Saudi Arabia, also known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, occupies the better part of the Arabian Peninsula. It is nearly four times bigger than France and approximately a quarter the size of the United States. Most of the Saudi Arabia occupies the desert area. People know it as the birthplace of Islam, which requires people to make a pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime. Today, the cultural environment in Saudi Arabia must comply with defined ethnic principles. It follows strict interpretation of the Islamic religious law. For centuries, Saudi Arabia has been an inspirational place for people from Western countries.
The most significant features that make up the tourism industry in Saudi Arabia are the natural environment, history, and culture. Most tourists find these three factors very attractive. Although this area is still developing, it has not reached its full economic potential yet. There is an enormous amount of fascinating sites to visit there. One of them is Madain Saleh, which has always been extremely popular among foreign tourists. It is famous for expression of ancient civilizations, pilgrims, explorers, traders, caravans, and armies in the stone-carved tombs. However, now this ancient historic place is receiving renewed attention (Harper, 2003). Madain Saleh was an important station located on trade and caravan route known as Egyptian-Syrian Pilgrimage route. It linked countries in the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean ports. It is the first archeological site of Saudi Arabia in the World Heritage List proclaimed by UNESCO in 2008. Despite this fact, this place is almost unknown in the world. Red cliffs and abundant palm trees surround Madain Saleh.
Madain Saleh is located in the Northern West of Saudi Arabia, nearly 20 km north of al-Ula city. It is a place of interest filled with archeological wonders. It is a spectacular site with an enormous number of tombs created by the Nabetaeans. The archeological remains in Madain are very similar to the monolithic sculpture found in Petra, Jordan, also built by these people (Harper, 2003). Madain Saleh is a part of the Nabatean Kingdom and is the last monument to its ingenuity. It is a city of temples and tombs carved out of the Hejaz Mountains’ solid red rock between 100BC and 67CE. Madain Saleh means the city of a prophet, originally called Al-Hijr or Hegra (McHugh, 2009).
Unfortunately, Madain Saleh is the least known monument site among those in Saudi Arabia, yet the most prominent one. It is untouched and isolated for a tourism industry. The ruins of the city are a real testimony to one of the greatest civilizations. They refer to the beginning of the Christian era. There is almost nothing known about its creators, the Nabetaeans. Still, there is an indication that they were a trading people from Palestine, Jordan, and the Arabian Peninsula (Oxford Business Group, 2007). They were following the caravan route between Mecca and Petra. It was a nomadic burial site for Nabetaean notables. It was their second carved city and is without any doubt one of the must-see tourist attractions of the world (Oxford Business Group, 2007). The Nabetaeans were masters of hydrology; thus, there were over 60 currently known wells in the city.
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The Nabataeans carved magnificent tombs of Madain Saleh into golden sandstone outcrops. The masons’ skills were outstanding during that time. There are still very explicit details of an entrance doorway. The surface of all tombs in the ancient city is smooth and even. The Nabataeans must have created the magnitude of this setting, which reminded their capital of Petra. The Nabataeans were pastoral Bedouins who raised cattle in the desert area. They followed the plow and dug the wells. There is some uncertainty about their origin. However, there is a strong possibility that they originated in the Northern West of Saudi Arabia. The Nabataeans Kingdom declined with the shift in trade routes to Syria. Another cause was the expansion of sea trade from the Arabian Peninsula to Egypt. During the 4th century AD, they abandoned Petra and migrated to the North of the country.
They left different archeological remains, including tombs in Petra and Madain Saleh, pottery and coins for the today’s world. However, there is no written material about how they originated their history, wars, or even development. They left short inscriptions, which recorded only certain aspects of funerals and dedications. There were no inscriptions about their historical past.
The history of Madain Saleh rose and fell when Petra was the Nabetaean capital. When the Romans captured Petra in 160AD, Madain Saleh withered and never recovered again. The remarkable city is a home to 131 tombs, 45 of which have inscriptions in the Aramaic script above the entrance doors (Ham & Shams, 2004). Besides tombs, there are also burial chambers carved in rocks in Madain Saleh. They carry details about their builders, most of which were women. They give detailed information on the period of the construction of the tomb. These inscriptions explain for whom people built them. There are signs with the translation of these inscriptions in front of the tombs. The Nabetaean people built these religious sites before settling in fragile brick houses. There are signs to main tombs throughout the site. The Nabetaeans did not give names to the areas, but local Bedouins did and later archeologists adopted them. The tombs combine elements of the Greco-Roman architecture and Babylonian visualization. The latest excavation of an archeological site showed that there were foundations of houses and market areas for traders and caravans (Ham & Shams, 2004).
