I spent a whole day in transit to get to a city only 3 hours by car away from the one I live in. Why go through so much trouble and pain just to see some old ruins? Because Saudi Arabia is closed to tourists.
Madain Saleh may have been inhabited as early as the 3rd millennium BC, but very little is yet known about the people or the civilizations that predated the Nabateans (who we know all about by studying Petra in Jordan) because it’s only been in the past few years that archaeologists have been allowed to enter and excavate the site. In fact, the French archaeologist Dr. Laila Nehme was there at the same time I was. I didn’t meet her, but I did have in interesting run in with the French cultural attache who had come up from Riyadh to check on her that day (more on that later).
So, as a pure achievement junkie, I could not imagine coming so close to such an amazing piece of history and missing out! The only other time that I could have gone would have been in the summer heat after the semester ended, so I took two days of my precious vacation, and spent one of them simply travelling so that I could walk these grounds.
As it turned out, my adventure was way more than I’d bargained for, but in a good way. Read about it here and see all the photos on facebook!
Arriving on one of only two inbound flights for the week on Friday evening, my guide picked me up at the airport. You have to have a guide to see Madain Saleh. (disclaimer: Lot’s of Westerners don’t, because all rules in Saudi are malleable, but it’s a safer option than travelling all that way and possibly getting turned aside or lost). Particularly since I cannot drive in Saudi, a good guide was important to me. I searched a long time to find one, since tourism isn’t yet a big deal and locals who want to go to Madain Saleh just drive themselves!
After emailing everyone on the official tourist guide website, and scouring Trip Advisor, I found Mr. Fayez. Who, by the way, is awesome and I’ll be happy to send you his contact info if you need a guide.
Mr. Fayez spoke very proficient English and had not only agreed to be my guide to Madain Saleh, he also arranged all my transport, the necessary permits to visit the sites, and helped me with meals! He even sent me a message shortly before my vacation began to verify our plans, a true rarity in Saudi where everything is “Inshallah”.
Knowing I was a single lady travelling alone, he brought his niece and nephews with him when he picked me up at the airport (at night). This may sound odd, but its actually very courteous. It is a protection both of his reputation and of mine to ensure not only that nothing untoward happens, but that no one will talk bad or spread rumors. We drove around a bit and I got a sneak preview of the amazing rock formations that surround the town of Al Ula. He told me that the hotel had a restaurant but that it was very expensive and offered to take me to another restaurant that was much more reasonable.
Of course, he’s friends with the restaurant owner, this kind of thing is standard in lots of places with local guides, but it really was a better price and very good food with such generous portions that I ate the remainder for breakfast the next day. Sadly, the restaurant owner says he’s tired of running it because kids come by and tag the walls with paint all the time, so he’s selling the space to a traditional kabsa restaurant.
During our time talking, I also discovered that Mr. Fayez is 37 and planning to get married in just a few weeks. His bride is only 20, but this age gap is fairly common, since men have to finish their education, get a job and save up money before they can get married, while women only have to be legally old enough. He told us that his young bride really didn’t know anything about running a home, she didn’t even know how to make tea yet! To me, this is just another example of how the oil wealth has really changed the younger generations in Saudi, making them dependent on servants to do anything that resembles “manual labor” including simple household tasks like cooking or sewing a button.
Mr. Fayez is one of many tour guides in Al Ula, but he is the only one who makes guiding tourists his full time job. All the other guides have “day jobs” (which doesn’t amount to much real work for Saudis) and take tourists around on the weekends. He said that the reason he charges less than the others (and he does) is so that he can attract more customers, but that the other guides give him a hard time because he is making their prices seem too high (which they are). It made me happy to be supporting a Saudi who wanted to make a success of his own business and work hard to achieve his goals. I feel like that’s a rare quality in the Kingdom nowadays, so I may be shamelessly plugging for him as a great choice if you visit Madain Saleh.
While we waited for Isha prayers to end so we could pick up the food, Mr. Fayez took me by one of the towns public parks. It was a beautifully grassy area just alongside one of the prodigious rock formations with a nice walking path, and a playground for children. On a Friday evening, many families were out enjoying the mild weather, and it was really neat to be able to see the community. In many ways it reminded me of the Corniche in Jeddah. When I told Mr. Fayez this he laughed and said except there is no sea.
