Nabataean Tombs of Petra

Nabataean Tombs of Petra


The ancient Nabataean city of Petra

Petra is one of the most fascinating archaeological sites and tourist attractions in the world, full of forsaken tombs and rock-hewn temples. But, for some 600 years, it was completely forgotten and erased from Western knowledge.

It wasn’t until a curious Swiss explorer disguised himself as a Bedouin in order to be taken a secret old town. It was the amazement and awe he experienced upon reaching Petra that revealed his disguise and false identity.

It was the year 1812 and Jean Louis Burckhardt will be remembered as its re-discoverer. Ever since, this stunning city hasn’t ceased to amaze tourists, archeologists, scholars, or travelers.

Petra, First Glimpse of the Treasury. Author: David Bjorgen,CC-BY-SA 2.5

It is situated in modern-day Jordan but at its zenith in the 1st century BC, Petra was the capital of the Nabatean Empire which numbered about 30,000 people.

This location, between the Dead and Red sea and near the crossroads of important trade routes, insured a flow of prosperity.

One route was used for connecting the Mediterranean Sea, meaning the Romans and Greeks, with the Persian Gulf.

Where Indian spices and Chinese silks were traded, while the other linked the Red Sea to Syria.

Nabateans were a nomadic Arabic tribe, considered by some as one of the most talented ancient societies who managed to build ingenious water management system.

In addition with its easily defendable location, it is understandable why this city rose to such prosperity.

In front of the Treasury, Petra at night. Author: JordanieSylvain L., CC-by-2.0

There is further evidence of earlier settlements excavations have found remains from the Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic period, and again around 1200 BC of the Old Testament’s Edomite culture.

Shortly after or during the 1 century BC, it was annexed to the Roman Empire which led to the decline of its important commercial and ceremonial role.

But it was not until a massive earthquake in 363 AD destroyed the water system and left it devastated and abandoned.

During the crusades, it was also inhabited, but after the 7 th century, Petra was forgotten by the rest of the world.

Theater, Petra. Author: Douglas Perkins, CC-by-2.0

The “rose-red city half as old as time,” as depicted in a song by John Willian Burgon, is completely surrounded by mountains and protected by narrow gorges.

Half-built and half-carved in vibrant orange, pink and rose-red stone, Petra means ‘the rock’ in Greek.

Full of empty temples, tombs, tunnels, channels, dams, cisterns, and reservoirs, it covers an area of 6 square kilometers and lies on the slope of the biblical Mount Hor.

Archeologists claim that only 15% of the city is uncovered and 85% still remains unexcavated.

Palace Tomb and Corinthian Tomb, Petra. Author: Bernard Gagnon, CC-by-2.0

Petra is a great example of a combination of many influences blending into a coherent and unique style. Among the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Assyrian and Roman elements, there is also an amalgam of traditional Nabataean rock-cut building and Hellenistic facades.

The most famous and elaborated building is Al-Khazneh, known as the Treasury.

Rock Cut Tombs, Petra. Author: Rhys Davenport, CC-by-2.0

It was actually a tomb for the Nabataean king, mistaken as a place of hidden treasure. Going through a very narrow gorge 1km long and called the Siq, one would arrive at the mystical monolithic edifice.

It is precisely the one seen in most pictures of Petra, made world-wide famous when appeared in the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Today, it is a place where tourists and visitors can experience Bedouin storytelling and singing during the night.

The Treasury (Al Khazneh) in Petra at sunset, viewed from the top of the Siq. Author: Paul Stocker, CC-BY-2.0

A couple of kilometers further and about 800 steps high stands the largest temple in Petra. Al Deir or the Monastery is carved into a mountain wall, it is 48.3 meters high and 47 meters wide with an entrance door of 8 meters.

It is believed to have been a temple of the deity Dushara, Lord of the Mountains, one of the chief Nabataean gods associated with Zeus.

The Monastery, Petra. Author: Diego Delso, CC BY-SA

Besides these two, there are many more structures arduously cut and carved into the sandstone. This stone is quite soft and if it was not for the fact that very little rain falls in Jordan, many of them would have long ago collapsed or dissolved.

It is only one of the possible threats since there is an ongoing erosion. In 1985 Petra was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage sites and on that occasion has occurred the resettlement of the Bedouin tribe Bdul, since their livestock was eroding the terrain.

From that period forward, a lot of energy has been involved in creating a functional management of the site. Nevertheless, the vast number of tourists visiting regularly present an ongoing erosion threat as well.

In 2007 Petra was declared one of the Seven New Wonders of the World and is on all must-see lists of magical places to visit on the planet.


Arabian Rock Art Heritage

Mada’in Saleh, not far from al-Ula (22 km), was known as al-Hijr, or Hegra, by the Nabataean people who carved its magnificent tombs into the golden Quweira sandstone outcrops. The delicate details on the entrance portals and the smooth surfaces of its 111 tomb façades reflect the great skills of the masons of their time. The splendor of the natural setting here must have reminded the Nabataeans of their capital, Petra, hewn into the rosey sandstone cliffs to the north in modern-day Jordan. It is no wonder that they chose this very spot to build their second city, Hegra. Based on the many dated tomb inscriptions, Hegra thrived between 1 BCE -74 CE.

