For the longest time, people have been and are still fascinated by ancient architecture such as the Egyptian Pyramids. It is mind boggling to think about how civilizations almost 1000 years ago built such complex structures by carving into mountains, or even how they mechanistically lifted heavy parts. Even more fascinating is that such complexities exist in various parts of the world and a lesser-known marvel is Mada’in Saleh of Saudi Arabia.
Mada’in Saleh was inhabited by many different civilizations over thousands of years, each leaving behind unique architectural footprints. It is filled with impressive rock-cut tombs of the pre-Islamic Nabatean kingdom (circa 168 BCE to 106 CE) reminiscent of the architecture of the emblematic Al Khazneh (or Treasury) in Petra, Jordan. However, approximately 500 km from Petra lies Mada’in Saleh, which itself boasts of spectacular architecture, and is one of Saudi Arabia’s most famous archaeological wonders. The extraordinarily preserved structures serve as a testimony to the craftsmanship of these ancient civilizations. Their “integrity is remarkable and is well conserved. It includes a major ensemble of tombs and monuments, whose architecture and decorations are directly cut into the sandstone.” They also include surprisingly modern systems such as stone-masonry, astonishing hydraulic expertise, “including the construction of wells, cisterns, and aqueducts. These innovations stored water for prolonged periods of drought, and enabled them to prosper.” Today, according to John Black, most of the standing boulders are the remnants of ancient tombs and “all of them cut into the surrounding sandstone rocks.” Also left behind were quarries, which were thought have been used to carve stone blocks, but without definite evidence, scholars find it difficult to ascertain why exactly they were used.
The pinpointing of exactly which civilization was responsible for the architectural marvels is the basis of frequent debate. The two civilizations in question are the Thamuds and the Nabateans. Amongst scholars, there is a “general consensus that the Thamud were a people of ancient Arabia who were known from the first millennium BC to near the time of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him. Although they are thought to have originated in southern Arabia, from the people of the ‘Ad, Arabic tradition has them moving north to settle on the slopes of Mount Athlab near Mada’in Saleh. Numerous Thamudic rock writings and pictures have been found near Mount Athlab and throughout central Arabia.” The Holy Qur’an also supports the presence of the Thamud in the following narration, “and to Thamud We (Allah) sent their brother Salih. He said, ‘O my people, worship Allah; you have no other deity but Him… And remember the time when He made you inheritors of His favors after ‘Ad, and assigned you an abode in the land; you build palaces in its plains, and you hew the mountains into houses…”(Al Quran 7:74-77). Due to the widespread corruption and idolatry, a massive earthquake and several lightning blasts struck the Thamuds as a punishment from God and thereby marked the end of their existence. Hence, Mada’in Saleh earned the label of being a cursed place, a belief still held by the locale in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government, however, is working to change the reputation in order to develop the site for tourism.
The Nabateans, on the other hand, are thought to have settled in Mada’in Saleh in the first century AD under the rule of the Nabatean king Al-Harith IV, “who made Mada’in Saleh the kingdom’s second capital, after Petra in the north.” They turned out to be among the most prosperous of settlers and quickly became very wealthy due to their ability to store water over long periods of time. Moreover, at the “crossroad of commerce, the Nabatean kingdom flourished, holding a monopoly for the trade of incense, myrrh and spices.” In recent years, most of what has been uncovered is a “vast necropolis of more than 131 immense tombs.” As seen in numerous images, many of these tombs have inscriptions that speak of family line, the sculptor’s name, and when it was sculpted. These inscriptions were written in Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language, and it has “been essential knowledge for business and commerce communication, although the Nabateans also used an early form of Arabic.” An official in-depth archaeological investigation began when UNESCO added Mada’in Saleh to its World Heritage List – the first ever for Saudi Arabia. It was to be a joint Saudi-French effort led by Dr. Laila Nehme, a French archaeologist and epigraphist. She has been conducting archaeological research in Saudi Arabia since 2002 in her capacity as a senior research fellow of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris.
With all that being said, herein lies the conundrum. If there is Qur’anic evidence of a civilization destroyed, what led the Nabateans to still pick this site to settle down and develop extensive architecture? Moreover, the Qur’anic evidence points to the Thamud carving out stone to make houses, so are the remnants of the structures we see today the work of the Thamud or the Nabateans? Even when the Nabateans were forced to migrate north, evidence points to the presence of the Roman and Ottoman empires in the region much later in time. Why did these civilizations ignore the history of a curse in the region? Also, because of the notorious difficulty in obtaining non-tourist visas for non-Muslims to enter Saudi Arabia, plus the lack of foot traffic and the desert climate, the tombs of Mada’in Saleh have been stunningly well preserved. To this day, modern Muslims and the locale are hesitant to step foot in Mada’in Saleh because of the curse befallen on the Thamud. It is also mentioned in Ibh Kathir’s commentary of the Qur’an that when Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) passed through Al-Hijr on his way to Tabuk “he covered his head and urged his camel to go faster, saying to his Companions: ‘Do not enter the dwellings of those who were punished unless you are weeping, and if you do not weep then make yourself weep out of fear that perhaps what struck them may also strike you.” Despite the clear warning of Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, why is the Saudi government indeed trying to publicize Mada’in Saleh as a tourist attraction?
The more we discover about the ancient history of mankind, the more it seems that we do not know. Questions about how structures were built without electrical power or how they were able to survive in thousands of acres of deserts with a legitimate water supply come to mind. How did the Nabateans become expert hydraulic engineers and develop an extensive agricultural system? Why are only the tombs left standing today and not other structures? How did kingdoms rule across modern day border lines in the middle of nowhere? The only information about the life in Mada’in Saleh comes from the inscriptions found within the walls of the tombs, and scholars now think the Nabateans actually inhabited the region for a century longer than previously estimated. Ongoing archaeological investigations seek to answer such questions, and experts are continually finding other evidences of an urban way of life and a modern burial ritual. But for now, “the mystery may very well lie below the sand of the desert, with monuments still waiting to be explored.”
Picture: “Madain” © 2012 Sammy Six, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en
- King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2017, from https://www.kaust.edu.sa/en/news/wep2015-unearthing-the-history-of-madain-saleh
- Centre, U. W. (n.d.). Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih). Retrieved April 21, 2017, from http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1293
- J. (n.d.). The architectural marvel of Madain Saleh and the enigmatic Nabataean people. Retrieved April 21, 2017, from http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-asia/architectural-marvel-madain-saleh-and-enigmatic-nabataean-people-001322