The name of Madain Saleh means ‘city of Salih’ and refers to Salih, Islamic preacher of Thamud’s tribe. People believe that his tribe consisted of the descendants of Biblical Noah. Qur’an mentions him as wicked and, thus, God destroyed him and his community. They stopped believing in God and became materialistic and bribable. Nowadays, a very little number of people visit Madain Saleh. Today, Muslims consider the remains of the ancient city as cursed. In accordance with the history of Saudi Arabia, this pre-Islamic civilization developed in the so-called “Age of Ignorance”. Qur’an mentioned it as a city that would forever remain cursed because it affronted God.
As the legend goes, the prophet Salih convinced Nabatean people to stop believing in idols and worship the one God. They wanted God to send them a miracle. Thus, he sent a huge white camel and asked them to give him water every single day in exchange for an unlimited amount of camel milk. The inhabitants gave up giving water to the camel and killed it. God responded them with lightning bolts from heaven, destroyed the city, and cursed these grounds for an eternity. Thus, it is one of the best-preserved cities in the entire world. Even rains do not worsen its naturalness.
Qasr al-Bint is one of the most prominent places of Madain Saleh. People also call it the Palace of Pharaohn’s Daughter, the temple of Dushares, or the Girl’s Palace (Walker, 2010). One cannot compare this temple to any other one in Madain Saleh. It was the largest, the oldest, the most vulnerable, and the main temple in the city of Petra during the Nabateaen times (French, 2012). The most important thing about it is that the Nabateaens built, but not carved it into the rock. This temple is relatively intact today.
Qasr al-Bint constructed in the center of the ancient city at the very end of the colonnaded street is the major holy place of Petra. The Nabataeans built this temple and adapted it to the cult of Roman emperors.
They destroyed it in the third century AD (French, 2012). The Qasr al-Bint is an abbreviation of its full Arabic name, Qasr al-Bint Far’oun. It derives from a fiction tale composed by Bedouins. The Pharaoh pursued the Israelites when they left Egypt and stashed his riches in the Treasury and hid his daughter for safety reasons.
The style of the temple is eclectic with Alexandrian facades. However, design, organization of space, and decoration are Herodian. The temple’s architecture reminds of the Greco-Roman style (Kropp, 2013)
The temple is located between the two rocks al-Habees and Umm al-Biyara in the Western precinct. The Nabateaens designed a mosaic land of Petra around the temple for this building.
There are so many legends and stories about this place. The first local one relates to the time of the Pharaoh of the Khazneh and his daughter (Taylor, 2002). He announced that his daughter would get married with the first man who brought water to his palace. Two men fulfilled this task; they developed a water system from different springs in the hills. The Pharaoh’s daughter asked them how they managed to do it and the first man told that he did it by his own efforts. However, the second man accredited his success to God. Finally, the daughter wisely chose the person who was a modest suitor.
However, scientists state that the Nabataeans built it as a dedication to the gods and made it the most important temple in the ancient city. In its original form, it stood twenty-three meters high on a podium. It had marble staircases, four columns, and a raised platform for worshipping. People covered an altar for sacrifice in front of the temple in marble (French, 2012). The whole precinct considered not just the interior of the temple as sacred.
People also believe that in this temple the Nabateaens worshipped the goddess Aphrodite. However, originally they constructed this building to survive the earthquakes. For this reason, they placed the juniper wood between the bricks.
The building of the Nabateaen temple is huge and square. It dates back to the first century BC. It oriented to the north and faced a huge altar, three meters high. Steps in front of the temple approached the marble altar. There were four gigantic columns on the temple open terrace (Taylor, 2002). They carried capitals and horizontal entablature decorated them. The beautiful frieze extended around the top of the building. Originally, its circles included large open flowers. Nevertheless, none of them survived today. During the time when the temple was in prosperity, purely ornamental plastering covered walls inside and out, which reminded stone carving. People may notice only some of them on the exterior walls today. Likewise, only small pieces of it remained intact on the inside walls. The Nabataeaens painted the plaster in strong colors as the fragments testify (Taylor, 2002).
The temple was divided in three parts: a square inner area of the temple “cella”, a hall, and an altar. The roof of Qasr al-Bint reminded those of Greek temples.
The large open altar that was the triple-arched gate allowed access of priests to the temple. Priests would pass under the high arch into the temple. However, worshippers made their way across the long narrow mosaic land. They stood at the back of the temple and they could sacrifice animals at the open altar, which faced the temple (Taylor, 2002).
On the other side of the temple, there was ‘the holy of the holies’ (Taylor, 2002). There was an image of divinity, which was the center of their idolization. People devoted the temple to this deity.
