The Trip to Madain Saleh
Note: This trip into Saudi Arabia’s ancient past remains one of my most unforgettable experiences in the Kingdom. Written in a diary format, this travelogue first appeared in the weekender section of Arab News (Review) on April 20, 2006. — Siraj Wahab, Jeddah, Feb. 24, 2006.
JEDDAH, April 20, 2006 — It may sound strange, but the first time I heard about Madain Saleh was when I was visiting Jordan in the summer of 2000 on a media junket organized by the Jordanian Tourism Board. The JTB guide, Odeh Al-Shobaki — I remember his name because he was a diehard Bollywood fan — while leading us through the beautiful valley where Petra is, said: “This is an extension of your Madain Saleh. The structures are similar to what you have in Saudi Arabia. The Nabataean tribes lived and flourished in this area around 500 B.C. Petra was their northern capital, while Madain Saleh was their southern one.”
We, or rather I, was clueless. Still, we nodded our heads. Madain Saleh remained in the back of my mind until one fine morning last month when Dr. Ausaf Sayeed, the Indian consul general in Jeddah, and his No. 2, Dr. Suhel Ejaz Khan, wondered if I had been north of Jeddah. If not, would I like to be part of a three-day diplomatic trip to Madain Saleh? “Yes,” was my instant response.
It is not every day that you get to travel with diplomats. Along with being a diplomat, Dr. Sayeed is also a geologist. In fact, he is a geologist first and a diplomat second. It was in geology that he did his doctorate and then joined the Indian Foreign Service. The unique rock formations of Madain Saleh thus hold a special attraction for him. He visited the area years ago when he was stationed at the Indian Embassy in Riyadh.
We were a group of five families and we left Jeddah at 5 on a Wednesday evening. As the sun went down, we kept traveling until we reached the SASCO stop, which is midway between Jeddah and Madinah. We prayed Maghreb there. It was cold and windy. The children — Oshin, Malak, Aiko and Sania — came out of the vehicles but then scurried quickly back inside. We gulped down cups of tea and felt refreshed.
It was here that we asked each other what we might expect at Madain Saleh. I had no idea. My friend, Danish Abdul Ghafour, was as clueless as I. Dr. Suhel Khan had only heard about it from the consul general. Saleem Quadri had some idea, thanks to what he had seen on the web. The only person who had been to Madain Saleh before was Dr. Sayeed but he and his wife, Farha, sons Faateh, Faaleh and Azhaan and another couple, Mr. and Mrs. Shafiq and their son, Ubair, were already in Madinah. They had started earlier and we planned to join them for dinner in the holy city. About 6:45 p.m., the caravan started for Madinah.
Madinah is the city of peace, the city of radiance and the city of our most beloved Prophet (peace be upon him). For some reason, your eyes get moist the moment you enter the city’s holy precincts. We were cracking jokes and having fun all the way, but the moment we entered the Prophet’s city we were in a different world. By the time we got to Madinah, Isha was over. Unlike the Grand Mosque in Makkah, which is open for 24 hours every day, the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah is closed after Isha. We prayed the night prayers in our hotel rooms and had a delicious dinner at an authentic Hyderabadi restaurant called Meraj. During dinner, Dr. Sayeed told us the plans for the next day and what we should expect at Madain Saleh.
At 5 a.m., we heard the call to prayer. We performed our ablutions and headed to the Prophet’s Mosque. A cool breeze was blowing across the city. Praying in the Prophet’s Mosque so far has been the most moving experience of my life. It is the dream of every Muslim to get as close as he can to the Prophet of Islam. We prayed Fajr and said our salaams to the beloved Prophet and his companions who rest next to him under the green dome. We then came out of the gate named after the Angel Gabriel, and it was a great sight. The minarets stood out against the light blue sky. Danish and I spent time in the area around the mosque’s majestic courtyard, sipping tea from a nearby “boufiya.”
