited Hijaz Railways Museum. Hijaz Railway was built by the Ottomans in 1908 to bring pilgrims from Damascus to Medina and a branch line was also connected to Haifa on the Mediterranean Sea. It was destroyed by local Arab riots, led by Lawrence of Arabia, against the Ottoman rule. The remnants of the railway tracks all over the desert were visible to us.    

It was an interesting journey starting from the 1st century AD (Nabataeans) to the 20th century (Ottomans). Readers are encouraged to experience this journey whenever they can. The mullas of Saudi Arabia contradict the Quran when they ask people not to visit this valley. In my humble view, the Quran encourages mankind to look at the ruins of those powerful civilizations of the past so that we can learn some lessons from their destruction. The pharaohs and their followers were also "cursed people" but the millions of people visit Egypt every year to see the archaeological sites of those "cursed people" and no one raises an eyebrow.