08 September 2021

Hegra (Madain Saleh) – Al Ula

Hegra (Madian Saleh) is Saudi Arabia’s first World Heritage Site and is situated near Al Ula in Madina Province. It is a very impressive Nabatean burial site and village and is known locally as Hegra. The Nabateans were Arab tribes who became settled and lived in cities. They excelled in commerce as well as in the development of water resources, collecting water through a system of channels and storing it in vast cisterns. They settled in Syria and the northwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula with their capital at Petra in Jordon and Hegra their military base on the southern border of their empire. The Nabateans used the Aramaic script their language was northern Arabic with respect to vocabulary and proper nouns. They formed the Nabatean script by joining some letters one to another, from which the Arabic script of today is developed. Hegra (Madain Saleh) contains carved tomb facades, religious areas, residential areas, wells & water channels, remains of the Syrian pilgrimage route, remains of the Hijaz railway and mud brick houses. The site occupied a strategic position along the old Incense trade route that connected the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula with the north and the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Syria and the Nile Valley of Egypt. The route coming from the south bifurcated at Madain Saleh into two directions; a road to Tayma, Dumat al-Jandal and then Mesopotamia and another road to Petra in Jordon the capital of the Nabateans. At first glance, it looks like a vast ground with a huge rock in it, but when you look carefully, those rocks have been carved into shapes of tombs and graves. The levels of these graves vary depending on the level of social and financial status of their owners. People settled in this area due to the suitable climate and the availability of fresh water in the area. The monuments surround the residential area and contain over 100 tombs, ninety-four of which have decorated facades that vary considerably in size. Thirty tombs bear a dated Nabatean inscription incised in a special frame above the door of the funerary vault and every tomb represents a cemetery for one family. Tombs were carved using simple tolls such as chisels, hammers and picks. The process was started by selecting a suitable site and then the carver would hollow out a cavity from the top of the rock to the required depth. He would then proceed to carve the details of the façade from top to bottom without the use of scaffolding. Then the tomb chamber was hollowed out as well as the burial places themselves within the chamber. A visit to Hegra (Madain Saleh) at Al Ula is an unforgettable experience. The trips can be booked through the experiencealula.com website and are two hours long. You need to meet at Al Ula winter park to catch the bus and you are driven to the locations with a guide. You can only currently visit three areas, Ad Diwan, Qasr Al-Bint & Qasr al-Farid and are not allowed to enter any of the tombs. At Ad Diwan niches containing carved columns decorated with symbols or an eagle between two vessels were found whilst other niches contained nothing. These niches are one of the defining features of the Nabatean civilization. Temples have also been found in this area which formed a sacred area for cultic practices. The Diwan itself was a place reserved for religious gatherings and consisted of a rectangular room carved in the rock measuring 12.8 x 9.9 metres and 8 metres in height. A narrow natural rock passage called the Siq, with inscriptions and niches carved on both sides is to the left of Ad Diwan. Qasr Al-Bint is named the daughters or girls palace. 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 and contains twenty-nine tombs which is the one you visit. The other one is much smaller, lying northwest of the former, and containing only two funerary chambers cut on its eastern flank. Tomb 18 is an example of a complete tomb in both its architectural features and decoration. Its façade is crowned by stepped crenellations underneath which are a cornice on two levels. Columns with Nabatean capitals were carved on both sides. There are four columns on the sides of the entrance, two, one each side crowned with Nabatean capitals which bear a transom surmounted by a molding above which lies a triangular cornice with carved bases bearing funeral elements on both sides. The foundation inscription of the tomb lies above the entrance. There are a number of large tombs as well as some unfished ones and this area is another of the most photographed set of tombs in Madain Saleh. The northern end of the west face has a very large, abandoned tomb, that was abandoned in the early stages of construction that would have been the largest tomb on the site if it had been completed. The light is best in the morning for photographing and viewing this site. Depending on time you may not be allowed to visit the tombs at the back of the jebal but if possible it is well worth walking all around to see all the tombs. Qasr al-Farid is probably the most photogenic and most iconic symbol of Madain Saleh. Qasr al-Farid means "the Lonely Castle," is the largest tomb in Madain Saleh and 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. Qasir al-Farid is situated all by itself in a separate rocky monolith and includes an architectural feature not found in other tombs, namely the two Nabatean columns found on the lower part of the facade, as well as the side columns, whereas all the other façades at Madain Saleh bear only two pilasters, standing on each side of the façade.  The tomb was never completed as is evident in its lower portion and the open space before the entrance. The foundation inscription of the tomb, which reads “For Hyyan bin Kuza and his descendants”, is undated. The light is best in the evening for photographing and viewing this tomb with the last trip at 3 pm. We visited twice to allow for photography of all places visited and get greater knowledge of the place from different guides.