Saudi Arabia Travel Log: Visiting Mada'in Saleh, Shannon's View

Over the New Year holiday we took our first road trip since arriving in Saudi Arabia. We drove Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning, finally arriving at the Nabataean burial grounds of Mada’in Saleh in the later part of the afternoon.

The farther outside the city you go in Saudi Arabia, the fewer women you see. In our three days on the road, I probably saw only half a dozen women, and none of them showed a bit of skin. In addition to a floor-length abaya, they all wore black gloves, and a veil over their hair and faces. I felt like a hussy for covering only my hair and clothing, and I averted my eyes whenever people stared at me.

Mada’in al-Saleh is a “sister city” to Petra in Jordan, with similar tomb architecture and layout. A notable difference between the two is that Saudi Arabia’s city is much more raw. Bones can still be seen in the sand and occasionally on shelves inside the tombs. A few of the figures on the tombs have managed to escape defacement—this is impressive conservation considering the Muslim aversion to graven images and also considering the particularly rigid version of Islam that prevails in Saudi Arabia. Numerous Nabatean scripts are also preserved. These mention the names of the tomb’s carver and commissioner and set forth the legalities of ownership—how and whether the tomb can be bought, rented, or inherited by future generations.

Here we are, parked on 2,000-year-old bones.
Gazing up at the massive tombs caved into the red rocks almost 2,000 years ago, I marveled at how much work must have gone into these creations. Carvers first chiseled away the face of the rock to create a flat surface. Then, with only rudimentary tools and no scaffolding, they chipped away at the sandstone, starting at the top and working their way to the base of the cliff. I imagine it must have taken months, if not years, to create the larger ones. And it must have been expensive.

What’s remarkable is that although these tombs bespeak a civilization of great wealth, they are all that remain of the civilization. When Nabateans won their fortunes, they invested not in their earthly homes (which are notably undetectable in the surrounding desert) but in what they believed to be their eternal homes.

They were undoubtedly proud of their commissions and considered them to be a preparation for the afterlife and a legacy for the generations that would follow. They were a celebration of the march of a family’s generations.

The Qasr al Bint (I think) tomb was unfinished--the bottom part is only roughly carved.

It’s so different from our modern Western culture, where we infrequently turn to the elderly for guidance. We’re all about the cutting edge and new technology. Generational knowledge wields much less influence in our society. We prize youth rather than age—foresight rather than memory. We hide our wrinkles. We fib about our age. We try not to think about the retirements we’re not saving for. We don’t even consider shopping around for an awesome gravesite, much less commissioning a craftsman to spend years carving a tomb for us. We fear death intensely.

But perceptions of life and death were not always so. When the average life span was 40 years or less, and infant mortality rates were higher than they currently are in the third world, death was undoubtedly bitter in many instances, but I think it didn’t terrify men and women as it does today. Death was merely part of life. A life was one short note on the endless scroll of time.

That thought made me feel comfortably small, like a child content to enjoy the wonders of a journey.