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Al-Hijr lies in northwest Saudi Arabia, between the cities of Medina and Tabuk, 22 kilometres north of the city of al-Ula. Remains of human occupation in the region go back to ancient times. The area has been a significant focus of human settlement over a long period, due to the abundance of factors supporting an early shift to a sedentary way of life. These include fertile land, the presence of sources of water and a strategic position with respect to the great centres of civilization in the ancient Near East. Prehistoric remains have been recorded at the top of some of the mountains which surround the site of Mada’in Salih. Moreover, many rock faces in the area are covered with petroglyphs, some of which are prehistoric.

According to several passages in the Qur’an, the site was already inhabited in the third millennium BC by the Thamudic tribes. Lihyanite, Minaic and Thamudic inscriptions which have been found on the site, are evidence for an occupation in the first millennium BC.

The Nabataeans probably settled in Mada’in Salih in the first century BC and were politically independent at least until the beginning of the second century AD.

They are the only inhabitants of the site who left behind them the remains of a real city. The part of the city in which the people were living was surrounded by various necropolises, which contained monumental rock-cut tombs as well as ordinary pit tombs, while a specific area was devoted to sanctuaries. Water was provided by a dense network of wells.

During the Islamic period, al-Hijr was an important stop on the Syrian pilgrimage road. A citadel and a large reservoir were built for the pilgrims’ convenience. Finally, at the beginning of the 20th century, a railway station was constructed at Mada’in Salih on the so-called Hejaz railway, which linked Turkey to the city of Madina, also crossing Syria.

 
The Nabataeans in al-Hijr

Originally, the Nabataeans were a group of Arab tribes whose economy was based on pastoralism. Little by little, however, they settled, developed several cities and became traders. They also became experts in the art of collecting rain and spring water, which was then stored for use during the dry season, in large, deep cisterns.

The Nabataeans occupied a territory in the south of Sham where they founded the Nabataean Kingdom. The capital of the Kingdom they founded was at Petra, in Jordan, while the most important city in the southern provinces was Mada’in Salih, which lay close to the frontier.

The spoken language of the Nabataeans was a form of northern Arabic, as is evidenced by part of the vocabulary they used and by the proper names they bore. However, they used a form of the Aramaic script for writing, which they developed by adding ligatures between the letters.

Environmental Diversity in Mada’in Salih
The region of Mada’in Salih is characterized by impressive rock formations, especially sandstone hills of varied colours, from red to yellow and white. The beauty of the landscape is also increased by the golden sand dunes which border it on all sides .

The different areas of the site
The site covers a considerable area - 1621 hectares. The tombs are divided into groups with varying significance.

The Tombs of Area “C”
This group of monuments lies south of the residential area. It consists of two sandstone hills, one small and one large. The large hill contains eighteen tombs, the façades of which bear different types of architectural decoration, whereas the small hill contains only one tomb.

Qasr al-Farid
This tomb is located at the southwest of the site. It was given the name Qasr al-Farid because it is completely isolated from the other tombs, “farid” meaning “lonely” in Arabic. The main characteristic of the façade of this tomb is that it has four pilasters, two on the sides and two in the middle, whereas all the other façades at Mada’in Salih bear only two pilasters, standing on each side of the façade. Qasr al-Farid is one of the most famous tombs in Mada’in Salih.

The Qasr al-Bint tombs
This group of tomb lies west of the Jabal Ithlib. The tombs are carved into two sandstone hills. One is very large and oriented in a north - south direction. It contains twenty-nine tombs. The other one is much smaller, lying northwest of the former, and containing only two funerary chambers cut on its eastern flank.

  Jabal Ithlib
This toponym refers to two mountain rages which dominate the site to the northeast. These mountains, with their high peaks, seem to have been particularly important to the Nabataeans since they chose them to be their religious area. They thus carved inside the Jabal and on its outer face, various types of sanctuaries and other structures related to the cults or rituals that they practiced there. One of them, called the Diwan, appears to have been a room for banquets near which are carved several niches with betyls (sacred stones).

Qasr as-Sani
A group of tombs occupies two sandstone hills in the southern part of the site. The western hill contains only one large tomb called Qasr al-Sani, which bears an inscription dated to the month of April of year seventeen of King Arêtes IV, which is equivalent to the year AD 8. The eastern hill contains six undated funerary chambers without a decorated façade.

The tombs of the Jabal al-Mahjar area
This group of tombs lies northwest of Qasr al-Bint and occupies three elongated sandstone hills, one of which is called the Jabal al-Mahjar (“Quarry Mountain”). This area contains fourteen tombs and a well dug entirely into the rock.

The tombs of the Khraymat area
This area lies west of the Hejaz railway. There are, indeed, fifty-three tombs in the Khraymat area, distributed at the foot of several sandstone hills. Their facades, of different types, present a great variety of architectural decoration.

The residential area
The residential area is located on the plain which lies in the middle of the site. Its limits have been determined thanks to the fieldwork undertaken by the Department of Antiquities. It was surrounded by a mud brick city wall, the remains of which are still visible on its northern, eastern and southern sides. The excavations which have been conducted by the Department have also brought to light the foundations of houses.

It is important to note that the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities supports the excavation project at Mada’in Salih in cooperation with a French team of archaeologists and researchers working under the authority of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. These excavations will certainly shed new light on the stages and the characteristics of human occupation in this part of the site.

Mada’in Salih was registered in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008 - 1429