Madain Saleh

Ruins in Northern Saudi Arabia

Image by Kirklandphotos Getty Images

The extraordinary Madain Saleh is home to 131 tombs, 45 of which carry inscriptions in late Aramaic script above the entrance. These inscriptions detail the tomb’s builders – many constructed by wealthy women. The enigmatic tombs combine elements of Greco-Roman architecture with Nabataean and Babylonian imagery. Recent excavations have revealed the foundations of unprepossessing houses and a market area for traders and caravans. The park is well signposted, but as you drive deeper in it's highly recommended that you use a 4WD vehicle.

Qasr Al Saneh is an appropriate place to start a tour of Madain Saleh, as it reveals many of the essential elements of Nabataean funerary architecture: a relatively unadorned facade; the 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 this desert landscape. The great Nabataean Well was one of more than 60 wells currently known 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.

At the northern edge of the site is the Madain Saleh station of the Hejaz Railway. Though the site has been comprehensively restored, it lacks the lonely and decrepit charm of the stations elsewhere. The complex, built in 1907, consists of 16 buildings, which include 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.

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 make 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. Carved from a free-standing rock monolith, its location 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 that features three tombs with drawings dating to between AD 16 and AD 61. The tombs are burial chambers without special adornments.