In 1959, the British sculptor found a huge marble hand in the temple. It was a part of a ceremonial statue, which stood six meters high in the central room at the back of the altar of the temple (Taylor, 2002). He stated that it was of a human-like form and served as a representation of one of the Nabateaen gods. However, the evidence is not clear enough. It is confusing what God they worshipped back then.
The second name of Qasr al-Bint is the temple of Dushara. However, there is no evidence of this goddess in the Nabateaen inscriptions. People found two dedications in Greek: one to Aphrodite and one to Zeus. This may prove that the temple worshipped both gods, having double devotion (Taylor, 2002).
Archeologists state that if it were a completed tomb, it would be the biggest in Madain Saleh. Some of them claim that the temple Qasr al-Bint dates back to the 2nd century AD. It was the early time of Roman ruling in Petra. In 1964, they found a scripture during archeological excavations of the land around the temple. It included a consecration to Aretas IV who was the King of the Nabataeans. They found it on a base of a statue. In 1990, they found dedication to the same king again. They revised all the Roman data and today Qasr al-Bint is Nabataean.
French archeologists also conducted some excavations of the surrounding land in 1999. They made researches about what happened before and right after the Nabataean era. They state that before people paved the land around the temple, there were dwellings occupied by them.
After the Romans came to the city in 106 AD, they constructed a marble stone altar. Later on, they built a wall facing West and an exedra. An inscription on it was about the Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. They also found their busts in the temple in the 1990s, which may indicate that people constructed this building in their honor.
Scientists suggest that the earthquake damaged the building in the 4th century. After that, people reconstructed it and they found it almost fully destroyed in the next century.
During the time of the ruling of Roman Eastern Empire, the part of this area became a cemetery. People also suggest that the part of Qasr al-Bint’s fallen stones comprises the fortress at the top of the al-Habees rock.
Unfortunately, deep cracks run across this building and it needs conservation. Holes poke the walls once covered in an elaborate plaster. UNESCO and French organization engage into the process of conservation.
Qasr al-Bint is the best-preserved freestanding temple in Petra. It is a huge building, which was costly to build, thus explaining how wealthy people lived back in the day. The remains of this temple indicate how impressive and imposing the building looked with its marble stairs, columns, and worship platform. It was one of the most sacred places among those of Madain Saleh.
One of the main archeological remains stands free on a dry landscape among red sandstone rocks. Ongoing destruction of important places of interest happens because of wind and rain. The flooding also damages these places. Tourism and local communities due to their infrastructure needs have a negative effect on these buildings as well. The tourist industry grows every single year. Development of infrastructure includes the sewer system, electrical power source, camping area, and open-air theatres. Lately, people have opened another restaurant near Qasr al-Bint. All of these factors influence the integrity of this temple. The historical value of such buildings is universal and extremely important. The characteristics of the temple and its location prove this significance. The decline of architecture constructed of the sandstone threatens originality and identity of Qasr al-Bint. There has always been a long-term and continuous need for stable development and administration. The necessity of historical buildings’ protection due to the pressure of tourists’ visits is increasing each year.
There is still a strong doubt whether the Nabataeans were the first group of people who settled the Madain Saleh. However, the archeological data, the evidence of the tombs, inscriptions, pottery, and coins state that they really constructed Qasr al-Bint. There was the same design, techniques, and materials used on all other Nabataeans sites. Overall, the main reason why they settled in the Madain Saleh was the trade route. It linked Arabic countries with the Mediterranean.
An excavation also relieved such an aspect as house planning and building techniques and materials. The inscriptions found around the temple also confirm the presence of the Nabataean people at the temple. Likewise, there is an evidence of religion around the Madain Saleh. The main goddess they worshipped was Dushara. However, there were such gods as Zeus and Aphrodite. The overall rank and status of people was not equal. For instance, it is evident in case of worshipping gods. Priests could enter the temple, while ordinary people stayed outside. The site witnessed its peak in the second century AD. In 106 AD, the Nabataean Kingdom became a part of the Roman Empire. However, the decline happed when the trade route shifted from land areas to the sea ones. People continued their normal life until the fourth century when the site remained completely destroyed and abandoned.
In my opinion, every citizen and every tourist who comes to Saudi Arabia should visit this place. I have not been to Qasr al-Bint yet, but it is my dream to come there one day. I am impressed with the history of this temple. It was a sacred place beautifully decorated back in the day. Even though the earthquakes have almost destroyed it, it is exciting to visit this magnificent temple. My desire to come there only grows when I read all those legends and history of it. Thus, the fact that it is the only place built, but not carved out of rock only inspires and attracts me. It is almost impossible for me to realize that this destroyed building used to be a temple and people worshipped gods there.
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