Al Ula is a very small town. I’m not actually sure why it has an airport except for the UNESCO fame. Some blogs I read said that there were smaller hotels or hostels around, but they were single men and had more options. As a woman (single or not) the only real option was one of the towns two hotels. Yes, two. I chose the Al Ula Arac Resort because it was only slightly more expensive and a lot nicer looking. And as with so many things in Saudi, looks are all. I’ll be doing a separate post on all the accommodations of my trip, so for now I’ll just leave it at that.
We were scheduled to set out at 9am, joined by a man from the UK who had also booked Mr. Fayez for a tour. My day trip companion was Indradeb (you may notice the name is a teeny bit Hindu), and he arrived decked out with a large professional looking camera and a loaded backpack.
On the drive out, Mr. Fayez explained to me that we would start the day with Madain Saleh, since it closed fairly early, the we would see the Ottoman Train Station, Elephant Rock, the Dadan ruins, Old Town and finish with a sunset view from an overlook rock. Quite a full itinerary, but traffic was minimal and Mr. Fayez had made all the arrangements so everything went smoothly.
He also told us the origin of the name “Madain Saleh” which means Saleh’s Town. Although I have found that this story is fairly well known by Muslims, I cannot speak to the Quranic veracity of this version of the story, I can only relate it as it was told to me.
The Story of Saleh and the Camel
It comes from an Islamic belief that the Prophet Saleh (PBUH) entreated the people to follow a single god, Allah. The people ridiculed him and treated him very poorly, demanding proof of Allah’s power. Finally, Saleh prayed to Allah to send a miracle to convince the people. Allah turned a giant stone into a pregnant camel (also giant) who then gave birth to her calf.
Allah instructed Saleh that the people should alternate days in using water for themselves and for this camel. Drinking one day, and watering the camel the next, but that they could then drink the milk of the camel.
The giant camel came and went from the town as she pleased, seen by the people only when she came to get water and give milk. They were instructed not to follow her when she left.
But people being human, some of them were still not satisfied with the miracle, and desired to kill the camel. So they followed it into the mountains one day, and killed it while the calf escaped. Allah was so displeased with them that he sent a plague. On the first day their faces all turned yellow, on the second day red, and on the third day they turned black and died.
Only the people who believed Saleh (PBUH) and left the town with him were spared.
The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) tells his followers this story when they camp at a site somewhere one the road between Tabuk and Madina, and makes them leave the place because it is cursed. Many Muslims today believe that Madain Saleh is that place, although there is still room for question as we await further archaeological discoveries.
As a consequence, some Muslims avoid the historical site, believing it to be the cursed place told of by the Prophet.
This is known to be the southern capitol of the Nabatean civilization which Petra is the main capitol of. Everyone knows Petra from Indiana Jones, and I was planning to visit it next, but was excited to see the contrast between the two.
The actual town of Madain Saleh is still underground, yet to be excavated fully, and is not open to the public, so we contented ourselves with the necropolis and temple.
The rocks around Al Ula are tall jutting mountain sized boulders, leftover from when the whole area was under water. In fact, I could see clear signs of water erosion on the rocks that the tombs were carved into. It made the tombs stand out even more, since they were smooth and flat in contrast to the pocked, uneven stone they had been carved from.
The tombs range in age and size. The size depended mainly on the wealth of those to be buried within. Mr. Fayez told us that the builders would start at the top and carve the facade, then excavate the inside of the tombs. We saw several that had been only partly finished and this method was obvious.
Also, unlike many historical sites, there was nothing preventing us from walking right inside the tombs where we could see the tool marks left by the Nabateans over 2,000 years ago. There were niches in the walls that had been carved out for single bodies, and deeper pits that had been designed to hold several bodies together.
The front of the tombs were decorated almost without variation by two pillars, a peaked triangular shape connecting them, and five stepped ziggurat shapes carved above that. Some had urns above the pillars, there were also many eagles as central adornments. A five petal flower was also quite popular. Mr. Fayez explained that five was a sacred number, and that the steps on the ziggurats represented the steps ascending to the gods or descending to the netherworld.
We also saw one tomb that had two small sphinxes guarding it above its pillars, indicating some influence of the Egyptian culture.
