Mada'in Saleh (Hegra or al-Hijr)
This Nabataean city has 131 tombs spread out over 13.4 kilometers. The city proper had a siq, walls, towers, water conduits, and cisterns.
The site was left almost unexplored for a long time after it was rediscovered in 1876 by the English traveller Charles Doughty, who in 1876 had joined up with a caravan of pilgrims on their way from Damascus to Mecca. He stopped over at Hegra and wrote a description which he published in his Travels in Arabia Deserta. The book contains information appearing nowhere else, in particular on the discovery, in the tombs, of incense and traces of spices and of strips probably from leather shrouds.
The name “Mada’in Saleh” appeared later, probably not before the Ottoman period. It means “the cities of Saleh”, referring to the tradition according to which Saleh, a Pre-Islamic prophet, unsuccessfully attempted to convert the local polytheist inhabitants, the Thamudean, to the worship of the unique God. The Thamudean’s refusal, expressed by the assassination of the she-camel sent by this prophet as a divine sign, is recorded in the Quran. The consequence was the sudden, overnight extermination of the entire population of the city (Surat “al-’a‘raf ”, 7, 71–73, and Surat “al-Hijr”, 15, 80–84).
Qasr Al Fareed
The most photogenic and most iconic symbol of Mada’in Saleh is Qasr al-Farid, a single tomb carved into a small dome that stands alone in the open. The façade was never finished, so the heavily chiseled surface of the lower third documents how the tombs were fashioned from the top down.
Qasr Al Bint
Qasr al Bint, “Palace of the Daughter or Maiden,” is the largest tomb façade at Mada’in Saleh, with a height of 16 m. It lends its name to the group of adjacent tombs. The portal is raised above ground. Above the doorway an inscription plaque indicates that it dates to circa 31 CE.
The tomb owners are men, women or couples. They belonged to the families of the city notables. Among them there were military men or civilian administrators: a centurion, three eparchs, two strategists and members of the families of three strategists. Another owner is a physician and a last one a fortune-teller.
The large rock-hewn banquet hall at the entrance of the Jabal Ithlib gorge, known as the Diwan.
The Hijaz Railway
This railway ran from Damascus to Medina, through the Hijaz region of Saudi Arabia, with a branch line to Haifa on the Mediterranean Sea. It was a part of the Ottoman railway network and the original goal was to extend the line from the Haydarpaşa Terminal in Kadikoy beyond Damascus to the holy city of Mecca.
The Destruction of the Railway
The Hijaz Railway did not survive for long; it was soon affected by the outbreak of the First World War. The revolt led by the Sharif with British support during the war brought in its wake the destruction of parts of the line between Amman and al-Madinah al-Munawwarah. Most of the bridges, equipment, and stations were ruined in actions in which the British colonel, T.E. Lawrence, played a major role.
Castle Al Ula
To protect the ancient village of Al Ula, inhabitants in the 6th century used red-sandstone blocks to build a castle on a promontory, giving a 360-degree view of the surrounding valley.
Winter at Tantora
In the winter of 2018-2019, the Royal Commission of Al Ula organised a series of week-ends to promote the historical sites of Mada’in Saleh, Al Ula and Daydan.
Most of these sites are currently closed in preparation for the official public re-opening sometimes in 2020, in an effort to protect it from gradual degradation due to mass tourism.
The Winter at Tantora festival included concerts of world renowned artists such as Lang Lang, Andrea Bocelli, Yanni, Majida El Roumi and Renaud Capuçon. The concerts were held in a fascinating theatre nested in the desert’s mountains.