– Originally posted 19th May 2014.
Al Hijr to the locals, and Mada’in Saleh to everyone else. The jewel in the Kingdom’s crown. The must-see attraction in Saudi Arabia. Frowned upon by some because of the judgement of God brought on the idol worshipping, she-camel murdering community through the prophet Salih (earthquakes and mighty blasts from the sky no less, yikes!) killing all but the faithful and Salih. Ogled at with hungry touristy appetites by many others who can’t access the feast that is Mada’in Saleh. I’m not usually a superstitious kind of man (I don’t often like to wear green, but I don’t think that compares to legendary acts of God jinxing a place), and a visa isn’t something I have to worry about, so up I went to see this little-known gem.
Once in, we drove past the first tombs to avoid the other few cars who entered with us at opening time, and headed straight for the most iconic Qasr Al Farid. It stands alone, dominating the area with its striking magnificence. An unfinished tomb carved into a solitary giant rock in the desert. I’ve been to Petra and Lalibella, but they don’t have anything quite as startling as this. For such a world wonder, and for a gobsmacking zero riyals, we couldn’t quite fathom why we were the only ones stood there looking into its beauty. It’s no secret that tourism in the Kingdom is almost non-existent, but there are still millions of people living here, and I can’t stop racking my brain to try and figure out just why historical sites like these aren’t annoyingly overcrowded like its Nabatean sister in Petra. Not even a little bit. Since I complain about tourists ruining my tourism, I shouldn’t worry that this was not only the complete opposite of that experience, but it just so happened to combine with it being perhaps the most breathtaking combination of man-made architecture and natural landscape I’ve been to on planet Earth. That was a mouthful. It’s hard to say, but it’s definitely up there with the best. Saudi Arabia most definitely has something to offer world tourism if only it would open up its doors. We did actually meet an Austrian university group in Al Ula before we drove up to the site, complete with smiling-at-us-she-people (With hair and faces! We collapsed under the pressure!) that confused the cultural hell out of us. This is the one and only time we’ve come across tourism in the Kingdom, but they had a special invite from the government. I suspect they were as surprised to see us rolling into the car park unaccompanied as we were to see their pretty white faces glistening in the sun.
The circular route is littered with tombs small and large, with no one or next-to no one looking at any of them. Occasionally a 4×4-type vehicle would turn up and slow down so the passengers could wind down their windows and take a quick snap before continuing on down the track. Even less occasionally, people would get out, stand from a distance and watch us walk up to, into, and over the enticing tombs. I’m not sure why we seemed to be the ones exploring more than others. Perhaps they were under orders from their tour guides, or maybe they were intimidated by the non-existent security. Generally, there was an absence of everything; people, guards and cameras, so we assumed that if no one was there to stop us then we must be allowed to do whatever we pleased. We climbed on top of a couple of them, some of us (not me) a couple more, to take in the spectacular views of desert and red rocks. Sensational wind-eroded sandstone patterns were everywhere to be seen, with some remarkable shapes created by millions of years of nature doing its thing. Old settlements were dotted around which we were free to clamber upon. A few smatterings of litter and junk could be seen, but admittedly a whole lot less so than the rest of the Kingdom.
Like in Petra and Lalibella, you can’t help but marvel at the skill and time involved in the whole thing. Quite a feat if it was done today, never mind two thousand years ago. The desert, the tranquility, the architecture, the rock formations and the emptiness made it perhaps the best environment we’ve experienced in the Kingdom. The freedom to do as we pleased, unrestricted by police or nosy-parkers was bliss. Having nothing and no one to watch over us and instruct us on the ‘best’ or ‘right’ way to do things was heaven, quite unbelievable in a place that should be high on the list of every traveller/tourist in the world.
In one way I’m happy that most reading this haven’t been to Mada’in Saleh, but in another, I need to tell you that you really have to go and see this place.