Saudi Arabian archaeological sites don’t usually top many tourists’ checklists. The conservative kingdom has long been wary of highlighting its pre-Islamic heritage for foreign tourists. Now, as an increasing number of Saudis have started to visit archaeological sites, the government plans to relax entry restrictions on sites including Mada’in Saleh, a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mada’in Saleh, also known as Al-Hijr or Hegra (in Greek and Latin), was the second largest Nabatean city* and according to UNESCO,** the six-square-mile site’s “111 monumental tombs, 94 of which are decorated, and water wells … [serve as] an outstanding example of the Nabateans’ architectural accomplishment and hydraulic expertise.” The stunning remains have been documented over the millennia by sources ranging from Pliny the Elder to Ibn Battuta, and scholars believe that references to the Thamudi people in the Qur’an refer to the pre-Nabatean occupation at Mada’in Saleh. According to the Qur’an, the eponymous Prophet Saleh unsuccessfully tried to warn the Thamudi population away from idol worship and other sins, and the non-believers at Mada’in Saleh were punished for their transgressions.
Despite the site’s magnificent remains, it only received 40,000 tourists last year, most of whom were Saudi nationals. Even with the relaxation of the visitation laws, visitors will still have to obtain consent from the nearby town of Al-Ola or from Riyadh, according to a recent AFP article.*** The site features two museums highlighting pilgrimage routes and the Ottoman Hejaz railway.
*Want to know more about the Nabateans and their capital at Petra? Read more in the Bible History Daily exclusive feature “Solving the Enigma of Petra and the Nabataeans”
*** Read more in AFP