AL-HIJR: Dating back to the second century BC, the Nabataean archaeological site, known as Madain Saleh, has long been hidden from foreign visitors in the Kingdom.
In recent years, however, Saudis have increasingly ventured to these sites.
Described as the largest and best preserved site of the Nabataean civilization south of Petra in Jordan, Madain Saleh is the first Saudi archaeological site to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
It lies 320 kilometers (200 miles) north of Madinah, and extends for some 15 square kilometers (six sq. miles).
According to UNESCO, it includes 111 tombs, most of which boast a decorated facade, cave drawings and even some pre-Nabataean inscriptions.
It also boasts intricately designed water wells that serve as a prime example of the Nabataeans’ architectural and hydraulic genius.
The Nabataeans first inhabited the area in the second century BC, but their ancient civilization existed as far back as the eighth or seventh century BC in the countries of the Levant, including Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, and at times even extending into the Sinai peninsula in Egypt.
Originally nomads from the Arabian peninsula, the Nabataeans were masters of trade, dominating the incense and spice routes in the pre-Islamic period. Their civilization collapsed in 106 AD at the hands of the Roman empire.
Officials at Madain Saleh say that the number of visitors to the site reached 40,000 last year, most of them Saudis and foreign residents of the Kingdom.
They hold hopes that figure will double in 2012 with the government relaxing entry restrictions.
Though prior consent is required for access to Madain Saleh, it can now be obtained more easily from the nearby town of Al-Ola, or from Riyadh.
The highest volume of visitors is between December and March, given the lower temperatures in the otherwise scorching desert heat.
Two museums also exist on site, including one devoted to the famous Hijaz railway built by the Ottomans in the early 20th century that ran from Damascus to Madinah and passed through Al-Hijr.
The second museum, which opened its doors to visitors just two months ago, traces the pilgrimage route to Islam’s holiest city of Makkah.
On his first visit to the ancient site, Saudi national Tareq Al-Adawi from the northwestern city of Tabuk says he was “overwhelmed.”
“I encourage all Saudis to come visit this place,” he says of Madain Saleh.
Another Saudi tourist, Ahmed Al-Moghrabi, says he was “shocked by the majesty of the place.”
A small team of French archaeologists in partnership with their Saudi colleagues are now carrying out excavations on the site in an effort to preserve and better understand its ancient history.
Madain Saleh, though likely one of Saudi’s most famous archaeological sites, is not its only one.
The area bears evidence of other ancient civilizations. Just 22 kilometers from Madain Saleh is Al-Ola, located on the ancient incense route. The city served as the capital of Lihyan, an ancient Arab kingdom.
It is home to archaeological remnants that date back thousands of years, including it’s citadel which is some 8,000 years old.