Madain Saleh: Pictured thru the writer’s eye

July 23, 2018

By Paige Peterson

When he was Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United States, Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir gave me an extended visa. He had two good reasons for doing that. One was professional. I am the Executive Vice President of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, where one of my missions has been to build alliances with Saudi Arabia’s excellent cancer researchers. The other was personal. As a writer and photographer, I was endlessly curious about Saudi Arabia’s people — and its landscape.

It’s a cliché to say that a picture can be worth a thousand words. These pictures were worth more than that for me — they are the story of a rare and extraordinary adventure. It’s a privilege to share it here.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is located on the continent of Asia. It shares land borders with 8 countries: Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan. Saudi Arabia’s geography is dominated by the Rub’ Al Khali desert, the second largest desert in the world, with only the Sahara being larger. The Kingdom’s population is over 28,000,000.

The flight from Jeddah, the second largest city in Saudi Arabia, to Al-Ula was one hour and fifteen minutes. I took this video at dusk looking over the city of Al-Ula during the melodic call to prayer. Through the prayer you can hear the joyful voices of children playing.

The Kingdom brings to mind images of undulating sand dunes and herds of camels. But traveling to the northwest corner of Saudi Arabia, we arrived in a lush date-palm oasis, surrounded by tall cliffs. Al-Ula county covers nearly 9,000 square miles. It is about the same size as New Jersey.

A long cut in the cliffs, reminiscent of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, provided a passageway for ancient caravan traders. Its palm forest provided them food, shelter, and a place to rest their camels. Today, some of the 150,000 date palms are said to be more than 100 years old.

Madain Saleh was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. It had been overlooked for centuries, and despite efforts by the Saudi government to promote it as a tourist attraction, Saudis have largely ignored its significance, although this is changing as indeed is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Madain Saleh was built by the Nabataeans over 2,000 years ago, the same civilization that created the much better known settlement of Petra in Jordan. It is the largest open museum in the world. In an arid landscape of large rock formations and cliffs, hundreds of tombs are carved into the rock faces, creating beautiful architectural vistas.

The most iconic symbol of Madain Saleh is Qasr Al-Farid, a single tomb carved into a small dome that stands alone in the open. Qasr Al-Farid is unique because it was not completed and not used as a tomb; as there are no traces of burial sites inside it.

Qasr Al-Farid is four stories high with four columns. Most tombs only have two columns. As such monuments were meant to be an indication of the wealth and the social status of the people who commissioned them, bigger definitely meant better.

Madain Saleh is Saudi Arabia’s pre-eminent pre-Islamic archeological site, dating to the first century. It was the southernmost settlement of the Nabataean people, whose capital was in Petra, Jordan. Muslims did not come here because they believed the site was cursed when the Nabataean’s refused to renounce their gods in favor of Islam.

It’s the very absence of foot traffic, as well as Saudi Arabia’s dry desert climate, that has kept Madain Saleh so well intact. There are 131 Nabataean tombs cut into massive rocks spread over more than 8 miles.

The Nabateans' artistry is revealed through carvings of soaring eagles, imposing sphinxes and feathered griffins, not to mention intricate inscriptions. While Petra’s facades are slowly disintegrating, these tombs are stunningly well preserved.

On a geological time-scale, the Arabian Peninsula is young, having broken away from the main African continent about five or six million years ago, creating the Red Sea that divides Saudi Arabia from the African continent.

It is no surprise, therefore, that this desert has much in common with the Sahara desert. Its sands have the same orange coloration due to the presence of iron oxides.

Muslims were leaders in astronomy, mathematics and medicine until the 12th century, when Mongol invasions drained Islamic civilizations of its dynamism. Europeans borrowed from the Muslims.

Words derived from Arabic include coffee, cotton, sofa, mattress, admiral, canal, cannon, jacket, sugar, soda, candy, lime, lemon, rice, spinach, sheriff, traffic, and zero.

Walking around the lavish tombs gives you a sense of the enormous wealth of the Nabataeans, who controlled spice and incense routes to Rome.

Imagine traders and camels having traveled from Oman and Yemen approaching Madain Saleh, their baskets full of frankincense destined for the wealthiest Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and Israelites.

The Nabataeans were Arab nomads who roamed the Arabian Desert, moving with their herds to wherever they could find pasture and water.

One of the Nabataeans’ greatest accomplishment was their system of water management. They developed a system to collect rainwater using channels, pipes and underground cisterns. They dug wells in the waterless region and kept the knowledge of them from all other tribes and nations, so they could retreat into that region out of danger.

They were also tough warriors. Their primary defense was melting into the desert, and waiting for their enemies to die of thirst and starvation.

In the middle of the Jebel Ithlib is a natural slit that measures 131 feet called the Siq, a dim narrow gorge, after a similar corridor in Petra.

This square chamber containing three stone benches served as a triclinium, a dining table with couches along three sides used in ancient Rome. Today, the chamber is known as Al-Diwan. Its large entrance suggests that the feasts extended into the open space before it.

Where bodies were laid. Individuals were buried without clothes or shoes, with only a collar of fresh dates around their neck. Their bodies were wrapped in three layers of fabric impregnated with resin, the closest to the body being tinted in red.

Near Al Ula, the Elephant Rock is a massive stone that sticks up out of the ground formed by regular sandstorms over thousand of years. During winter and spring, after the rain, these areas turn into green fields. The landscape is filled with the scent of sweet orange, tangerine, lemon, and date palms.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by local nature photographers who had an exhibition of their work at the airport. The photographers who greeted us at the airport when we arrived came back to wish us farewell upon our departure.

Notice the distinctive ways men can wear their ghutra (headscarf). Such noble, authentic men. Environmentalists. Proud of their work. Proud of their town. Saudi Arabia is everything you have heard it to be and nothing like you have heard it to be.

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