The grounds that cover Madain Saleh are quite large, and while we walked around many areas, we also drove between several. The temple area was quite astounding. A narrow passage between two high rocks led past a deeply carved gathering place for worship. Mr. Fayez showed us how the people had used the rocks to funnel the rain water into cisterns to be used in holy rituals.
We passed through the high rocks (a walk that echoed the long passage at Petra leading to the Treasury) looking at the small niches and carvings along the way, small spaces to place statues or offerings. We also climbed one of the tall rocks within, affording us a spectacular view of the whole area.
I’d cast off my hijab in the morning, deciding that I didn’t really need it if we were isolated from the crowds, but I was still wearing my abaya this whole time. Climbing around on the rocks in a flowing black dress is not easy. We ran into some tourists (who turned out to be from the Swedish Embassy in Riyadh) on their way back down from the view point, and I noticed the younger woman had doffed her abaya too. We had all done as much on our trip to the Edge of the World, and it was getting quite warm with the shinning sun and climbing, so I took the opportunity to shed mine and tie it around my waist, promising Mr. Fayez that I would put it back on if we ran in to anyone Saudi.
After admiring the view and posing for a few more pictures we moved on to some of the more “quintessential” spots in Madain Saleh, the ones you’ll see if you search Google Images. It didn’t seem to matter how many of the tombs I saw, I didn’t get tired of them. They shared general characteristics but were all unique. Here there were two serpents, or two lions, once a scowling face. Some had become two-storied in an effort to use more of the rock’s interior space. Some of the tomb faces in this area were pockmarked with bullet holes, reminders of Saudi’s bloody unification.
In a daze I drifted in and out of the ancient monuments, feeling an intimacy with the past that we so rarely experience in the modern era. Finally we arrived at the crown jewel, the Unique Palace. It stands alone in a single huge rock, taking up nearly the entirety of one face. It is the only tomb in Madain Saleh to have four pillars, and despite its opulence, it was never completed. Only the facade was carved, and no one was ever buried inside.
The ground around it was a striking shade of yellow, in stark contrast to the rich red sand all around. There were steps leading up to the door that Mr. Fayez said had just been added yesterday. Further evidence that the site is changing as Saudi attempts to build interest in tourism.
We also visited a couple of excavated wells. Apparently the land around Madain Saleh still has a lot of natural water. And the red sand is rich for agriculture. In fact, we saw a few wood and mud remenants of houses that had been modern Saudis living in the area until only a decade or two ago. The government had paid them to move, and torn out all the farmland to return the Heritage Site to it’s natural state.
The Ottoman Train Station
On our way out of Madain Saleh, we stopped at the train station, now defunct, where there was a restroom and small mosque. Duhr prayer call had passed while we were taking in the tombs and Mr. Fayez needed to pray. I was amazed that even out among the ruins we could still hear the Athan although only faintly.
Sand is pervasive. The sand out here isn’t like beach sand. It can range from the larger gritty crystals down to a fine talc-like powder. My shoes and socks were full of sand from my hours in the ruins, so I took some time in the bathroom to try to shake them out. On the way out, I got caught up talking to a man from Africa, because I can’t go anywhere in Saudi without men trying to talk to me and get my number, but Mr. Fayez returned from prayer and rescued me from further awkwardness.
The train station looks exceptionally British. Indradep remarked on the similarities to train stations in London. I suppose by the 1900’s the remains of the Ottoman Empire had been highly affected by British colonialism. We stood around with some other tourists, taking pictures and being generally amused at the contrast between the ancient sites behind us and this nearly modern train.
It reminded me of the old West tourist sites in California, carefully preserved or even replicated relics of that were less than a century old. The date on the trains wheels was 1914.
Ok, it really looks like an elephant. That’s kind of all, but it was a short side trip, and I can’t imagine ever getting tired of the amazing rock formations around Al Ula. It’s especially stunning to see sand dunes drifting right up to the bottom of these rocks. The whole landscape looks like it’s barely changed since it was under water 50 million years ago.
I think at this point we finally stopped for lunch. Mr. Fayez had brought along juice and some snacks, which was very thoughtful, but it was a lot of trekking, even with the car. We went back to his friend’s restaurant and had a quick sit down lunch of kebab, grilled meat, green salad, humus and pita, then back in the car again to try to stay on schedule!
To be continued in Spring Break 2015 Vol. 3.
Don’t forget to check out all the photos on facebook!