Focus on...Mada'in Saleh, Saudi Arabia
Updated: Jul 30, 2019
The other Petra
Al-'Ula, December 2016.
I found out about Mada’in Saleh in the north of Saudi Arabia by accident, but from what I saw, it looked like an amazing place to visit. Saudi has some absolutely stunning sites, and I was fortunate enough to be able to travel extensively throughout the country. Quite unexpectedly, I had the opportunity to go to Mada’in Saleh for a short weekend trip with some friends and explore the surrounding region. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my own photography equipment with me, so made do with a camera I borrowed for the occasion. Therefore, not a real photography trip, but still…
We flew into Madina, skirted the haram zone (which is off-limits to non-Muslims), and made our way towards Al Ula. This small oasis town is the closest inhabited place to Mada’in Saleh, about a five-hour drive from Madina. The December weather was fantastic; about 23 degrees centrigrade and sunny, although for the photos a couple of clouds here and there would have been nice.
An Oasis with an History
Al-‘Ula is mainly an agricultural town with lush, walled palm groves everywhere; high-quality dates are the main produce. There are two very different districts in Al-‘Ula. There is the modern town, with the typical modern, walled houses you find in this part of the world and all the latest conveniences you can imagine, including the obligatory fast-food outlets of every brand.
The Recent Past
Then there is the adjacent abandoned medieval district. The last inhabitants of this district moved to the new town in the mid-eighties. Here the mud dwellings are half collapsed, and the courtyards are full of debris, so they are great for photography.
The choice of accommodations in Al-‘Ula is not overwhelming, but we stayed in a local guest house where the staff was very friendly. They had arranged all the transportation for the trip and a local guide to take us around for the weekend.
The Locals Know How to Pick a Spot
From a vantage point above the town you have a magnificent view of the surrounding mountains, and this spot is, understandably, the favourite picnic spot for many local families.
In the old days, more than two and half millennia ago, Al-‘Ula – or Dedan, as it was called at the time – was on the incense route from what is now Yemen and Oman to the Mediterranean. In the Roman era, the Nabataeans made this place their second capital, after Petra in Jordan.
A Contradiction in Terms
The next morning, we drove through the palm groves to Mada’in Saleh, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In any other part of the world such a place would be overrun by tourists and there would be an array of souvenirs stands, bars, restaurants, touts, guides, etc. etc. By contrast, in Mada’in Saleh we only needed to show our authorisation papers to enter the site to a lonely guard at a rusty barrier and we had the entire site to ourselves. Not a tout in sight. We could count the number of cars we encountered inside the area on one hand.
The guide explained that the local population still believes that this area is cursed, therefore they avoid this place. Mada’in Saleh is thought to have been the location of the events making up the legend of the She-Camel contained in the Koran. In this legend, the city was destroyed and all the inhabitants killed.
Equally Beautiful, but Different
The Nabataeans excavated magnificent tombs in the rocks here, which look very similar to those they constructed in Petra. Mada’in Saleh doesn’t have the magnificent edifices of Petra’s treasury or monastery, but the tombs here are much better preserved. I also prefer the amazing, golden, sandy desert setting over Petra’s hills.
Could That be True?
The tombs were constructed in the shape of the houses of the time. The interiors have several niches where the bodies were laid to rest, and unlike the exterior, contain no decoration at all. According to the guide there was still one tomb intact, but it was of course off-limits to us and protected by a makeshift fence, so we’ll never know the veracity of the tale.
There are plans to make Mada’in Saleh into a major attraction accessible to tourists, and so I count myself very fortunate to have been able to visit it in a stunningly beautiful, relatively untouched state.
All images © 2018 Marco Duyves