By 8.30 a.m. we were ready to leave for Al-Ula. At this point, we were joined by our guide and his two daughters. Obaidullah Abro is a Pakistani working for a Makkah-based tourist company. He has a passion for Madain Saleh and all the Islamic sites and, in addition, he is very well-read. He had all the relevant Qur’anic and literary references about the area. It was he who informed us that Al-Ula is 380 km northwest of Madinah. And, at legal speed limits, it would take us about three hours to reach our destination. What we had not factored in was that long stretches of the road to Al-Ula were single track, and driving can become both hazardous and slow. Abro said plans were under way to build an airport at Al-Ula. Quoting local authorities, he said the airport would promote regional business and tourism and should be operational within three years.
We thought we would drive nonstop to Al-Ula, which is what Abro told us, but he and Dr. Sayeed had charted a different course. Our vehicles suddenly veered off the main road and we got into an area of ancient, crumbling mud houses. They were baking in the scorching sun. As we rolled along, in the distance we saw an imposing fort perched high on a cliff. As we got closer, cameras clicked away. This was Khaybar. It was here that a very important battle between non-Muslims and the companions of the Prophet was fought. The fort was almost impregnable and had given the holy warriors a tough time. After many failed assaults by different companions of the Prophet, the Prophet finally asked Ali — later the fourth caliph — to lead the final battle and he was victorious. The spring where he performed his ablutions is still flowing. The shade of the palm trees was indescribable. The peace and tranquillity there has to be experienced to be believed.
Our caravan then rolled on, and soon we were in Al-Ula. It was an amazing landscape. The mountains had a red hue while Al-Ula was green. There were plenty of date farms, and the tall trees swayed in the wind. We soon arrived at the beautiful Madain Saleh Hotel (www.mshotel.com.sa), which sits in front of a huge mountain. The hotel is relatively new. Asghar Baig Younes, the hotel manager, was waiting for us. We were welcomed with cool drinks and then we had lunch. We were tired but excited.
That evening, we explored Al-Ula. Abro took us to the place where the Prophet stayed after returning from the Battle of Tabuk. It is said that the Prophet prayed at one of the mosques in Al-Ula, which is now closed, but you can take pictures of it.
As the sun was about to set on the town of Al-Ula, we saw haunting silhouettes of the mountains. One particular peak looked as if it were a woman begging for mercy. From the other side, it gave a completely different impression, but an eerie one nonetheless. “Caravans never stopped here in ancient times,” Abro explained. “They scheduled their trips so that they would cross the valley before sunset.” When we returned to the hotel, we prepared for the next morning’s trip to Madain Saleh.
The word “mada’in” comes from the Arabic word “madina.” Madina means city, and mada’in is its plural. Many expatriates from the Subcontinent confuse the Arabic word “mada’in” with the Urdu word “maidaan,” meaning a plain stretch of land. The city we were visiting is Madain Saleh, or the cities of Prophet Saleh.
We got up early on Friday, and by 8:30, we were on our way to Madain Saleh, 22 km north of Al-Ula. The area was once the location of a significant city located on a major trade route from Yemen to Damascus. During the early Islamic period it became an important pilgrimage station for Syrians and Egyptians traveling to the holy cities of Madinah and Makkah. We saw tombs with massive facades decorated with eagles; there were dozens of tombs carved inside the rock. Someone has rightly mentioned that the first thing that strikes you is the Nabataeans’ skill at carving mountains into burial chambers. The symmetry of their work testifies to their knowledge of geometry. Outside each tomb there is an inscription.
Before arriving at Madain Saleh, we saw billboards telling people to discover Islam rather than discovering Madain Saleh. We were curious to know what was wrong in visiting an ancient Nabataean city. According to Islamic scholars, Prophet Saleh was the son of Thamud. He came from Bani Ad or the tribe of Ad. Saleh’s tribe moved from Yemen and had moved to a place called “Hager.” This is what is known as Madain Saleh today.
