The Nabateans were an ancient people of the Middle East who became wealthy through the caravan trade between Southern Arabia and the Jordan Valley. They are most famous for the magnificence of their capital city, Petra (in modern Jordan), which has rightly been chosen one of the Modern Seven Wonders of the World.
Mada’in Saleh, roughly halfway between Petra and Mecca, was the Nabatean’s second city. Also known as al-Hijr and Hegra, Mada’in Saleh fell into disuse after the Roman occupation of the Nabatean Kingdom in 106 AD, since the Romans preferred the ports along the Red Sea rather than the overland caravan routes.
Although Mada’in Saleh lacks the magnificent grandeur of Petra, it is nevertheless one of the most enigmatic archaeological sites on the Arabian Peninsula. Several large boulders rise abruptly out of the flat desert landscape. As in Petra, most of the structures that can be seen today were for funerary purpose only, including a total of 131 tombs that have been cut into the surrounding rocks.
Aside from the tombs, the site also features a cult place, called Diwan, and the Siq, a narrow passageway between two large boulders, dotted with a couple of small altars, marking the pre-Islamic nature of the Nabateans. The active excavation site at the center of Mada’in Saleh also contains some rather unassuming adobe houses, which were once the living quarters of the city.
Know Before You Go
Mada'in Saleh, close to Al-'Ula; Medina Province, Saudi Arabia
- Lonely Planet Oman, UAE and Arabian Peninsula; 2nd Edition, September 2007