Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)

The Archaeological Site of Al-Hijr (Madâin Sâlih) is the first World Heritage property to be inscribed in Saudi Arabia. Formerly known as Hegra it is the largest conserved site of the civilization of the Nabataeans south of Petra in Jordan. It features well-preserved monumental tombs with decorated facades dating from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD. The site also features some 50 inscriptions of the pre-Nabataean period and some cave drawings. Al-Hijr bears a unique testimony to Nabataean civilization. With its 111 monumental tombs, 94 of which are decorated, and water wells, the site is an outstanding example of the Nabataeans’ architectural accomplishment and hydraulic expertise.

Historical context

Most of the monuments and inscriptions of the archaeological site of Al-Hijr date from the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE. But the inscriptions in Lihyanite script and some recently discovered archaeological vestiges are evidence for human settlement as early as the 3rd or 2nd century BCE.

One-third of the tombs, which are amongst the largest, are clearly dated to between 0-75 CE.

At its apogee and for around two centuries, the Nabataean kingdom extended over southern Syria, the Negev and Hedjaz. To the west it came up against the ambitions of the Roman world, and it remained essentially a continental power. It controlled vast arid and semi-arid expanses, and drew its wealth from the development of oasis agriculture and the caravan trade.

The Nabataeans are well known for their role in the commerce of incense, spices and aromatic plants during late Antiquity and the pre-Islamic period. They then controlled the land routes between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea and Mediterranean. Land routes were important as navigation remained difficult, particularly in the Red Sea.

Hegra was a major staging post on the main north-south caravan route. A secondary route linked it to the port of Egra Kome, according to a Greek-language source. Two recently discovered Nabataean sites on the shores of the Red Sea could in fact be this port.

The Hedjaz region was integrated into the Roman province of Arabia in 106 CE. A monumental Roman epigraph of 175-177 CE was recently discovered at Al- Hijr. The region then formed part of Roman history, and then Byzantine history, until the 7th century. In 356, the city of Hegra is again mentioned, as being led by a mayor of local origin, but it seems to have been very modest in size at that time.

The Arab traveller Al-Maqdasi indicated, in the 10th century CE, that Al-Hijr was a small oasis whose activities centred on its wells and on its many peasants. However, there is no other testimony to lasting settlement of the site between the 4th and the 19th century CE. It may be that it was only sporadically and infrequently occupied over this long period, a hypothesis that is strengthened by the lack of damage to the tombs right up to the recent past. Seasonal use was probably made of Al- Hjir by shepherds, traders or pilgrims, but this did not lead to the transformation of the tombs into shelters as was the case at Petra.

In the 14th century, the celebrated traveller Ibn Battuta admiringly described the Nabataean tombs of Al-Hijr, cut into the red stone. He did not mention any human activity at the time.

In 1876-1877, Charles Doughty wrote in his book Travels in Arabia Deserta, that peasants from Tayma had put back into use the wells and the ancient agricultural lands of the oasis. Traces of plantation and reuse of the wells have also been found for the 20th century.

It was at the start of the 20th century that changes of some significance appeared, with the construction of the railway and railway station. Some archaeological elements were damaged and the exploitation of the quarries changed the shape of some sandstone outcrops, particularly at Jabal al-Mahjar in the north of the site, and at Qasr al-Sani in the south.

Apart from the early descriptions from some European travellers in the late 19th century, such as Charles Doughty mentioned above, the first genuine study missions were carried out by the Dominican fathers A. Jaussen and R. Savignac, in 1907, 1909 and 1910. They then provided the first archaeological and epigraphic descriptions of the north-west of the Arabian Peninsula and Madain Salih in particular. Their Mission archéologique en Arabie is still a standard work on the subject. Several journeys were made by Westerners for archaeological and historic reasons between the First World War and the 1960s, providing descriptions of the site and its vestiges.

Since that period, excavation and preservation missions have been carried out under the supervision of the Department of Antiquities of Saudi Arabia.

At the end of the 1960s and at the start of the 1970s, a programme was carried out in the Madain Salih region to encourage the sedentarisation of the Bedouins. Under this scheme, ancient wells were reused with a modern pumping system that damaged their ancient infrastructures. At the outset, this programme involved the reuse of the zones cultivated in the 19th century. However, the official identification of the archaeological site of Madain Salih, in 1972, resulted in the displacement of the agricultural activities towards the north, outside the site. Moreover, technical changes tended towards a more intensive agriculture based on freshly-dug wells.

The monumental tombs have not been subjected to subsequent reuse of material, or major pillage over the long course of history, and they have been preserved up to the contemporary period. In the 1980s, excavation campaigns led to cleaning operations inside the tombs and the removal of burial vestiges. Today it is very difficult to find any such vestiges in their original state at Al-Hijr.

Since 2001, a cooperation agreement has been in force between France (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Centre national de la recherche scientifique-CNRS) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Ministry of Antiquities and Museums, King Saud University Riyadh) for the study of the Al-Hijr site. It favours non-destructive methods: aerial photography, geophysical analysis, architectural study, systematic inventory, etc. The agreement was renewed in 2006.

Comments