Madain Saleh, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is getting attention for being considered a bit spooky and avoided by the Prophet. Found in al-Ula, Madinah, Saudi Arabia, it used to be kind of off-limits but is now open for tourists.
Hegra, or Madain Saleh, is gaining popularity among global travelers recently. With significant developments in al-Ula, the nearby oasis town has become a hub for art, culture, and tourism, even having a small airport well-connected with regular flights from Jeddah, Riyadh, and Dubai. This has made Hegra or Madain Saleh even more accessible.
What’s more, Hegra boasts impressive architectural remnants, similar to Petra in Jordan. CNN Travel has called Madain Saleh the crown jewel of Saudi Arabian archaeology. Hegra holds the distinction of being the first site in Saudi Arabia to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.
Constructed between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE, this ancient city features remarkable burial sites carved into sandstone against the backdrop of the Saudi Arabian northwest desert.
Both Petra and Hegra were built by the Nabatean people, known for their exceptional stone carving skills and trade in aromatic materials like incense and spices, often recognized in Western culture as gifts given to baby Jesus in the Christian Bible. They were also skilled ceramic artists.
Petra gained worldwide recognition earlier. It has always been open and is considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world, attracting over a million visitors annually before the pandemic. On the contrary, Hegra became accessible to global tourists only in 2019, when Saudi Arabia issued tourist visas for the first time.
Since then, these giant stones with beautiful carvings have become approachable. Tourists are welcomed with dates and a cup of light Saudi coffee, often mixed with cardamom. From there, they can hop on a medieval-style Land Rover (with or without a roof, depending on the weather) with a guide and set off to explore.
Usually, Al-Ula and the surrounding region are visited in the morning or late afternoon, especially in Hegra, which lacks trees or buildings to shield from the scorching midday sun.
Tourists are taken to the most beautiful sites left by the Nabatean people, like Qasr al-Farid (Arabic for the lonely fort). The carved stones stand proudly, a structure 72 feet tall, facing the expanse of sand. The contrast produces an extraordinary photo background, especially just before sunset, when the reddish-pink light triggers the desert’s colors.
These giant stones are actually tombs. The area around the door frames can show the names of those buried there. The design details provide clues about the origins of its inhabitants. Images of a phoenix, eagle, and snake suggest a blend of Greek and Egyptian cultures.
“We’ve all heard of the Assyrians; we’ve all heard of the Mesopotamians,” said a history professor at the University of Central Florida, as quoted by CNN Travel.
Even though the Nabatean people didn’t leave much historical documentation, one of their cultural achievements, the Nabatean alphabet, continues to play a significant role in the region. Al-Ula, in Arab mythology, is considered a haunted area inhabited by jinn and evil spirits. Some sources mention that the haunted or cursed stigma attached to Al-Ula is related to the story of the Thamud people.
Quoting Atlas Obscura, a narrative mentions that Prophet Muhammad once avoided the city of Al-Ula, which witnessed the life of the Thamud people. He quickened his pace when passing through Al-Ula on his way to the Battle of Tabuk.