Spectacular ancient city of Hegra

Middle East Nilanjan Hajra
ancient city
Jabal Al Banat, one of the largest clusters of tombs in Hegra with 29 tombs that have skillfully carved facades on all sides of the sandstone rock, Al Ula, Saudi Arabia. Photo : Dreamstime

Hegra or Madai’n Salih is hardly as famous as Petra in terms of being the remains of a 2000-year-old kingdom. Yet the ancient city that archaeologists have dug out from this site in Saudi Arabia is no less stunning than the spectacular architectural remains of the site in Jordan. UNESCO designated it as a world heritage site in 2008. Much of the remains at Hegra are from the Nabatean Kingdom, which dates back to the first century CE. However, archaeologists have also found enough evidence of even more ancient Dadan and later of Roman civilization in the area.

Pre-Nabatean history and geography of the ancient city 

The long and diverse history of the area is reflected in its various names. For example, Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian Strabo and many of his contemporaries refer to the ancient city as Hegra. This means the area had a vibrant civilization dating back to Strabo’s lifetime at least, i.e. between C 63 BCE and C 24 CE. Again, in the Islamic era, the ancient city came to referred to as Mada’in Salih following the name of the Islamic prophet Salih.

The ancient city has also been called Al-Hijr, meaning the Stoneland, in view of its topography. It was located at the foot of a plateau that is part of the Hejaz mountains in Western Saudi Arabia.

According to Islamic traditions, and references in the holy Quran, around 800 BCE an Arab people known as the Thamuds built the first settlement in the area. They were Pagans. Allah sent prophet Salih to warn them. However, they didn’t pay much to the prophet’s words and were soon destroyed.

Areas near the ancient city have many remains of rock arts, which indicate that it was part of the Dadanite civilization. Historians have dated the Dadans, aka Lihyans, to around the 3rd and 2nd century BCE.

The Nabatean era 

The ancient city reached the peak of its glory during the Nabatean Kingdom. Nabatean king Al-Harith IV made Hegra the second capital of his kingdom. The first one was at Petra. Al-Harith ruled between 9 BCE and 40 CE. During this period Hegra truly turned into a bustling city. The Nabateans carved the huge natural sandstone outcroppings to build several necropolises. Out of these only four have survived to this day, consisting of 131 monumental rock-cut tombs, spread over 13.4 Km. The names of these four necropolises are, Jabal al-Mahjar, Qasr al Walad, Area C, and Jabal al-Khuramyat. And out of these historians have specifically dated three. Qasr al-Walad was built between O and 58 CE, Area C between 16 and 61 CE, and Jabal al-Khuramyat between 7 and 73 CE. The ancient city also had over 2000 non-monumental burial sites.

Archaeologists have discovered a religious area known as Jabal Ithlib in the northeast part of the ancient city. Historians believe that Nabateans dedicated it to their deity Dushara. The residential quarters of the ancient city were located quite a distance away from the outcrops, on the plains. The Nabateans used mudbricks to build their houses. Archaeologists have found remains of 130 wells, on the western and northern parts of the ancient city.

Post-Nabatean days 

Romans captured the Nabatean kingdom in 106 CE. The whole Hejaz area, including the ancient city of Hegra, became part of the Roman Province of Arabia. The history of Hegra between the fall of the

Roman Empire, i.e. 3rd century CE and the emergence of Islam, which occurred in the 7th century CE, remains unknown. In the Islamic era, pilgrims and travellers to Mecca once in a while mentioned Hegra as a place for obtaining supplies and water. In the 14th century noted traveller Ibn Battuta did mention the tombs of Al-Hijr, but there is no mention of any human settlement there. This indicates the ancient city had totally disappeared by that time.