Madain Saleh: Saudi Arabia’s hidden city
Jeddah - If you stood silent among the Nabataean tombs and monuments at Madain Saleh in Saudi Arabia long after dusk you might hear a baby camel’s faint keening for its mother. The people of Thamud, like spiteful children disobeying their father, slaughtered the she-camel, which had been created as a miracle of God, and the calf escaped into the mountains.
Today, according to legend, the calf haunts Madain Saleh, about 400 kilometres north of Medina. God cursed the area to destroy the Thamuds for their cruelty and idol worshipping.
Whether one is superstitious and believes in ghosts is irrelevant. The wailing often heard could be the wind whistling through nearby mountain passages and the tombs carved in rock. But in many ways Madain Saleh, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, is indeed cursed if one chooses a broad interpretation of what became of the site after its people disappeared. It was neglected for centuries, and despite efforts by the Saudi government to promote it as a tourist attraction, Saudis have largely ignored its significance.
Madain Saleh is Saudi Arabia’s pre-eminent pre-Islamic archaeological site dating to the Nabataean kingdom in the first century. The Thamuds’ presence is dated to at least 715BC. Madain Saleh literally means “Cities of Saleh” after the pre-Islamic Prophet Saleh. Madain Saleh is a necropolis of 131 Nabataean tombs cut into massive rocks spread over 21 square kilometres. It was the southern settlement of the Nabataean people, whose capital was in Petra, Jordan.
The area where the Thamud people once lived is one of area’s most important archaeological sites. Saleh was the prophet of the Thamud people who built their homes into the cliffs of the area. They were arrogant and corrupt. They lived long but also worshipped idols carved from stone, refusing to listen to Saleh’s message that there was only one God. When villagers demanded a miracle to prove that an invisible god existed, Saleh obliged, and God created a pregnant she-camel rising out of a large rock and giving birth to a calf. The Thamud people were in awe of the miracle.
A great stone tub was built and filled with milk from the she-camel. Saleh permitted the villagers to share water from a well with the camel by drinking from it on alternating days. But the villagers refused to allow the camel and her calf to drink from the well or to graze. The villagers killed the mother and the calf escaped. God ordered Saleh to leave the region and then shook the villagers’ land with a massive earthquake and lightning. The disobedient villagers perished in the disaster.
Today the area is the top Saudi Arabian tourist site for expatriates, drawing thousands of visitors each year. But to say that Saudis avoid the area due to superstitions ignores the generational shift in attitudes and religious and cultural history.
“Muslims usually go to places that are blessed,” said Abdullah Salama, 41, a former Medina resident living in Jeddah and who never visited Madain Saleh. “There is no reason for anyone to go to a place that was cursed.”
For many years a fatwa issued by the Council for Senior Ulema, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, prohibited visiting the area based on a hadith in which the Prophet Mohammad taught Muslims to avoid places subjected to God’s wrath.
According to the hadith, when the Prophet passed by Madain Saleh on his way to Tabuk, he said: “Don’t pass through the dwelling place of those who wronged themselves without crying.” The crying refers to the regret of sins in denying or violating God’s messages. Mohammad ordered that his followers throw away the food they got from that area and spill the water because the site was cursed.
The fatwa has since been lifted. Over the past decade, US, French and German archaeologists have scoured the region to uncover its history. The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities has been urging Saudis to visit the site as a means for the poor to earn a living from tourism and to instil pride in Saudi Arabia’s history.
Yarob H. Al-Ali, an archaeology manager for the commission, said that sites such as Madain Saleh provide jobs but equally important is introducing Saudis to their long-neglected history.
“It’s a long commitment to bring the region’s history out into the open,” he said.
While the commission is targeting all Saudis in its awareness campaign, its biggest challenge may be convincing the younger generation of Madain Saleh’s value as an historic site. Some younger Saudis are not avoiding the area because it’s cursed but because decades of neglect have rendered its history meaningless to them.
“Madain Saleh is a place to drive by on the way to another city,” said Manal al-Attiah, 38, a second-generation Medinan. “The fact that it’s cursed doesn’t bother me. Its pre-Islamic history doesn’t bother me either. But the government has done such a bad job of promoting it and the infrastructure is so poor, I just don’t have a desire to go.”
Akram Alyeenbawi, 21, of Medina, agreed: “How can I appreciate the history of something that I have never been taught in school?”
Attiah complained there are no rest stops, restaurants or adequate accommodations in the immediate area. The Prophet’s admonition not to drink or eat at the site is likely the reason why there are no conveniences.
However, Attiah said Madain Saleh is devoid of infrastructure that would make a visit comfortable and interesting.
“It’s not a place I think about,” she said.