At the entrance of Madain Saleh (Al Hijr)
Al Ula is situated northwest of Arabian Peninsular about 380 km North of Medina. It used to be an important trade centre for the old caravan route. From here trader’s route branched into 2, the first led to Babylon passing through Taima and the second route led to Petra and Syria. Al Ula was under controlled by four civilizations namely Didan, Labyan, Maeen and most famous the Nabateans (remember Petra Jordan!). Started by the Didan in 160BC, and finally concurred by Nabateans in 9BC. I believe this site is one of the remaining archeological heavens waiting to be discovered.
To visit Al Ula is difficult as you must have special permit from the Saudi government, worst still different city requires their own permit (When I visited Taif situated 97 km Southeast of Mecca, I needed another one) and there is no guarantee that you can enter even if you already have the permit (few years back, my friend was denied entry to Taif for no particular reason given).
It is complicated and sort of confusing too. Most definitely you must go through specified Saudi travel agency to get here. Perhaps they have different rules depending on nationalities, time, people, border officers mood or ???. I really don’t know. But as Malaysian we are thankful to the Saudi government for giving us this opportunity to visit their historical sites other than Mecca/Medina I did this trip as part of my small pilgrimage (Umrah) to the Holy Land (Mecca and Medina). This is my 3rd trip to Saudi Arabia. My first Umrah was in year 2000 followed by Hajj in 2003. Off course all must be done through Saudi travel agency.
We left Medina early morning and reached Al Ula by noon. Heading north, we traveled by bus crossing the Arabian Desert.
The journey was uneventful with one stop for coffee and toilet break plus occasional road blocked by the local officers. Throughout our journey, all passports were kept by one friendly Saudi guide who accompanied us. Whenever we were stopped by local authorities, he’ll get down from the bus, brought along our passport together with some documents, chit-chated with the officers and off we go.
After check-in Arac Hotel Al Ula, sumptuous buffet lunch and short break we started our tour to this ancient cities. I was surprised to meet a small group of tourist from USA (about 7 of them) who stayed at the same hotel with us while we were there. The tourism infrastructure is still relatively under-developed but establishment of the new Arac Hotel in Al Ula is an indication that tourism industry is expanding.
First! some introduction and history of Madain Saleh (Al Hijr).
Located about 20 kilometers from Al Ula.
Inside the tomb
In the Holy Quran, this town was described as a place where the people of Thamud had once lived i.e. during Prophet of God ‘Saleh’ (may peace be upon him). They are the first nation inhibited the mountains and engraved the rocks then the Nabateans followed them in this tradition.
In more than one Quranic verse (Surah), God mentioned to the people of Thamud.
God had bestowed on them great strength and powerful bodies to carve the rocks to make their houses and graves. And more, God had sent them His Prophet, Saleh, to call them to worship God and to refrain from their idols.
But, they refused and disbelieved him. Saleh did not stop his endeavor to call them to worship Allah and believe in him. But, they made a condition to that, they said : “We shall not believe in you until you bring us a tremendous miracle”. They asked Prophet Saleh to bring out a huge female ��"camel from rock. Prophet Saleh said: “If I was able to bring you that miracle, would you believe in GOD?” They replied : Certainly! And so it happened. Prophet Saleh prayed to GOD to bring that female camel out of a huge rock. His pray was answered. The miracle did take place , a huge female camel. But, the people of Thamud did not believe in Prophet Saleh, save few of them, and they continued to worship their idols. After sometime, they decided to slaughter that female camel, and so they did. When they commit that big mistake, the great catastrophe came. God had saved Prophet Saleh and those who believed in him and the Thamud was destroyed.
Winged animal with human heads - Tomb 100
After that, Madain Saleh remained deserted and desolate for centuries until the Nabateans came.
Nabateans are Arabs who came originally from the south of Arabian Peninsular in the first century after birth. They inhibited Madain Saleh and made it their Southern Capital, while the Northern Capital was Petra. Civilization of the Nabateans was tremendous, they built their tombs in the mountains and decorated it by adding various forms of engraving and aesthetic forms and shapes.