The Nabataeans began as pastoral nomads, raising their sheep, goats, and camels in the desert as so many other Arabian tribes have done through the millennia. They also practiced oasis agriculture, utilizing a set of wells dug into the rock. Their origin is uncertain, but there is a strong possibility that they came from the Hejaz region of northwest Saudi Arabia. The deities they worshipped were similar to those honored by ancient cultures in that area and the root consonants of their name – n, b, t, w – occur in the early Semitic of the Hejaz. From early in their history, they had connections with Mesopotamia and may have been the Nabatu Arabs mentioned by the Assyrians in the eighth century BCE. Alexander the Great’s officer Hieronymus of Cardia wrote of the Nabataeans as having an ascetic life with harsh laws. They were also known for their incredible familiarity with the desert and their ability to fade into it to evade enemy tribes. Their system of hidden cisterns dug deep in the interior provided water for their livestock and their people.

The real cause of the success of the Nabataeans, however, was control over much of the spice trade. Frankincense, myrrh, and other spices from southern Arabia were brought up to the north along trade routes to be purchased by the Greeks, Romans Egyptians, Phoenicians, and others around the Mediterranean and in the Near East. The Nabataeans built their empire as the middlemen. Hegra was a crossroads where the major north-south incense route intersected a road from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf.

Before the Nabataeans chose Hegra as their most southerly outpost for caravans on the spice route, the settlement was occupied by their predecessors in the trade, the Dedanites and then the Lihyanites. The Qur’an refers to a Thamudic settlement even earlier. The Romans annexed the area controlled by the Nabataeans and incorporated it into its Arabian province in 106 CE.

The ruins of the town of Hegra lie on the plain some distance from their tombs. The buildings, still for the most part unexcavated, were made of unimpressive sun-dried mudbrick. What is known about Hegra comes primarily from the tombs, the many inscriptions carved into their façades, and references found elsewhere.

The tomb façades are finely carved and fairly uniform in their style. At the top of most is a pair of crowsteps rising up from a central point. One or two cornices are just below, resting on the delicate capitals of two pilasters. A portal in the center of the façade provides the entrance to the tomb. Inside are recesses carved into the walls where the bodies of the deceased were placed. The interiors remain roughly chiseled in stark contrast to the smoothly finished façades.

Qasr al Bint, “Palace of the Daughter or Maiden,” is the largest tomb façade at Hegra, with a height of 16 m. It lends its name to a group of adjacent tombs. The portal is raised above ground. Above the doorway is an inscription plaque saying that the tomb was carved by the sculptor Hoor ibn Ahi for Hani ibn Tafsy, his family and descendents, in the 40th year of the reign of the Nabataean King Aretas IV (al-Haritha), dating it to circa 31 CE.

Qasr al-Farid, an unfinished tomb that stands alone.

The most photogenic and most iconic symbol of Mada’in Saleh is Qasr al-Farid, a single tomb carved into a small dome that stands alone in the open. The façade was never finished, so the heavily chiseled surface of the lower third documents how the tombs were fashioned from the top down.

The Jebel Ithlib is a monumental outcrop topped with a complex of spires in the northeastern part of the site. In the middle is a natural slit that measures 40 m (131 feet), called the Siq, after a similar corridor at Petra. At its entrance, to the right is a square chamber containing three stone benches that served as a triclinium for sacred feasts. Today, the chamber is known as al-Diwan (court). Its large entrance suggests that the feasts extended into the open space before it.

By walking through the Siq, one enters a larger, natural alcove known as the Jebel Ithlib sanctuary where a canal channeled water into a cistern. Its enormous cliff faces have small sacred niches and altars carved into their otherwise unhewn surfaces. Jebel Ithlib was thought to have been a holy place to worship the Nabataean deity Dúshara, “Lord of the Mountain”.


Royal Tombs (Petra)

The Royal Tombs (المقابر الملكية) of Petra, which were carved from rose-red sandstone by the Nabateans more than 2,300 years ago, sit at the heart of the ancient city of Petra. Carved in to the base of el-Khubtha mountain, a short distance from where the outer Siq opens out on to Petra's central plain. The monumental size and richly decorated facades suggest that they were built for wealth or important people, possibly Petran kings or queens.

The facade of the Palace Tomb, the lower part consists of 12 decorated columns and four gates. The second portal from the left is one of the most detriorated. The four portals lead in to four separate burial chambers, with three distinct stories in it's facade. This name was given to the cemetery as it resembles a palace. Supposedly, it is similar to the Roman palace design of the Golden House of Nero. In front of the tomb is a large stage and in front of this a large courtyard.

The facade of the so called Urn tomb, suggested to beling to the Nabataean King Malchus II who died in 70 CE. The vaults supporting the terrace as-sun (prison) – perhaps myth, or reflecting a later use. Some traditions relate about the tomb possibly being used as a church. An inscription in red paint records its consecration "in the time of the most holy bishop Jason", 447 CE. This derived its name from the jar that crowns the pediment. It is preceded by a deep courtyard with colonnades on two sides.

Silk Tomb takes its name from majestic multi- colored layers of rock that appear like a silk drapery over a tomb. Located next to the distinctive Urn Tomb in the Royal Tomb group is the so-called Silk Tomb, noteworthy for the stunning swirls of pink-, white- and yellow-veined rock in its facade.

The so-called Corinthian Tomb, one of the most sadly eroded façades in Petra. The whole design – including its columns and floral capitals – was clearly modelled on that of the Treasury, but its squat proportions and eclectic style make it less aesthetically pleasing. It is believed to date from the reign of Malichus II (40-70 CE), but no name has been associated with its construction.

