As to how most people having the first impression and perceive Saudi Arabia as merely a vast area of desert with a harsh hot climate. Not known to many, but this country has several wonderful spots waiting to be explored.
One of them is Saudi Arabia’s silent desert city, the “ country’s version of Petra” and was once the second largest ancient city of Nabatean civilization, Madain Saleh.
Ever since I started working in Saudi Arabia, it was my ultimate goal to visit Madain Saleh. That’s why, when I got an invitation from a MEET-up group for a trip to this ancient city, I did not hesitate for the opportunity.
Madain Saleh also known as Hijr is a large area of pre-Islamic archaeological sites of remains from Nabatean civilization. It is a vast necropolis of more than 131 immense tombs. Also, it is tagged as “The Capital of the Monuments” as it contains a huge amount of diverse and multifaceted monuments. It is located in the town of Al-Ula, in the northern province of Madina in Saudi Arabia. Madain Saleh has been a Unesco Heritage site since 2008. It is comparable to the one of the 7-wonders-of-the-world, the Nabatean capital, the famous Petra of Jordan since they both belong to the same group which was the Nabatean civilization.
Despite by its amazing and picturesque archeological sites, Madain Saleh seems to be avoided by many people especially the Muslims. It is due to some local belief of ancient curse in the place which is related to some religious aspect. No wonder, fewer visitors could be seen wandering in this beautiful place thus making the place stunningly well-preserved and intact.
For more detailed info about the history of Madain Saleh and Nabatean people:
Read and Visit: Nabatean Civilization
We started our trip from the city of Jeddah, and it was about a 7-hours long drive. We took the Jeddah to Yanbu road. Despite for its less comfortable and safe option, and fewer patrol station in this route but it is a shortcut route compared to the alternative road which is the Madina-Makkah expressway. Furthermore, it is the best route if you want to avoid all those traffic cameras that are so abundant in the expressway.
It was already in the middle of the day and we were in midst of our journey, we caught up by a heavy rain somewhere in the secluded part before Al-Ula. We were forced to stop several times due to the heavy flooding in the road. Nevertheless, it was a fun experienced thus it adds to the adventure in our trip.
Not too long, we arrived in the town of AL-Ula. It is a small town yet rich with several rock formations and astonishing mountain views. We toured around the city and visited some historical areas like the historical old town of Al-Ula and the site of Khuraybat-Dedan which I will write a separate blog about this wonderful historical places.
As we were all exhausted from all the day traveling, we headed to the location of our arranged accommodation which we booked in advance at MADAKHIL CAMP. It is a unique outskirt place located in the middle of the desert which offers an extraordinary experience of a night in the middle of the desert.
As it is really an isolated area, as we were heading off-road to Madakhil, we even got stuck several times since there has no proper trail and the terrain was a bit sandy.
As we arrived, we were greeted by the crew working in Madakhil camp. We gathered in a large open tent and had some tea and Arabic coffee.
After some time of chit-chatting, we had our dinner. They prepared and served us some Arabic foods, in particular, I remember the roasted Lamb which it was my first to try it and it tasted really delicious.
We stayed in a tent setup rooms. The price per tent ranges from 400 to 450 Saudi riyals. It was spacious enough and could accommodate even 3-4 persons but inside, there were only 2 beds. There was no airconditioner or fan but it was cold enough and the bed was comfortable.
We did enjoyed stargazing in a very quiet and peaceful night. Definitely, it was a real camping experience in the middle of the desert and the experience was fulfilling and memorable.
The next day, after we had our breakfast, we leave the camp and headed to MAdain Saleh. Along the way, we spotted several eye catching views like scenic red to golden mountain and landscape, vast desert and several amazing rock formations sculptured and formed thru a long time and weathering process.
Finally, we arrived at Madain Saleh. We were greeted by the police guarding the entrance gate and they asked our permits. We gave our permit and after checking it, they let us in. There’s no entrance fee to pay and it is open from 7:00 am until to 6:00 pm, seven days a week.
(Note: I did the trip last year 2016. Way back before, it was generally required to secure a permit before entering Madain Saleh. How to secure it before? Someone can obtain this permit thru visiting Saudi Commission For Tourism & Antiquities office. In addition, if I’m not mistaken, it costs 100 sar and will take several days to process. Furthermore, some hotel in Al-Ula can assist you with securing the permit but someone should do it several days before the trip as it will take some time.)