Like the tribe of Ad, the Nabataeans built their homes on mountaintops. They learned the art of building from the tribe of Ad and they were also blessed by God as the tribe of Ad before them had been blessed. They had power, riches and gardens rich in plants. However, they too, like the tribe of Ad, worshipped idols. God sent them Prophet Saleh, who was one of them. He was from a good family, was wise and people often came to him for advice. They admired and liked him, and had hopes that one day he would become one of their leaders. They were disappointed, however, when he began preaching to them about one God. They were so disappointed with him and angered by his teachings that they began to turn from him. They told him that they would believe in him if he performed a miracle — but not just any miracle. They pointed to a huge rock and told Prophet Saleh that they wanted to see the rock split in two and that they wanted a she-camel to come out of it. They wanted the she-camel to be 10 months pregnant, tall and beautiful. God allowed Prophet Saleh the miracle and as the rock broke into two pieces a magnificent she-camel appeared from within. Some of Prophet Saleh’s people believed and became his followers, although most continued in their disbelief.
There are a number of accounts of this camel and her miraculous nature. Some mention that she used to drink all the water in the wells in one day, and that no other animals could approach the wells. Still others claimed that the camel produced milk sufficient for all the people to drink, on the same day that she drank all the water and left none for them.
For a while, Prophet Saleh’s people let the camel graze and drink freely but in their hearts they hated her. The unbelievers now began complaining that this huge camel with its unusual qualities drank most of the water and frightened their cattle. They hatched a plot to kill the camel. They watched her closely, observing all her movements. As she came to drink at the well, one of them shot her in the leg with an arrow. She tried to escape but was slowed by the arrow. Another followed the camel and struck her with a sword in the other leg. As she fell to the ground, he stabbed her with his sword. The killers were given a hero’s welcome, cheered with songs and poetry composed in their honor. They mocked Prophet Saleh, but he issued a warning. “Enjoy life for three more days, then the punishment will descend upon you.”
Prophet Saleh hoped that they would see the folly of their ways and change their attitude before the three days had passed. Instead, they plotted to kill him. Nine men were sent to kill him, but God protected him by sending large birds from the sky, killing all the nine assassins.
After three days, thunderbolts filled the air, followed by a rumbling noise and severe earthquakes that destroyed the entire tribe. The land was violently shaken, destroying all living creatures in it. Neither their strong buildings nor their rock-hewn houses could protect them. All were demolished before they realized what was happening. As for the people who believed in the message of Prophet Saleh, they were saved because they had left the place.
It is said that while Prophet Muhammad was passing through the area on his way back from the Battle of Tabuk, he stopped to meet with the people there. The people fetched water from the wells from which the people of Thamud used to drink. They prepared their dough (for baking) and filled their water-skins from it (the water from the wells). The Prophet ordered them to empty the water-skins and give the prepared dough to the camels. Then he went away with them until they stopped at the well from which the she-camel (of Prophet Saleh) had drunk. He warned them against entering the area where the people had been punished, saying: “I fear that you may be affected by what afflicted them; so do not enter upon them.”
In other Hadiths, it is narrated that the Prophet Muhammad warned his people that should they enter Madain Saleh, they should think about what had happened to the unbelievers.
This is why people have not been encouraged to visit Madain Saleh. Now, however, the Supreme Commission of Tourism (SCT) is putting emphasis on tourism and in the future, tourist traffic to Madain Saleh is expected to increase considerably.
When we got back to the hotel, it was nearly 1 p.m., and we headed straight to the biggest mosque in the center of Al-Ula to say our Friday prayers. The imam had a sonorous voice, and the Qur’anic verses reminded the believers of the life in the Hereafter and God’s punishment for those who disobey Him. I was again reminded of the community of disbelievers who met such a fate in the mountains in Madain Saleh.
We got back to our hotel, had lunch and said good-bye to the hotel staff before setting off for Madinah. It must have been four in the afternoon. Abro wanted to take us to the exact place from where the she-camel had emerged and so we went, thanking him profusely for his knowledge and his skills as a guide. We were in Madinah by 8.30 and back in Jeddah by 1 a.m.
Madain Saleh is an excellent place to visit and learn about Saudi Arabia’s pre-Islamic past. One also actually walks in the footsteps of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The modern accommodations, and the good people in the area will welcome visitors who, I suspect, will hope as I do to return someday.
— For those who are interested in taking a trip to Madain Saleh, Obaidullah Abro can be reached at 0502509688. His firm also organizes field trips for schoolchildren. The manager of the Madain Saleh Hotel, Asghar Baig Younes, can be reached on 04-8842888. The hotel’s e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.