See Also

See Also

  • Penguin. (2012, September 3). DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Jerusalem, Israel, Petra & Sinai. Retrieved March 22, 2020.
  • French, C. (2012). Jordan: the Bradt travel guide. Chalfont St. Peter: Bradt Travel Guides.
  • Ossorio, F. A., & Manferto, V. (2009). Petra: splendors of the Nabataean civilization. Vercelli, Italy: White Star Publishers.

Nabataean Tombs of Petra - History

In the scrub-speckled desert north of AlUla in Saudi Arabia, rocky outcrops and giant boulders the size of buildings, beautifully carved and with classical-style pediments and columns, poke out of the sands like divinely scattered seeds. As the sun sets, the dusty colors flare, revealing pockmarks and stains caused by rain, which has shaped these stones for millennia.

Once a thriving international trade hub, the archeological site of Hegra (also known as Mada'in Saleh) has been left practically undisturbed for almost 2,000 years. But now for the first time, Saudi Arabia has opened the site to tourists. Astute visitors will notice that the rock-cut constructions at Hegra look similar to its more famous sister site of Petra, a few hundred miles to the north in Jordan. Hegra was the second city of the Nabataean kingdom, but Hegra does much more than simply play second fiddle to Petra: it could hold the key to unlocking the secrets of an almost-forgotten ancient civilization.

Determined to wean its economy off the petro pipeline, Saudi Arabia is banking on tourism as a new source of income. Oil currently accounts for 90 percent of the country’s export earnings and makes up about 40 percent of its GDP. In 2016, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced Saudi Vision 2030, a roadmap for the country over the next two decades that aims to transform it into a global hub for trade and tourism that connects Africa, Asia and Europe.

The rock-cut constructions at Hegra look similar to its more famous sister site of Petra, a few hundred miles to the north in Jordan. (Royal Commission for AlUla)

Saudi Arabia launched tourist visas for the first time in September 2019, allowing casual visitors without a business or religious purpose into the country. Hegra, with its mysterious, eye-catching architecture, is an obvious choice to highlight when marketing Saudi Arabia to tourists. Much of Hegra’s appeal lies in the fact that it’s virtually unknown to outsiders despite its similarities to Petra, which now sees nearly one million visitors a year and could be classified as an endangered world heritage site if not properly cared for, according to Unesco.

While Hegra is being promoted to tourists for the first time, the story that still seems to get lost is that of the ancient empire responsible for its existence. The Nabataeans are arguably one of the most enigmatic and intriguing civilizations that many have never heard of before.

“For a tourist going to Hegra, you need to know more than seeing the tombs and the inscriptions and then coming away without knowing who produced them and when,” says David Graf, a Nabataean specialist, archeologist and professor at the University of Miami. “It should evoke in any good tourist with any kind of intellectual curiosity: who produced these tombs? Who are the people who created Hegra? Where did they come from? How long were they here? To have the context of Hegra is very important.”

While Hegra is being promoted to tourists for the first time, the story that still seems to get lost is that of the ancient empire responsible for its existence. (Royal Commission for AlUla)

The Nabataeans were desert-dwelling nomads turned master merchants, controlling the incense and spice trade routes through Arabia and Jordan to the Mediterranean, Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. Camel-drawn caravans laden with piles of fragrant peppercorn, ginger root, sugar and cotton passed through Hegra, a provincial city on the kingdom’s southern frontier. The Nabataeans also became the suppliers of aromatics, such as frankincense and myrrh, that were highly prized in religious ceremonies.

“The reason why they emerged and they became new in ancient sources is that they became wealthy,” says Laila Nehmé, an archeologist and co-director of the Hegra Archeological Project, a partnership between the French and Saudi governments that is excavating sections of the site. “When you become wealthy, you become visible.”

The Nabataeans prospered from the 4th century B.C. until the 1st century A.D., when the expanding Roman Empire annexed and subsumed their huge swath of land, which included modern-day Jordan, Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, and parts of Saudi Arabia, Israel and Syria. Gradually, the Nabataean identity was lost entirely. Forgotten by the West for centuries, Petra was “rediscovered” by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812, though local Bedouin tribes had been living in the caves and tombs for generations. Perhaps it could be said that Petra was truly seen by most Westerners for the first time a century and a half later thanks to its starring role as the set for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989.

The challenge with getting to know the Nabataeans is that they left behind so little first-hand history. With the immense popularity of Petra today, it’s hard to imagine that we don’t know much about its creators. Most of what we’ve learned about the Nabataeans comes from the documents of outsiders: the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians.

The challenge with getting to know the Nabataeans is that they left behind so little first-hand history. (Royal Commission for AlUla)

“The reason we don’t know much about them is because we don’t have books or sources written by them that tell us about the way they lived and died and worshipped their gods,” says Nehmé. “We have some sources that are external, so people who talk about them. They did not leave any large mythological texts like the ones we have for Gilgamesh and Mesopotamia. We don’t have their mythology.”

Like Petra, Hegra is a metropolis turned necropolis: most of the remaining structures that can be seen today are tombs, with much of the architectural remains of the city waiting to be excavated or already lost, quite literally, to the sands of time. One of the only places where the words of the Nabataeans exist is in the inscriptions above the entrances to several of the tombs at Hegra.

