29 March 2019

Maden Saleh

Maden Saleh has been in the news a lot recently (at least here in Saudi Arabia).  Most people will have heard of Petra, the famous Nabatean site in Jordan.  Sadly Jordan is not a place we have ever been able to visit, although it is on our bucket list, but we hear from people who have been there that Petra is a truly amazing location.  Maden Saleh is its ‘little sister’, the second and southernmost city of the Nabatean empire. 

Al Ula

Al Ula

We had wanted to visit this mysterious place, 800 kilometres to the north of Jeddah and close to the town of Al Ula for some time.  A little while ago we heard that it had been closed but nothing ventured nothing win and a request to the Royal Commission for Al Ula for a permit for a weekend visit proved fruitful.

Al Ula

Al Ula

The drive north was long, over eight hours in total, but not dull.  The costal motorway up to Yanbu soon gave way to smaller but well-maintained roads into the interior.  Camels, a significant hazard, wandered in front of the car and we moved from the flat scrub to mountains to stony desert to true sand.  Nevertheless, by the end of the journey our hotel, nestled in a canyon, was a welcome relief. 

The next morning, we were up early to beat the heat and make our way to the Maden Saleh complex.  The first thing to greet us was a railway station – Al Ula was a major station on the Ottoman sponsored/German built Hejaz railway (of T E Lawrence fame).  It was here that three great Hajj routes met and pilgrims took a break to restock their supplies.  The Germans built not only a station but a complex of outbuildings and an engine shed a the location and these have all been lovingly restored.  Some engines have also been fixed up and proved a big draw for the children. 

Hejaz Railway

Hejaz Railway Station

The engine shed has been fitted out as a museum showcasing the history of the railway.  Funded by subscriptions from the Muslim faithful around the world it must have made the difficult journey to Makkah so much easier and the photos of the inauguration ceremonies at different stations along the line show the real pride that those who worked on the project had in it.  I had not seen any sections of the railway before (although I once lived next to that other Ottoman/German rail collaboration the Berlin Baghdad line) but my father, who was visiting us, had been to a museum of the railway in Syria in happier times for that nation. 

From the railway we walked over to an Ottoman fort – small it might be but this fort was strong, well designed and built around a well which must have made it a fabulous stronghold in the old days.  Now it is set to a more peaceful purpose and serves as a museum of the Hajj.  The well is said to be the well of the she -camel who is connected to the story of the Prophet Saleh and the rather unpleasant people of Thamud (Maden Saleh) as narrated in the Koran. 

Museum of Hajj

Little remains of the town of Maden Saleh but the site is famous for its tombs (it boasts over 130 carved into the rock hillsides, many more depressions are cut out of the tops of the rocks as well, - possible pauper graves perhaps).  We looked around some of the smaller tombs before walking over to the main complex in the hill underneath the chamber of the girl.  The story is that the chamber is so named because a princess was locked up there by her father as punishment for her refusal to marry the man of his choice.  

Maden Saleh

Maden Saleh

Maden Saleh

Tombs are carved into every section of this hill.  Many are topped by a face which we were told represented Baal and an eagle which represents Dushra, the supreme god of the Nabatean religion.  The eagles have been beheaded but other than that much of the carving survives including many inscriptions, written in Aramaic, showing who built and is interred in the tombs. 

Maden Saleh

A little further on the Divan is also well preserved and from there a cool, dark siq leads to spectacular red rock formations.  We climbed up the hills to look at the site before driving on to the most famous of all Maden Saleh’s tombs, the Qasr al Farid, alone in the middle of the desert, huge and unfinished this tomb is truly something very special.  One of the most fascinating things about the tomb was the fact that, in its unfinished state, it showcased the building methods of the Nabateans.  The stonemasons started at the top and worked down, it is impossible to know why this tomb was never finished, what led to its being abandoned – perhaps the untimely murder of a she camel… we will never know.
Maden Saleh

Maden Saleh
Maden Saleh

Maden Saleh was one of the most unique experiences of my life.  As it is officially a closed site we had the whole place to ourselves, the only other time I have ever been lucky enough to see a site without hoards of other people was a visit to NemrutDag.  The dry desert atmosphere and lack of human impact (many people believe the site is cursed and so do not wish to visit) have ensured that it is phenomenally well preserved.  All the infrastructure is there – the coach parks, the (empty) shop, the bathrooms, the information plaques.  With recent developments this site is now opening up again and is to be one of the cornerstones of the new tourism projects for Saudi Arabia.  Indeed media is full of photographs and information about the site and a concert was held in the nearby town of Al Ula just recently.

We were lucky beyond belief to see the site as it is now, lonely, hot and unforgiving yet mysterious, beguiling and beautiful.

Maden Saleh

For more posts on life in Saudi Arabia please do click on the photograph below.

Ersatz Expat


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