Mada’in Saleh (Arabic: مدائن صالح, madāʼin Ṣāliḥ), also called Al-Hijr or Hegra, is a pre-Islamic archaeological site located in the Al-Ula sector, within the Al Madinah Region of Saudi Arabia. A majority of the vestiges date from the Nabatean kingdom (1st century AD). The site constitutes the kingdom’s southernmost and largest settlement after Petra, its capital. Traces of Lihyanite and Roman occupation before and after the Nabatean rule, respectively, can also be found.
The Qur’an places settlement of the area by the Thamud people after Noah but before Moses, according to the Islamic text, the Thamudis, who carved out homes in the mountains and were punished by Allah for their practice of idol worship by being struck with an earthquake and lightning blasts. Thus, the site has earned a reputation as a cursed place — an image which the national government is attempting to overcome as it seeks to develop Mada’in Saleh for its tourism potential.
In 2008 UNESCO proclaimed Mada’in Saleh as a site of patrimony, becoming Saudi Arabia’s first World Heritage Site. It was chosen for its well-preserved remains from late antiquity, especially the 131 rock-cut monumental tombs, with their elaborately ornamented façades, of the Nabatean kingdom.
Accounts from Al Qur’an
According to the Qur’an, by the 3rd millennium BC, the site of Mada’in Saleh had already been settled by the tribe of Thamud. It is said that the tribe fell to idol worshipping; tyranny and oppression became prevalent.
The Prophet Saleh, to whom the site’s name of Mada’in Saleh is often attributed, called the Thamudis to repent. The Thamudis disregarded the warning and instead commanded Prophet Saleh to summon a pregnant she-camel from the back of a mountain. And so, a pregnant she-camel was sent to the people from the back of the mountain by Allah, as proof of Saleh’s divine mission.
However, only a minority heeded his words. The non-believers killed the sacred camel instead of caring for it as they were told, and its calf ran back to the mountain where it had come from, screaming. The Thamudis were given three days before their punishment was to take place, since they disbelieved and did not heed the warning.
The Prophet Saleh and the believers left the city, but the Thamudis were punished by Allah —their souls leaving their lifeless bodies in the midst of an earthquake and lightning blasts.
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