When plans go wrong: Hitchhiking through Saudi Arabia to Petra’s little-known twin city of Madain Saleh

Madain Saleh: The Cursed City, Forgotten by Time

Nobody visits Petra’s twin city in Saudi Arabia. Outsiders think they can’t get a visa and locals believe the entire site is cursed. Madain Saleh is perhaps the most spectacularly preserved ancient city in the world as it’s only seen a few drops of rain in the last thousand years. Since I was working on The King’s number one priority special project with unprecedented access to the forbidden country, I had to see it.

Saudi Arabia is an impossible scenario for the independent traveler, but I am stubborn in my attempt to prove that notion false. Saudi tourism is practically nonexistent. When tourism IS permitted, you might as well be in North Korea. It is highly controlled with only standard itineraries and state appointed tour guides in luxury SUVs. Undeterred by the Saudi tourism ministry’s official policy of, “No backpacking stuff” anywhere in the country, I set off to the see the four corners of the forbidden kingdom with everything I own on my back and no reservations. My project for King Abdullah has gotten me out of some serious immigration violations while still somehow maintaining the favor of the kingdom, but has also only emboldened my false sense of confidence in this mysterious land.

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Little did I know that this adventure would involve hitchhiking, riding camels, and facing choking sandstorms. Those were just the logistical challenges. I also had to contend with the Saudi military tailing me once I was on their radar. I had on my side the knowledge that for the Saudis, hospitality in this unforgiving climate is their sacred duty. That, along with knowledge of other inner workings of the mysterious culture, ended up saving me.

 

Madain Saleh

Madain Saleh was the second capital of the Nabatean Kingdom alongside Petra. It is an ancient “stone city” housing 131 rock-cut monumental structures with perfectly symmetrical ornate façades and full-sized rooms carved deep into the rock. Like Petra, the prominent rectangular palaces bear columns and other details eerily reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman architecture.

As I rode into the valley of Madain Saleh with my new friends, awed at the massive monuments, I was immediately reminded how much this is a city of contrasts. The crisp lines and sharp corners of these ancient structures are carved spectacularly into the rippled and craggy canyons that formed their canvas. The stoic and scarred rock formations surrounding each structure now perfectly shield their tenant from the fierce sandstorms that would otherwise grind them flat. The prominent pink-rose sandstone temples sharply contrast the impossible blue depth of the cloudless sky. The city that once brought the greatest wealth to this barren Arabian peninsula is now shunned by society as being too old for its good and “haram” because it pre-dated Islam. One of the largest known archeological opportunities in this region now lies virtually unprotected from the dangers of mankind.

Madain Saleh

The spectacular Qasr Al-Bint in Madain Saleh, called the daughter’s palace.

 

This row of structures is called Qasr Al-Bint, or the Daughter’s Palace. The structure on the left was abandoned before the sculptors could carve to the ground, but would have been the largest structure in the city.

The Iconic Qasr Al-Farid Temple

The Qasr Al-Farid, the unique palace, is known for its unprecidented size and its affluence of architectural details. It is the most iconic and photogenic structure in this ancient city. The aggressive design, carved into a single massive rock formation signifies an unprecedented investment in labor. It was ultimately not completed before the city was abandoned, but is nonetheless the superior structure here.

The Qasr Al-Farid Tomb in Madain Saleh looking across the plain of alien rock formations.

The Qasr Al-Farid Tomb in Madain Saleh looking across the plain of alien rock formations.

 

For more of my best pictures taken with an iPhone, please see: Top 10 Ultra Hi-Res iPhone Pics

The Diwan is the main religious complex. The facade has fallen off to show the altar, benches and interior details with elaborate carvings. This building is positioned to avoid the heat of the sun at all times of the day and receives a constant cool draft from the underbelly of the eroded rock formations. (Like an oasis in this scorching climate.)

The Diwan Temple in Madain Saleh with its facade sheered off to reveal the interior details.

The Diwan Temple in Madain Saleh with its facade sheered off to reveal the interior details.

 

This is one of the burial chamber rooms inside the tomb of Hani Obaida and his descendants. The coffins have been hewn from solid rock walls and another stone is cut to perfectly seal the body. The inscription above the door in Aramaic warns that anyone who removes the bodies or tries to bury a non-family member here without legal permission will be punished by the 5 curses of Dhushara, Hubalu and Manat. The curse is symbolized in the 5-step roofs formations.

The tomb room of a powerful family in Madain Saleh.  The grave robbers likely received 5 curses.

The tomb room of a powerful family in Madain Saleh. The grave robbers likely received 5 curses.

 

The Curse

According to Saudi history, this pre-Islamic civilization thrived in the so-called “Age of Ignorance.” It is called out in the Quran as a city forever cursed because it defied God. As the legend goes, the prophet Saleh, for whom the city was named, set out to convince the Nabateans to toss their idols and worship the one God. They demanded God give them a miracle. So God sent a huge white camel and asked them to allow it to drink water every other day in exchange for an unlimited supply of camel milk. The inhabitants eventually got tired of giving scarce water to the camel and killed it. God retaliated, sending lightning bolts from heaven to destroy the city and curse these grounds for all eternity.

In Madain Saleh, roses above doors symbolize plates that collected blood from sacrifices

In Madain Saleh, roses above doors symbolize plates that collected blood from sacrifices

 

Horrific Blood Sacrifices

As Madain Saleh was an “Infidel” society not believing in God, they believed that the path toward appeasement of the idols must come through horrific animal sacrifices. This belief can be seen in the symbol of roses above doors symbolizing the plate that was used to capture the dripping blood of the sacrifices. This building from the first century BC shows the Nabatean crowns and the distinctive engraving of the god Dhushara and his twin decanters. Dhushara is the Nabatean Lord of the mountain (equivalent to the Greek god Zeus.)

This spectacularly-eroded rock formation in a nearby canyon is called Elephant Rock

This spectacularly eroded rock formation in a nearby canyon is called Elephant Rock

 

After driving through endless wadis for hours, listening to the most ridiculous interpretations of rock formations, this one really looks like an elephant.

The Military Arrives

Once the military caught wind of a single American, these soldiers began tailing me nonstop. Apparently, some French nationals were raped and murdered while camping, and the whole country was on a crackdown for illegitimate traveling.

These Saudi Soldiers begain tailing me nonstop once they found out I was in town.

These Saudi Soldiers began tailing me nonstop once they found out I was in town.

 

Madain Saleh is located in the remote northwest corner of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There are only 1 or 2 flights a week to the remote Al-Ula airstrip, which will be locking its doors by the time you get your checked luggage. It is highly advisable to plan ahead and get reservations and transportation from the airport, as taxis do not exist out there. Otherwise, you could be put into a dangerous situation where hitchhiking with strangers is your only option in this unforgiving climate. You can read more about my experiences hitchhiking Saudi Arabia in an upcoming travel essay.

Qasr Al-Farid in Madain Saleh

Qasr Al-Farid in Madain Saleh

 

Question: Would you ever go here? Have you been here, I’d love to hear from you!

 

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About the author: Brad Bernard

 

Brad Bernard has traveled through 92 countries to find off-the-map experiences and authentic adventure travel. He pushes his own personal boundaries by travelling experimentally. Brad’s personal quest to find the most extreme and unique in travel has bred misadventures and moments of enlightenment alike. You can read his craziest stories on his adventure travel blog

Website: https://plus.google.com/+BradBernard340/