Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Road Trip #2: Mada'in Saleh

Archeologically and historically, one of the most significant sites in all of Saudi Arabia is Mada'in Saleh, where 131 tombs were carved into the sandstone in the north-western desert by the Nabatean people (famous for Petra) between 100 BC and 100 AD.

It would have been a shame to miss such a site during what is likely our only experience living in the Kingdom, so when some friends of ours organized a weekend group tour this April, we joined in. We are happy that we did - the trip was one of the best things we've done in Saudi Arabia. It was well worth the 10-hour drive (one way) to get there.

The Nabateans' first city was the world-famous site Petra, 500 km north-west and built considerably earlier, about 6th Century BC. Mada'in Saleh, also known as al-Hijr ("Rocky Place"), is the second city of these same people, a city which thrived due to its strategic location for trade. Incense, spices, frankincense, and myrrh made their way from the Arabian peninsula to the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians and others - but only by passing through the Nabateans, who placed a 25 percent toll on all traveling goods. The city fell to the Romans in 106 AD and lost its claim to riches when travel routes moved to the sea.

The huge sandstone tombs are open to the public, but they receive few visitors. First, it's not easy to get to Saudi Arabia in the first place unless you have a work visa. Second, the site requires permits and a guide arranged in advance. Third, since the ruins are pre-Islamic, they are not given considerable importance. And lastly, the site has a reputation for being haunted by evil spirits.

The Legend: Long before the Nabateans, in 3000 BC, lived the tribe of Thamud. According to the Qur'an, the Prophet Saleh warned the Thamudis to stop worhiping idols and repent. The people scoffed and challenged Saleh to perform a miracle: summon a pregnant camel from the mountains. When Saleh succeeded, the people angrily killed the camel instead of changing their ways. Just three days later, the city was destroyed in lightning blasts and earthquakes, and to this day, the tormented souls prowl the area after dark. This account is still associated with Mada'in Saleh (which means "Cities of Saleh"), so much so that one of my supervisors advised me to be careful of the spirits on my trip, especially with children.

Despite the legend, Saudi Arabia is now trying to promote the site for tourism. It was made the Kingdom's first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

The impressively carved tombs were burial places for individuals or families. Their dwellings were elsewhere and are still being excavated. As you can see from the photos, the tombs had elaborate, high facades with eagles, snakes, winged lions, faces, or urns carved above the doors. The general style mimics the carvings at Petra, especially the stair-steps at the top.

The inside of the tombs are considerably plainer and smaller, nothing more than a gouged out space with body-length cubby holes dug into the sides - shelves for corpses.

Our large group consisted of four car-loads of foreign teachers, all following a security jeep with our guards and guide, stopping now and again to explore the tombs to our hearts' content. Misha loved climbing up to the doorways and walking around inside. (Due to the long car ride and the desert heat, we decided to leave Sebby with our capable babysitter Sumayya - a decision that turned out to be very wise.)

In addition to the eeriness of being surrounded by ornate tombs in the middle of the desert, we also appreciated the sheer natural beauty of the bizarre rock formations. Some visitors have described the terrain as misshapen muffins or mushrooms or smokestacks. Misha thought they looked like stacks of pancakes, while I likened them to melting ice cream scoops.

This very large room was thought to be the Nabateans' meeting room. Its impressive 8-meter ceiling has a beautifully carved moulding around it.

This tomb, called Qasr al-Farid, was carved into one gigantic rock. The inside, however, is unfinished - simply a small, gouged-out room.

Our group assembled at the doorway gives an inkling as to its size.

Even closer: Misha and Josh stand in its doorway.

Josh and Misha traipse through the surreal landscape.

The double tomb.

At the top: Josh takes everyone's picture, with our guide, after an upward hike. Since we were in an area with only a handful of visitors besides ourselves, our guide told us we were welcome to take off our abayas. In fact, he said I could even drive if I wanted!

These camels greeted us at the entrance to the site.

Getting to know you.

Late Aramaic inscriptions adorn some of the tombs.

The Hejaz Railway: After seeing the tombs, our tour took us to the famous Hejaz Railway, just a short drive away. Built by the Ottoman Empire between Damascus and Medina, its goal was to connect Constantinople to the holy pilgrimage site of Mecca. However, though the railway reached Medina by 1908, it never made it to Mecca. It was destroyed by Lawrence of Arabia and the Arab tribes in 1917. Remnants of this railway still exist, like this station, some rail, and an old World War I locomotive.

Hands-on fun for Misha

The station

Old Town: After the railway, we were treated to seeing the Old Town of Al-Ula, the now deserted but preserved mud-walled city with its own overlooking fortress. We couldn't find much information to date its inception - probably because it had been continuously lived in until not too long ago. It was amazing to walk its crumbled, tunnel-like corridors. It felt like going back in time, until we stumbled upon a fuse box that had been inserted into one of the walls.

The modern city of Al-Ula was built right beside the old. I really enjoyed the general feel of the city, so different from the impersonal, new, huge Riyadh. Unlike in Riyadh, the homes in Al-Ula were not surrounded by walls, creating a feeling of sincerity and friendliness. Fountains and artistic gates also gave the city personality. The people seemed friendly and shy, not used to foreigners. A young girl in an abaya called out "I love you" to me as I passed her in the Old Town - probably the only English she knew.

To bring our tour to a close, we got to see Elephant Rock. I had seen photos of it before, but I had no idea it was so large!

I have to admit that sometimes the abaya is very picturesque. I am on the left with friends Tung Chi, Becky, and Georgina.

Becky and I present "Cartwheels in Abayas."

On the Road: Part of the fun of the whole experience was the drive. Counting our previous road trip to Al-Khobar in the east, we have now driven horizontally across nearly the entire country. Once again, we got to watch the changing desert and enjoy wide, smooth highways and the views of the camels. What is amazing to me is how few cities we passed. During our 10-hour trip out, we passed through only two cities, first Qassim and then Ha'il. There were other villages off the highway, but most of the land is an empty expanse. Gas stations are plentiful, however, staffed by lonely foreign workers who commute to their post every day. There is only one stretch which requires great care to fill up your tank to the brim before attempting to reach the next city.

We drove through one significant sandstorm, in which dust mixed with fog to create a pinkish white haze for almost two hours. When we stopped at a rest stop for a bathroom break, the dust seeped into our eyes, noses, and cars - giving us all an immediate case of sneezes and itchy eyes.

I was greatly entertained by the signs. I managed to snap shots of my favorite two - first, this sandstorm warning sign, and below, the oft-seen camel crossing.

This mom and baby were penned up at one of our rest stops.

And these held their heads high as we passed them on the way back home.

I'll conclude with a fact that will make you all jealous. We spent only $30 in gas to get our vehicle (a Hyundai Elantra) through the entire journey. That's a total of 2,200 km (over 1,300 miles).

Note: We are back in South Dakota now for the summer, but I have a few more posts to share to get caught up. Stay tuned.