Obscure though they might be to us now, the Nabataeans were ancient pioneers in architecture and hydraulics, harnessing the unforgiving desert environment to their benefit. Rainwater that poured down from the craggy mountains was collected for later use in ground-level cisterns. Natural water pipes were built around the tombs to protect their facades from erosion, which have kept them well preserved thousands of years after their construction.

“These people were creative, innovative, imaginative, pioneering,” says Graf, who has been researching the Nabataeans since he unexpectedly unearthed some of their pottery in 1980 on an excavation in Jordan. “It just blew my mind.”

Hegra contains 111 carefully carved tombs, far fewer than the more than 600 at the Nabataean capital of Petra. But the tombs at Hegra are often in much better condition, allowing visitors to get a closer look into the forgotten civilization. Classical Greek and Roman architecture clearly influenced construction, and many tombs include capital-topped columns that hold a triangular pediment above the doorway or a tomb-wide entablature. A Nabataean “crown,” consisting of two sets of five stairs, rests at the uppermost part of the facade, waiting to transport the soul to heaven. Sphinxes, eagles and griffins with spread wings—important symbols in the Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Persian worlds—menacingly hover above the tomb entrances to protect them from intruders. Others are guarded by Medusa-like masks, with snakes spiraling out as hair.

Hegra contains 111 carefully carved tombs. (Royal Commission for AlUla)

Nehmé calls this style Arab Baroque. “Why Baroque? Because it is a mixture of influences: we have some Mesopotamian, Iranian, Greek, Egyptian,” she says. “You can borrow something completely from a civilization and try to reproduce it, which is not what they did. They borrowed from various places and built their own original models.”

Intimidating inscriptions, common on many of the tombs at Hegra but rare at Petra, are etched into the facade and warn of fines and divine punishment for trespassing or attempting to surreptitiously occupy the tomb as your own. “May the lord of the world curse upon anyone who disturb this tomb or open it,” proclaims part of the inscription on Tomb 41, “. and further curse upon whoever may change the scripts on top of the tomb.”

The inscriptions, written in a precursor to modern Arabic, sometimes read as jumbled legalese, but a significant number include dates—a gold mine for archeologists and historians. Hegra’s oldest dated tomb is from 1 B.C. and the most recent from 70 A.D., allowing researchers to fill in gaps on the Nabataeans’ timeline, though building a clear picture is still problematic.

Graf says that about 7,000 Nabataean inscriptions have been found throughout their kingdom. “Out of that 7,000, only a little over 100 of them have dates. Most of them are very brief graffiti: the name of an individual and his father or a petition to a god. They are limited in their content, so it’s difficult to write a history on the basis of the inscriptions.”

Some tombs at Hegra are the final resting places for high-ranking officers and their families, who, according to the writing on their tombs, took the adopted Roman military titles of prefect and centurion to the afterworld with them. The inscriptions also underscore Hegra’s commercial importance on the empire’s southern fringes, and the texts reveal the diverse composition of Nabataean society.

“I argue the word Nabataean is not an ethnic term,” Graf says. “Rather it’s a political term. It means they are the people who controlled a kingdom, a dynasty, and there are various kinds of people in the Nabataean kingdom. Hegrites, Moabites, Syrians, Jews, all kinds of people.”

Hegra’s largest tomb, measuring about 72 feet tall, is the monolithic Tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza, sometimes called Qasr al-Farid. (Royal Commission for AlUla)

The full stories behind many of these tombs remain unknown. Hegra’s largest tomb, measuring about 72 feet tall, is the monolithic Tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza, sometimes called Qasr al-Farid, meaning the “Lonely Castle” in English, because of its distant position in relation to the other tombs. It was left unfinished, with rough, unsmoothed chisel marks skirting its lower third. A few tombs were abandoned mid-construction for unclear reasons. The deserted work at Tomb 46 shows most clearly how the Nabataeans built from top to bottom, with only the stepped “crown” visible above an uncut cliffside. Both the Tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza and Tomb 46 have short inscriptions, designating them for specific families.

A new chapter in Hegra’s history, however, is just beginning, as travelers are allowed easy access to the site for the first time. Previously, less than 5,000 Saudis visited Hegra each year, and foreign tourists had to obtain special permission from the government to visit, which fewer than 1,000 did annually. But now it’s as simple as buying a ticket online for 95 Saudi riyal (about $25). Hop-on-hop-off buses drop visitors off in seven areas, where Al Rowah, or storytellers, help bring the necropolis to life. Tours are given in Arabic and English.

“They are tour guides, but they are more than that,” says Helen McGauran, curatorial manager at the Royal Commission for AlUla, the Saudi governing body that's the caretaker of the site. “The handpicked team of Saudi men and women have been mentored by archeologists and trained by international museums to connect every visitor to the stories of this extraordinary open-air gallery. Many are from AlUla and speak beautifully of their own connections to this place and its heritage.”

Previously, foreign tourists had to obtain special permission from the government to visit, which fewer than 1,000 did each year. (Royal Commission for AlUla)

A visit to Hegra is merely scratching the surface of AlUla’s archeological trove. Other nearby heritage sites—the ancient city of Dadan, the capital of the Dadanite and Lihyanite kingdoms, which predated the Nabataeans, and Jabal Ikmah, a canyon filled with ancient rock inscriptions—are also now open to visitors. AlUla’s labyrinthine old town of mudbrick houses, which had been occupied since the 12th century but more recently abandoned and fell into a state of disrepair, is now a conservation site and is slated to welcome tourists starting in December.

