Mada’in Saleh: Spectacular Rock-Cut Tombs And Monuments Reflect Great Skills Of Nabataean Builders

A. Sutherland  - - Located 20 km (12.4 mi) north of the Al-`Ula town, 400 km (248.5 mi) north-west of Medina, and 500 km (310.7 mi) south-east of Petra, in modern-day Jordan, the remarkable ancient site Mada'in Saleh in Saudi Arabia continues to impress the modem world.

Madain Saleh is the first World Heritage site.Madain Saleh is the first World Heritage site.

It contains many magnificent tombs and monuments that reflect the great skills of the masons of their time. Mada’in Saleh also called Al-Hijr or Hegra dates back to the Nabataean civilization that flourished between the second and fourth century BC.

This beautiful place is considered as one of the ´most important archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia and is called "The Capital of the Monuments". The site constitutes the kingdom's southernmost and largest settlement after Petra (modern-day Jordan).

With its 111 monumental tombs, 94 of which are decorated, and water wells, the site is an outstanding example of the Nabataeans' architectural accomplishment and hydraulic expertise.

Qasr al-Farid, an unfinished tomb that stands alone.Qasr al-Farid, an unfinished tomb that stands alone. Image source

Mada’in Saleh is the first World Heritage site in Saudi Arabia. Although historians are not sure where the Nabataean civilization came from, there is a strong possibility that they came from the Hejaz region of northwest Saudi Arabia, and their history goes back thousands of years.

At its peak, the Nabataean Empire stretched from modern-day Yemen to Damascus and from western Iraq into the Sinai Desert, at least, according to some historians.
No one really knows how large their empire was. Written records of the Nabataean kingdom are sparse as there are only a few surviving documents and scattered inscriptions and graffiti.

However, many thousands of graffiti carved onto rocks and canyon walls clearly demonstrate that almost every Nabataean could read and write, even the shepherds.

Mada'in Saleh

Mada'in Saleh. Copyright: © Editions Gelbart

This makes us wonder why the Nabataeans did not write down their history. According to historians, the Nabataeans were nomads, dwelling in tents in the desert. They began as pastoral nomads, raising their sheep, goats, and camels in the desert as so many other Arabian tribes have done through the millennia. They also practiced oasis agriculture.

Yet, interestingly within a few short years they also built spectacular and awe-inspiring monuments.

The magnificent city of Petra is so impressive, that even today tourists stare in awe at the great ruins. Yet, this impressive city was hidden away in a cleft in the rock with access through a narrow crack in a mountain.

Mada'in Saleh. Copyright: © Jérémie FloresMada'in Saleh. Copyright: © Jérémie Flores

The Nabataeans watched the sky systematically and accurately and there is proof of their astronomical observations.

According to scientists who studied the Nabataean palaces, temples, and tombs, these people were skilled astronomers. Great buildings were erected bearing in mind the equinoxes, solstices, and other astronomical events that determined the Nabataean religion.

Most of the monuments and inscriptions found at the archaeological site of Mada'in Saleh date from the 1st century BC and the 1st century CE. But the inscriptions in Lihyanite script and some recently discovered archaeological vestiges show evidence for human settlement as early as the 3rd or 2nd century BC.

Mada'in Saleh. Copyright: © Editions GelbartMada'in Saleh. Copyright: © Editions Gelbart

One-third of the tombs, which are amongst the largest, is clearly dated to between 0-75 CE. Inscriptions engraved on rocks, facades of graves of Mada'in Saleh tell the history of this once great place, and every grave is like a cemetery for one family.

Hegra was a major staging post on the main north-south caravan route. A secondary route linked it to the port of Egra Kome, and two Nabataean sites discovered on the shores of the Red Sea could be this port.

Considering the accounts of the Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily, it is known that the Nabataeans appeared in history before the end of the third century BC. Diodorus described them as nomadic rich Arab tribes whose wealth came from their involvement in the long-distance trade of incense and aromatics -- mainly produced in the Yemeni region.

Dr. Laila Nehme, a French-Lebanese archaeologist and epigraphist of the Ancient Near East, known for her research on Nabataean writings, the evolution of the Nabataean script into the Arabic, and archaeological excavations at Petra and Mada'in Saleh, said that" the Nabataean knowledge of the location of the routes and of the places where water could be found allowed them to control progressively the trans-Arabian trade route.”

Mada'in Saleh: Spectacular Rock-Cut Tombs And Monuments Reflect Great Skills Of Nabataean Builders

Aerial view of Madain Saleh. Credit: Adobe Stock - mellouk

With this important advantage came also a monopoly on the transport of trade goods. Thus, the Nabataeans could quickly accumulate wealth by imposing taxes along the international prestigious caravan trade route during late Antiquity.

Most probably, these remarkable people even started to make coins as early as the third century BC and more regularly in the second,” according to Dr. Nehme.

The ruins of the town of Hegra lie on the plain some distance from the timeless tombs and monuments.

Written by – A. Sutherland  - Senior Staff Writer

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