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Often dubbed the 'second Petra', Madain Saleh, for many, is on a par – if not more impressive – than its famous cousin across the border in Jordan. Both were major trading cities along the ancient Nabataean trade routes, as confirmed by recent excavations that have revealed the foundations of houses and a market area for traders and caravans. However, it's the 131 enigmatic tombs, which combine elements of Graeco-Roman architecture with Nabataean and Babylonian imagery, that grab all the attention.
At the time of research the site was closed for refurbishment and due to reopen in early 2020, when the Hejaz Railway station within the site will become the new visitor centre for the signposted main entrance off Route 375. Given Saudi Arabia's track record of abruptly closing and opening major tourist sights, however, it is best to call the contact centre ahead of any attempted visit.
At the main entrance of the site is the Madain Saleh station of the Hejaz Railway, soon to become the visitors centre. Built in 1907, it consists of 16 buildings and includes a large workshop (with a restored WWI-era engine), shells of train carriages and a rebuilt Turkish fort that served as a resting place for pilgrims travelling to Mecca.
Qasr Al Saneh reveals many of the essential elements of Nabataean funerary architecture: a relatively unadorned facade, two five-step motifs at the top, a simple interior burial chamber with shelves for corpses, and inscriptions above the doorway. Built around AD 50, Qasr Al Saneh was in use for just 50 years before the Nabataean kings were overwhelmed by the Romans.
Al Khuraymat, about 750m north of Qasr Al Saneh, has some of the best-preserved tombs in Madain Saleh – around 20 tombs are carved into the rock face. Look out for elegant gynosphinxes (spirit guardians with women’s heads), lions’ bodies and wings adorning the corners of pediments. There is some archaeological evidence of plasterwork on the facades and a suggestion that people feasted outside familial tombs – a Nabataean ‘Day of the Dead’. The Nabataeans were masters of hydrology and manipulated rain run-off and underground aquifers to thrive in the desert landscape. The great Nabataean Well was one of more than 60 wells currently known of in the city. The wall supports – added in the 20th century – were built from railway sleepers pilfered from the Hejaz Railway. The Al Mahajar tombs are especially photogenic and some of the oldest at Madain Saleh.
Al Diwan, carved into a hillside to shield it from the wind, is one of the few extant examples of non-funerary architecture in Madain Saleh. The name (diwan means 'living room') owes more to modern Arab culture than to the Nabataeans, who probably used the area for sacred feasts. Opposite the hollowed-out room, which contains three benches and a large entrance suggesting that the feasts extended outdoors, are niches cut into the rock where Nabataean deities were carved. Exposure to the elements has badly weathered these carvings.
Running south from Al Diwan is the Siq, a narrow passageway measuring about 40m wide between two rock faces lined with more small altars. At the far end is a striking natural amphitheatre. Climb along the southeastern slope up to a number of altars. From here, look west and soak in the breathtaking views.
Qasr Al Bint (Palace of the Daughter) consists of a wonderful row of facades that makes for dramatic viewing from across Madain Saleh. The east face has two particularly well-preserved tombs. If you step back and look up near the northern end of the west face, you’ll distinguish a tomb that was abandoned in the early stages of construction and would, if completed, have been the largest in Madain Saleh – only the step facade was cut. These tombs date to about AD 31.
Qasr Farid in the south is the largest tomb of Madain Saleh and perhaps the most stunning. It's carved from a free-standing rock monolith, in a location that gives it a rare beauty. Try to arrive for sunset, when the enigmatic tomb passes through shades of pink and gold until darkness falls: breathtaking.
Jebel Al Ahmar Area C is in the southeastern portion of Madain Saleh and features three tombs with drawings dating to between AD 16 and AD 61. The tombs are burial chambers without special adornments.