“Hegra is absolutely the jewel in the crown,” McGauran says. “However, one of the beautiful and unique things about AlUla is that it is this palimpsest of human civilization for many thousands of years. You have this near continuous spread of 7,000 years of successive civilizations that are settling in this valley—important civilizations that are just now being revealed to the world through archeology.”

By 2035, AlUla is hoping to attract two million tourists (domestic and international) annually. AlUla’s airport, about 35 miles from Hegra, only opened in 2011, but it has already undergone large-scale renovations in anticipation of the influx of visitors, quadrupling its annual passenger capacity. The Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Jean Nouvel is designing a luxury cliff-carved cave hotel inspired by the Nabataeans’ work at Hegra, set to be completed in 2024.

“We see the development of AlUla as a visitor destination as being something that is happening with archeology and heritage at its heart, with a new layer of art, creativity and cultural institutions being added to that,” McGauran says.

Scholars believe that the Nabataeans saw their tombs as their eternal home, and now their spirits are being resurrected and stories retold as part of AlUla’s push to become an open-air museum.

“This is not just one museum building. This is an extraordinary landscape where heritage, nature and arts combine,” McGauran says. “We talk a lot about AlUla for millennia as being this place of cultural transfer, of journeys, of travelers, and a home to complex societies. It continues to be that place of cultural identity and artistic expression.”

Though the Nabataeans left behind scant records, Hegra is where their words are most prominently visible. But the Nabataeans weren’t the only ones here: about 10 historic languages have been found inscribed into the landscape of AlUla, and this region in particular is seen as instrumental in the development of the Arabic language. Something about AlUla has inspired civilization after civilization to leave their mark.

“Why are we telling these stories here?” McGauran asks. “Because they’re not stories that you can tell anywhere else.”


The Diwan and Jabal Ithlib

Religious or ritual practices at Hegra were concentrated around Jabal Ithlib, a natural mountain outcrop to the east of the city.

The Diwan is a rock-cut chamber that was once a venue for sumptuous banquets and a meeting room for the leaders of the city.

Today, Hegra is best known for its more than 110 monumental tombs carved from rock formations in which the Nabataean elite were laid to rest. Inscriptions, detailing who was buried within, remain above some of these breathtaking burial chambers to this day. As you walk through the site, you&rsquoll find tombs dedicated to healers, military figures, local leaders and others.

Inscriptions can be found throughout the site of Hegra. They reveal the origins of the Arabic language, and illuminate the customs and beliefs of ancient civilisations. In addition to the inscriptions, you&rsquoll see repeated stylised stone carvings, or betyls. These stone blocks acted as representations of the gods. Some feature stylised eyes, noses and mouths.

Around Hegra, you may see the ruins of more than 130 wells, which is evidence that the Nabataeans adapted skilfully to AlUla&rsquos arid climate. The wells could be replenished by groundwater and rainfall, enabling them to also act as cisterns. Excavations have shown that stone-lined water channels and ceramic pipes were used to move water away from courtyards into the streets, as well as carved above the tomb facades to move rainwater away from the intricate details, helping to preserve them.

On your visit, look for Roman influences. The Nabataean kingdom was annexed by the Roman Empire in 106 CE. Traces of a rampart were first discovered during the early 20th century and revealed that the town was encircled by a 3-kilometre-long wall with between three and five gates, protected by several towers and significant buttresses. Hegra&rsquos position on the incense and trading routes meant that it was provided with strong military protection by both the Nabataeans and the Romans.

Due to Covid-19 health and safety precautions, Hegra is operating at a limited capacity.

To avoid disappointment, we recommend you book Hegra tickets online before arrival.

Alternatively, you may purchase your tickets at the information desk located at Winter Park.

Body temperature checks are being carried out on all visitors arriving. Furthermore, in all public places, people are reminded to wear masks and maintain a safe distance of two metres apart and avoid physical contact unless absolutely necessary.

Staff and visitors alike are being prompted to wash their hands frequently with soap and water. You&rsquoll find plenty of sanitisation stations at the main sites. Where handwashing facilities are not immediately available, sanitiser gel dispensers are provided.

A number of essential employees are on-site at any one time. Staff who come into contact with visitors are provided with masks and gloves. High-touch items and surfaces are disinfected frequently and areas are kept well ventilated.

A dedicated security team is on hand to help ensure the guidelines are observed. If you have any questions relating to travelling during the Covid-19 pandemic, please call the national helpline for tourism queries on 930, which is staffed around the clock.


The architectural marvel of Madain Saleh and the enigmatic Nabataean people

The archaeological site of Mada’in Saleh, previously known as Hegra, is the most famous ancient site in Saudi Arabia. It is also the first archaeological site of Saudi Arabia to be included in the World Heritage List. It is surprising how little known this site is, considering UNESCO describes it as “an outstanding example of architectural accomplishment and hydraulic expertise”.

Mada’in Saleh was one of the southern outposts of the mysterious Nabataean people, the same people that built the magnificent city of Petra in Jordan , their ancient capital. Built between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD, Mada’in Saleh is an architectural marvel and a testimony to the skill and craftsmanship of the Nabataean who, 2,000 years ago, carved more than 131 tombs into solid rock, complete with decoration, inscriptions, and water wells.