Madain Saleh expanded rapidly and became powerful especially when the Nabateans started to control the ancient route of trades. The Romans had sensed such threat which is endangering their empire and hegemony in that region. They had launched a war against the Nabateans in (106 AC) and succeeded to terminate the Nabateans. Madain Saleh was deserted once again when the Romans went back to Al-Sham (Syria).
Before entering the tomb area, we were advised to control ourselves as this site is condemned by God.
The reason why we were visiting this place is to learn and educate ourselves to be a better person by reflecting from its past history.
We visited the Al-Khreimat. Approaching the tombs area was kind of mysterious and eerie. It consists of 53 tombs with diverse facades, some ornamented with two halves of balconies and others having a complete balcony. Combination of influences can be notified, Assyrian on top of the tombs, Egyptian basis and Greek art. We also saw some the impressive tombs ornamented with posts with large outstanding crown and two winged animal with human heads, instead of eagle and the two jars. Tomb number 100 clearly shows the Nabateans style of sculpture. It is one of the most beautiful rock cemeteries with prominent crown and the two winged animals.
I personally like the view of 'Qaser el-Bint' - Group of tombs, I think facing East direction.
Behind it there is a Nabatean Temple engraved in rock. Called Al-Diwan, rectangular in shape,size 13m length x 10m width x 8 m height. Impressive hall with weird top. We continued our tour to several other tombs before going back to the hotel.
Al-Diwan - the court
On the way back we stopped by at Al Ula town to buy some munchies and water. It is a small town lined only with several shops selling basic necessities. No supermarket guys! only small shop with friendly owner. Noticed quite a number of Pakistani people worked as shop assistant, had a friendly chat with them before we left. They have worked there for several years, to support their families back home. May Allah blessed them with Iman, Hidayat, health and wealth. Ameen!
The next morning was Friday.
As a muslim this the most important day of the week. Like Sunday for the Christians and Saturday for the Jews. Before we performed our Friday prayer we visited ruins of Al Ula Islamic City. It is located in the heart of the Al Ula and dated back to 7th century after Hijra (Islamic Calendar - start from the migration of our Beloved Prophet Muhammad SAW to Medina from Mecca). Archeologists believe that this is one of the best three Islamic cities next to Fars in Morroco and Tuleitula in Spain. They are still marvelously standing and unique with its old mosques, houses, markets and walls. It was built by generations and the people had immigrated from it completely around 40 years ago. This city is surrounded by a huge wall with fourteen gates which used to be locked during nights and can be opened during the day hours. The houses are 2 storey buildings. Almost identical all of it. Roofed corridors are separating a house from another. However they were linked together in one successive mass. I wondered how this city will look like during its glorious time. One thing for sure I cannot find any drain or trench or whatever you call it. How did they do their business - small one and BIG one.
The inscriptions on top of the tomb
Mammoth Rock - Jabal Al-Fil
One attraction worth mentioning is the Solar Clock. Located south of the city with pyramid-like construction. It was used to identify the four seasons of the year, especially winter by observing a piece of rock which is implanted into the ground in front of the pyramidal construction. The shadow of this solar clock shall reach this rock on the first day of winter, that is 21st December. The shadow of this solar clock shall not reach that rock again only next year, at the same and date. This clock is still succesfully used and many tourist would come to witness this unique event. It was used to distribute water of springs to farmers.
After that we visited Al- Hujaz Railway Station located in Hai Ak-Qitar (one of the important stations connecting Saudi and Syria - used to be), Jabal Al-Fil (Mount Elephant)- true enough it looks like a Mammoth to me smacked in the Arabian desert.
Later all the mens in our group went to a local mosque to perform our Friday prayer and the ladies waited at the hotel.
After lunch we left Al Ula for another long journey back to the Holy City of Medina.