Located at the foot of a basalt plateau in a stretch of desert frequently interrupted by towering sandstone outcroppings, Mada’in Saleh was once the second-largest Nabataean city, surpassed only by its northern counterpart, the Nabataean capital at Petra. Based on inscriptions and ancient texts, historians suggest that the modern-day UNESCO World Heritage Site was at its height as a Nabataean spice trade route outpost between the years 1 BCE and 74 CE. Today, the archeological site is perhaps best known for the many elaborate tombs and structures carved into the surrounding sandstone masses and for the variety of legends surrounding its history.
Prior to the Nabataeans’ presence in the region, a number of older civilizations inhabited the site of Mada’in Saleh; these included the Dedanites, the Lihyanites, and the people of Thamud. According to narratives from the Quran, the hadith, and other stories, the prophet Saleh was sent to the people of Thamud, who are described in the Quran as a people “carving…fine houses from the mountains.” The prophet was sent to Mada’in Saleh (Arabic for the cities of Saleh) – also known historically as al-Hijr (from the Arabic for rock) – and warned the people of Thamud to obey God and to cease worshipping other deities. The people asked Saleh to call forth a pregnant camel from the nearby rock as a sign; he did so, advising the people to care for the beast. After some time, however, the people of Thamud killed the beast. Immediately, God sent an earthquake to the region that killed all residents of the town. According to the hadith, the prophet Muhammad, passing through many years later en route to the Battle of Tabuk, instructed his followers not to eat food, drink water, or enter a home in the area for fear that a curse would be passed on to them. To this day, Mada’in Saleh largely maintains its local reputation as a cursed city.
Most of the archeological remains that characterize the site today, however, date to later periods. The most iconic archeological features at the site are the over 100 tombs ornately carved into the sandstone, the tallest of them reaching higher than 16 meters. Inscriptions on these tombs suggest that they primarily date to the first century BCE and the first century CE. Also of note is the Siq, a narrow canyon named after a similar passageway in Petra. At the beginning of the Siq lies the entrance to a courtyard area containing stone benches that was probably used for feasts; at the end of the canyon, it opens into a larger area featuring various carved niches and altars and a cistern fed by a canal – one of many examples of clever Nabataean water collection techniques. Researchers have suggested that this area was likely a place of worship for the Nabataean god Dushara.
Just north of the site is a restored Hejaz Railway station. Originally constructed in 1907, the station now houses a number of artifacts from the days of the railway’s operation.