The enigmatic Nabataeans were originally a nomadic tribe, but about 2,500 years ago, Nabataean settlements began to flourish. As well as their agricultural activities, they developed political systems, arts, engineering, stonemasonry, and demonstrated astonishing hydraulic expertise, including the construction of wells, cisterns, and aqueducts. These innovations stored water for prolonged periods of drought, and enabled them to prosper. They expanded their trading routes, creating more than 2,000 sites in total in the areas that today are Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Archaeologists still try to unravel the history of the Nabataeans, which in large remains unknown.

Today, you can see several large boulders rising out of the flat desert, and most of the structures seen were used as tombs, all of them cut into the surrounding sandstone rocks. The area has multiple quarries that the Nabataean masons are said to have used to cut and carve stone blocks. However, no buildings utilising stone blocks have ever been found so it is unknown what exactly the quarries were used for. The mystery may lie below the sand of the desert, with monuments still waiting to be explored.

There is very little information about Mada’in Saleh and whatever we know today comes from around fifty inscriptions found in the tombs and on the facades. One of these inscriptions (which is a Roman inscription) shows that Mada’in Saleh was inhabited for at least a century longer than what scholars previously thought. On the site there are also about 50 pre-Nabataean inscriptions including some cave drawings.

According to the Roman scholar Strabo, although the people were governed by a royal family, it is said that a strong spirit of democracy prevailed and that the workload was shared among the community. Like much of the ancient world, they worshipped a pantheon of deities, chief among them being the sun god Dushara and the goddess Allat.

The name Mada’in Saleh (“city of Salih”) is associated with a pre-Islamic prophet, Salih, of the tribe of Thamud, who is also mentioned in the Qur’an. His community is mentioned to be ‘wicked’ and because of that God destroyed them. Even today the remains of the ancient site are considered by Muslims to be cursed. Salih (or Saleh) is the equivalent of Salah in the Hebrew Bible.

O Salih! You have been among us as a figure of good hope and we wished for you to be our chief, till this, new thing which you have brought that we leave our gods and worship your God (Allah) alone! Do you now forbid us the worship of what our fathers have worshipped? But we are really in grave doubt as to that which you invite us to monotheism.
(CH 11:62
Quran).

The tribe of Thamud is said to be descendants of a great-grandson of the Biblical Noah. However, the Thamud were said to have become very corrupt and materialistic and stopped believing in God. According to account, this is when God sent prophet Salih to warn them that if they would continue in that way they would be destroyed.

"So the earthquakes seized them and they lay dead, prostrate in their homes. Then he (Salih) turned from them, and said: "O my people! I have indeed conveyed to you the Message of my Lord, and have given you good advice but you like not good advisers." (Ch 7:73-79 Quran)

The kingdom of the Nabataeans eventually declined with the shift in trade routes to Palmyra in Syria and the expansion of seaborne trade from the Arabian Peninsula to Egypt. Sometime during the 4th century AD, the Nabataeans finally abandoned their capital at Petra and migrated north.


The Chronology of the Fa󧫞 Tombs at Petra: A Structural and Metrical Analysis

Due to the lack of absolute dating evidence for the rock-cut façade tombs at Petra, their traditional chronology has been largely based on typology and an assumption of increasing complexity with time. The author's current research involves a comprehensive study of the rock-cut chambers behind the façades from first-hand examination and documentation of the interiors, which are then subjected to detailed statistical analysis. This paper presents some of the results of these new analyses and, as such, is intended to generate debate and comment. Relationships are determined between dimensions and frequency of types of façades and their chambers, as well as the form and placement of burial installations. These results are significant when new evidence presented for a relative chronology between façade types is considered. Contrary to the traditionally assumed increase in complexity with time, it is proposed that the larger and more complex types of the non-classical façades (Double Pylon and Hegr Tombs) have a tendency to be chronologically earlier than their smaller and simpler versions (Single Pylon and Step).


Saudi Arabia’s Hegra, an ancient city untouched for millennia

In the scrub-speckled desert north of AlUla in Saudi Arabia, rocky outcrops and giant boulders the size of buildings, beautifully carved and with classical-style pediments and columns, poke out of the sands like divinely scattered seeds. As the sun sets, the dusty colors flare, revealing pockmarks and stains caused by rain, which has shaped these stones for millennia.

Once a thriving international trade hub, the archeological site of Hegra (also known as Madain Saleh) has been left practically undisturbed for almost 2,000 years. But now for the first time, Saudi Arabia has opened the site to tourists. Astute visitors will notice that the rock-cut constructions at Hegra look similar to its more famous sister site of Petra, a few hundred miles to the north in Jordan. Hegra was the second city of the Nabataean kingdom, but Hegra does much more than simply play second fiddle to Petra: it could hold the key to unlocking the secrets of an almost-forgotten ancient civilization.

Determined to wean its economy off the petro pipeline, Saudi Arabia is banking on tourism as a new source of income. Oil currently accounts for 90 percent of the country’s export earnings and makes up about 40 percent of its GDP. In 2016, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced Saudi Vision 2030, a roadmap for the country over the next two decades that aims to transform it into a global hub for trade and tourism that connects Africa, Asia and Europe.

Saudi Arabia launched tourist visas for the first time in September 2019, allowing casual visitors without a business or religious purpose into the country. Hegra, with its mysterious, eye-catching architecture, is an obvious choice to highlight when marketing Saudi Arabia to tourists. Much of Hegra’s appeal lies in the fact that it’s virtually unknown to outsiders despite its similarities to Petra, which now sees nearly one million visitors a year and could be classified as an endangered world heritage site if not properly cared for, according to Unesco.

