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Tombs of Mada’in Saleh                   Source: mstarling / Adobe Stock

Mada'in Saleh - Saudi Arabia’s Abandoned Nabatean City


Although archaeological remains may not be the first thing that spring to mind when most people think of Saudi Arabia, it has incredible historic sites. Mada'in Saleh, which was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, contains many remarkable ruins and tombs. It is the first location in Saudi Arabia to have achieved this distinction. It was once the second city of perhaps the most important pre-Islamic Arabian civilization, the Nabateans.

The Fabled History of Mada'in Saleh

The environment of Saudi Arabia was not always as arid as it is today, and ancient civilizations were able to flourish. Sometime around 800 BC, the Assyrians were aware of an Arab people called the Thamuds who are believed to have established the first settlement at Mada'in Saleh. According to the Quran, they were pagans. Allah sent Prophet Salih to warn the Thamuds, but unwilling to listen, they were destroyed and only the faithful were allowed to live on.

Niches carved into the rock at Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia (paulfell / Adobe Stock)

Niches carved into the rock at Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia (paulfell / Adobe Stock)

In the 3 rd and 2 nd century BC, the Dedan (also called Lihyan) culture occupied the site and left many examples of their rock art in the locality. They appear to have turned Mada'in Saleh into a caravan town where traders would rest and sell their wares.

The Nabateans occupied the city in the 1 st century BC. They were originally nomads who established a powerful kingdom in the Sinai and parts of modern Jordan in north-west Arabia. Under the Nabateans, the settlement of Mada'in Saleh became a true city. They developed a system for irrigation based on the collection of rainwater in tanks which helped agriculture to flourish.

Mada'in Saleh became the second city of the Nabatean kingdom, the capital of which was the famous city of Petra in Jordan. The Nabateans referred to Mada'in Saleh as Hegra and it grew fabulously rich as it monopolized the spice and incense trade.

Mada'in Saleh archaeological site, Saudi Arabia (mstarling/ Adobe Stock)

Mada'in Saleh archaeological site, Saudi Arabia (mstarling/ Adobe Stock)

In 106 AD, the Roman legions under Emperor Trajan occupied the kingdom and turned it into the province of Arabia. Changing trade routes meant that the caravan city of Mada'in Saleh began to decline. During the early Islamic period, the former city became depopulated and was only a staging post on the Hajj pilgrim route.

By the Middle Ages, Mada'in Saleh was abandoned, but the Ottomans later built a fort in the area, which was destroyed during WWI. Archaeologists began to explore the city in the 19 th century.  

The Wonders of Mada'in Saleh, Saudi Arabia

The ruined caravan city is roughly mid-point between Mecca and Petra and is located on a flat plain, near an oasis. This area is also dotted with sandstone outcrops which are part of the Hejaz Mountains.  

Recessed shelves of the tombs, Mada'in Saleh (CC BY SA 2.0)

Recessed shelves of the tombs, Mada'in Saleh (CC BY SA 2.0)

Mada'in Saleh, often referred to as Al-Hijr by local Saudis, has ruins similar to those found in Petra. There four necropolises in the area spread over 8 miles (12km). More than 130 tombs carved into the rock and elaborately decorated grace the site with Nabatean script indicating the social status and even military rank of the dead. Some of the later tombs have inscriptions in Latin. These texts, which are unique to Mada'in Saleh, are extraordinarily valuable as the Nabateans left no extensive written history.

Many tombs have been badly eroded by the desert winds, but it is possible to view the interiors as they are empty. A religious area where the Nabatean deity Dushara was worshiped was enclosed by an adobe wall.

A row of tombs, Mada'in Saleh, Saudi Arabia (mstarling / Adobe Stock)

A row of tombs, Mada'in Saleh, Saudi Arabia (mstarling / Adobe Stock)

A narrow corridor, graced by a number of ancient shrines, was cut into two high rock outcrops and leads to an old council chamber.

There are numerous wells that were once part of the Nabatean system of irrigation that helped the caravan city to flourish in the desert region. Of the approximately 60 wells, some are up to 20 feet (7m) high and hewn into the rock, while others are in the ground and were reinforced with blocks of stone. In the center of the site are a number of ruined adobe houses.

Experience Mada'in Saleh, Saudi Arabia

Because visas for non-Muslims to enter Saudi Arabia were notoriously difficult to obtain in the past, the absence of hordes of tourists, as well as the dry climate, kept Mada'in Saleh beautifully preserved.

Mada'in Saleh is near Al-'Ula in Medina Province. It is possible to book a tour of the site, but the more intrepid adventurers can hire a vehicle and travel to the location independently. A fee is charged to explore, and information is available at Mada'in Saleh.

Top image: Tombs of Mada’in Saleh                   Source: mstarling / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan


Khairy, N. I. (2011). T he Mada'in Saleh Monuments and the Function and Date of The Khazneh in Petra. Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 143(3), 167-175

Available at:

Nehmé, L., Villeneuve, F., Al Talhi, D., Al Anzi, A., Bouchaud, C., Charloux, G., ... & Al Hajîrî, M. (2011). Report on the second season (2009) of the Madâ'in Sâlih Archaeological Project

Available at:

Saleh, M. (2013). Honeycomb weathering of sandstone outcrops at Al-Hijr (Mada'in Salih), Saudi Arabia

Available at:

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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