Unlike before, it was necessary to secure a permit, but latest information tells that there’s no need to secure permits when entering Madain Saleh. But just double check before you goes for a trip to be sure for any time changes.
The entire archaeological site is enclosed by a fence and guarded by police. Inside the archaeological park, there is no some sort of transportation services or to rent, to tour around the wide archaeological park. The good thing is that anyone is allowed to bring their own car inside to move around from one spot to another. The whole place is a massive archaeological area and it is nearly impossible to just explore the entire place by walking, considering also the heat of the desert.
Tips: It is worth mentioning that eating, drinking, and sleeping is forbidden in Madain Saleh.
This are some of the significant spots to visit in Madain Saleh:
In the right corner 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). It’s large entrance suggests that the feasts extended into the open space before it.
Before reaching Mount Ithlib, there is a natural slit which measures 40 m (131 feet), called the Siq. At its entrance,
It is located in the northeast section of the site. After passing through the Siq, you will reach a wide-open area that will lead to Mount Ithlib. Climbing on Jabal Ithlib allows a stunning view of Madain Saleh.
Qasr Al Bint (Al Bint Palace):
Qasr al Bint, “Palace of the Daughter or Maiden,” is the largest tomb façade at Mada’in Saleh, with a height of 16 m.
Al Qasr Al Fareed:
Above all, this is my most favorite area in Madain Saleh. It is often tagged as the most photogenic and most iconic symbol of Mada’in Saleh.
It is 6 kilometers north of the site and is close to the entrance of Madain Saleh. It was built by the Ottomans in only 8 years to help transport pilgrims over 1300km from Damascus in Syria to Madina in Saudi Arabia.
It is one of the best-preserved tombs in the Madain Saleh. The houses in this area were made from mud.There are many symbols that appear to be linked to generations of the cultural imagery borrowed from the Egyptians and Ethiopians. Statuettes of winged lions with human heads and forms of flowers painted on a bowl used in rituals associated with funerals testify to this.
It is in the southeastern part which contains numerous tombs, dating to 16-61 CE.
Madain Saleh Travel Guide :
How to get there?
Madain Saleh G.p.s Location: 26.810292, 37.945744
The archaeological site of Mada’in Saleh is situated 20 km (12.4 mi) north of the town of Al-`Ula, 400 km (248.5 mi) north-west of Medina, and 500 km (310.7 mi) south-east of Petra, Jordan.
* From Jeddah:
There are two alternative routes:
1.Via Yanbu: around 710 km. and will take more or less 7 hours and 10 minutes.
2.Via Madina-Makkah express Highway: around 770 km. and will take more or less 7 hours and 40 minutes.
*By Saptco Bus: At the moment: Saptco runs a connecting trip :
-Jeddah to Madinah, then Madinah to Al-Ula at 140 Saudi riyals for 12-13 hours.
>From Riyadh :
-Riyadh to Madina, Madina to Al-Ula at 185 Saudi riyals for 15 hours.
– There are two weekly flights to AlUla airport operated by Saudi Airlines now. The airport is located around 15km South East from AlUla town.
Other airports are in Al Wajh (220 km) and Medina (300 km, and yes, the airport is open to non-Muslims). Until 2004, visitors usually traveled via Hail (400 km), but a new road from Al Wajh now makes that route considerably faster.
Take note !!! Always double check for timely changes in regulation like entrance permits, transportation schedules etc. as there may varying changes over time.
For someone who explored most of the top destinations in Saudi Arabia, I could say that Madain Saleh is one of the best Saudi Arabia could offer. It may not be as popular as the Petra of Jordan but it offers its own unique taste of fascinating history, remarkable archaeological landmarks and desert adventure and It has the mystery and amazement of Petra without the heavy crowds.
As the Saudi tourism making its own initiative and effort to improve and promote some of its world-class destinations like Madain Saleh. No wonder, in the near future, for sure it will be famous and will draw a lot of tourists and travelers all over the world.
My entire experience in exploring Madain Saleh as well as Al-Ula town was one of the most memorable, and maybe I considered it the best trip I had among of the several destinations I explored in Saudi Arabia.