While Hegra is being promoted to tourists for the first time, the story that still seems to get lost is that of the ancient empire responsible for its existence. The Nabataeans are arguably one of the most enigmatic and intriguing civilizations that many have never heard of before.

“For a tourist going to Hegra, you need to know more than seeing the tombs and the inscriptions and then coming away without knowing who produced them and when,” says David Graf, a Nabataean specialist, archeologist and professor at the University of Miami. “It should evoke in any good tourist with any kind of intellectual curiosity: who produced these tombs? Who are the people who created Hegra? Where did they come from? How long were they here? To have the context of Hegra is very important.”

The Nabataeans were desert-dwelling nomads turned master merchants, controlling the incense and spice trade routes through Arabia and Jordan to the Mediterranean, Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. Camel-drawn caravans laden with piles of fragrant peppercorn, ginger root, sugar and cotton passed through Hegra, a provincial city on the kingdom’s southern frontier. The Nabataeans also became the suppliers of aromatics, such as frankincense and myrrh, that were highly prized in religious ceremonies.

“The reason why they emerged and they became new in ancient sources is that they became wealthy,” says Laila Nehmé, an archeologist and co-director of the Hegra Archeological Project, a partnership between the French and Saudi governments that is excavating sections of the site. “When you become wealthy, you become visible.”

The Nabataeans prospered from the 4th century B.C. until the 1st century A.D., when the expanding Roman Empire annexed and subsumed their huge swath of land, which included modern-day Jordan, Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, and parts of Saudi Arabia, Israel and Syria. Gradually, the Nabataean identity was lost entirely. Forgotten by the West for centuries, Petra was “rediscovered” by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812, though local Bedouin tribes had been living in the caves and tombs for generations. Perhaps it could be said that Petra was truly seen by most Westerners for the first time a century and a half later thanks to its starring role as the set for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989.

The challenge with getting to know the Nabataeans is that they left behind so little first-hand history. With the immense popularity of Petra today, it’s hard to imagine that we don’t know much about its creators. Most of what we’ve learned about the Nabataeans comes from the documents of outsiders: the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians.

“The reason we don’t know much about them is because we don’t have books or sources written by them that tell us about the way they lived and died and worshipped their gods,” says Nehmé. “We have some sources that are external, so people who talk about them. They did not leave any large mythological texts like the ones we have for Gilgamesh and Mesopotamia. We don’t have their mythology.”

Like Petra, Hegra is a metropolis turned necropolis: most of the remaining structures that can be seen today are tombs, with much of the architectural remains of the city waiting to be excavated or already lost, quite literally, to the sands of time. One of the only places where the words of the Nabataeans exist is in the inscriptions above the entrances to several of the tombs at Hegra.

Obscure though they might be to us now, the Nabataeans were ancient pioneers in architecture and hydraulics, harnessing the unforgiving desert environment to their benefit. Rainwater that poured down from the craggy mountains was collected for later use in ground-level cisterns. Natural water pipes were built around the tombs to protect their facades from erosion, which have kept them well preserved thousands of years after their construction.

“These people were creative, innovative, imaginative, pioneering,” says Graf, who has been researching the Nabataeans since he unexpectedly unearthed some of their pottery in 1980 on an excavation in Jordan. “It just blew my mind.”

Hegra contains 111 carefully carved tombs, far fewer than the more than 600 at the Nabataean capital of Petra. But the tombs at Hegra are often in much better condition, allowing visitors to get a closer look into the forgotten civilization. Classical Greek and Roman architecture clearly influenced construction, and many tombs include capital-topped columns that hold a triangular pediment above the doorway or a tomb-wide entablature. A Nabataean “crown,” consisting of two sets of five stairs, rests at the uppermost part of the facade, waiting to transport the soul to heaven. Sphinxes, eagles and griffins with spread wings—important symbols in the Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Persian worlds—menacingly hover above the tomb entrances to protect them from intruders. Others are guarded by Medusa-like masks, with snakes spiraling out as hair.

Nehmé calls this style Arab Baroque. “Why Baroque? Because it is a mixture of influences: we have some Mesopotamian, Iranian, Greek, Egyptian,” she says. “You can borrow something completely from a civilization and try to reproduce it, which is not what they did. They borrowed from various places and built their own original models.”

Intimidating inscriptions, common on many of the tombs at Hegra but rare at Petra, are etched into the facade and warn of fines and divine punishment for trespassing or attempting to surreptitiously occupy the tomb as your own. “May the lord of the world curse upon anyone who disturb this tomb or open it,” proclaims part of the inscription on Tomb 41, “…and further curse upon whoever may change the scripts on top of the tomb.”

The inscriptions, written in a precursor to modern Arabic, sometimes read as jumbled legalese, but a significant number include dates—a gold mine for archeologists and historians. Hegra’s oldest dated tomb is from 1 B.C. and the most recent from 70 A.D., allowing researchers to fill in gaps on the Nabataeans’ timeline, though building a clear picture is still problematic.

Graf says that about 7,000 Nabataean inscriptions have been found throughout their kingdom. “Out of that 7,000, only a little over 100 of them have dates. Most of them are very brief graffiti: the name of an individual and his father or a petition to a god. They are limited in their content, so it’s difficult to write a history on the basis of the inscriptions.”

Some tombs at Hegra are the final resting places for high-ranking officers and their families, who, according to the writing on their tombs, took the adopted Roman military titles of prefect and centurion to the afterworld with them. The inscriptions also underscore Hegra’s commercial importance on the empire’s southern fringes, and the texts reveal the diverse composition of Nabataean society.

“I argue the word Nabataean is not an ethnic term,” Graf says. “Rather it’s a political term. It means they are the people who controlled a kingdom, a dynasty, and there are various kinds of people in the Nabataean kingdom. Hegrites, Moabites, Syrians, Jews, all kinds of people.”

The full stories behind many of these tombs remain unknown. Hegra’s largest tomb, measuring about 72 feet tall, is the monolithic Tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza, sometimes called Qasr al-Farid, meaning the “Lonely Castle” in English, because of its distant position in relation to the other tombs. It was left unfinished, with rough, unsmoothed chisel marks skirting its lower third. A few tombs were abandoned mid-construction for unclear reasons. The deserted work at Tomb 46 shows most clearly how the Nabataeans built from top to bottom, with only the stepped “crown” visible above an uncut cliffside. Both the Tomb of Lihyan Son of Kuza and Tomb 46 have short inscriptions, designating them for specific families.

A new chapter in Hegra’s history, however, is just beginning, as travelers are allowed easy access to the site for the first time. Previously, less than 5,000 Saudis visited Hegra each year, and foreign tourists had to obtain special permission from the government to visit, which fewer than 1,000 did annually. But now it’s as simple as buying a ticket online for 95 Saudi riyal (about $25). Hop-on-hop-off buses drop visitors off in seven areas, where Al Rowah, or storytellers, help bring the necropolis to life. Tours are given in Arabic and English.

“They are tour guides, but they are more than that,” says Helen McGauran, curatorial manager at the Royal Commission for AlUla, the Saudi governing body that’s the caretaker of the site. “The handpicked team of Saudi men and women have been mentored by archeologists and trained by international museums to connect every visitor to the stories of this extraordinary open-air gallery. Many are from AlUla and speak beautifully of their own connections to this place and its heritage.”

A visit to Hegra is merely scratching the surface of AlUla’s archeological trove. Other nearby heritage sites—the ancient city of Dadan, the capital of the Dadanite and Lihyanite kingdoms, which predated the Nabataeans, and Jabal Ikmah, a canyon filled with ancient rock inscriptions—are also now open to visitors. AlUla’s labyrinthine old town of mudbrick houses, which had been occupied since the 12th century but more recently abandoned and fell into a state of disrepair, is now a conservation site and is slated to welcome tourists starting in December.

“Hegra is absolutely the jewel in the crown,” McGauran says. “However, one of the beautiful and unique things about AlUla is that it is this palimpsest of human civilization for many thousands of years. You have this near continuous spread of 7,000 years of successive civilizations that are settling in this valley—important civilizations that are just now being revealed to the world through archeology.”

By 2035, AlUla is hoping to attract two million tourists (domestic and international) annually. AlUla’s airport, about 35 miles from Hegra, only opened in 2011, but it has already undergone large-scale renovations in anticipation of the influx of visitors, quadrupling its annual passenger capacity. The Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Jean Nouvel is designing a luxury cliff-carved cave hotel inspired by the Nabataeans’ work at Hegra, set to be completed in 2024.

“We see the development of AlUla as a visitor destination as being something that is happening with archeology and heritage at its heart, with a new layer of art, creativity and cultural institutions being added to that,” McGauran says.

Scholars believe that the Nabataeans saw their tombs as their eternal home, and now their spirits are being resurrected and stories retold as part of AlUla’s push to become an open-air museum.

“This is not just one museum building. This is an extraordinary landscape where heritage, nature and arts combine,” McGauran says. “We talk a lot about AlUla for millennia as being this place of cultural transfer, of journeys, of travelers, and a home to complex societies. It continues to be that place of cultural identity and artistic expression.”

Though the Nabataeans left behind scant records, Hegra is where their words are most prominently visible. But the Nabataeans weren’t the only ones here: about 10 historic languages have been found inscribed into the landscape of AlUla, and this region in particular is seen as instrumental in the development of the Arabic language. Something about AlUla has inspired civilization after civilization to leave their mark.

“Why are we telling these stories here?” McGauran asks. “Because they’re not stories that you can tell anywhere else.”


Lost – then Found: Nabataea, Once a Power to be Reckoned with

Following their downfall, in the Christian era, some Nabataeans adopted the faith of its conquerors, including that of Byzantium or Eastern Christianity. In Islamic times, many converted to Islam, which employed the Arabic language they actually spoke. The Kingdom’s role in trade had faded and Petra became a backwater.

It is interesting to posit that had the Nabataeans had a similar political and religious ethos that propelled the Islamic Empire into regional power a millennium later, the Middle East might today be a different place. However, the Nabataean capital city of Petra eventually became lost in time. Its “resurrection” by archeologists and historians shows that Nabataea was a technologically sophisticated society in terms of water management and agriculture. Historical records show that it was very savvy as a major trading partner, which took diplomacy and state power skills to enact. All in all, the Nabataean Kingdom represents a moment in history that should make Arab peoples proud. Not to be forgotten in all of this history is the possibility of one day visiting the monumental site of Petra. This author is ready to go again at a moment’s notice.

(References: Jane Taylor, Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans. Harvard University Press, 2002 Strabo, Geography, 8 volumes, Loeb Classical Library, 1917-32 Burckhardt, J. L. Travels in Syria and in the Holy Land, London, 1822.)

John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.


Watch the video: Petra and Hegra