Hegra: the Archaeological Site of Al-Hijr (Madâin Sâlih)

UNESCO World Heritage

A major site of the Nabataean civilisation

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.

Tombs of Hegra (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

It features well-preserved monumental tombs with decorated facades dating from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD.

Tombs of Hegra (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

The Nabataean settlement of Hegra was founded in about the 2nd century BCE, and lies north of AlUla and the ancient capital of the Dadanite and Lihyanite Kingdoms at Dadan (modern al-Khuraybah). The precise relationship between the different kingdoms remains a subject of debate. However, they are testament to the significance of the oasis valley at the heart of AlUla to the settlers and travellers that have journeyed through its landscape for thousands of years.

A major site of the Nabataean civilisation (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

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. The site of Al-Hijr is located at a meeting point between various civilisations of late Antiquity, on a trade route between the Arabian Peninsula, the Mediterranean world and Asia.

Tomb of the physician Kahlân (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

It bears outstanding witness to important cultural exchanges in architecture, decoration, language use and the caravan trade. Although the Nabataean city was abandoned during the pre-Islamic period, the route continued to play its international role for caravans and then for the pilgrimage to Mecca, up to its modernisation by the construction of the railway at the start of the 20th century.

The Nabataeans and the incense trade (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

The site of Al-Hijr bears unique testimony to the Nabataean civilisation, between the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC and the pre-Islamic period, and particularly in the 1st century AD. It is an outstanding illustration of the architectural style specific to the Nabataeans, consisting of monuments directly cut into the rock, and with facades bearing a large number of decorative motifs.

Qasr al-Farid, tomb IGN110 (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

The site includes a set of wells, most of which were sunk into the rock, demonstrating the Nabataeans' mastery of hydraulic techniques for agricultural purposes.

Tombs of Hegra (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

To the east of the city of Hegra is a natural fault in the rocks allowing passage through the Jabal Ithlib. In this area have been found a number of sanctuaries, ritual markers and meeting places from the Nabataean period.

Jabal Ithlib (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

Religion and ritual at Hegra seem to have been concentrated in the area within the colossal and spectacular Jabal Ithlib, with access gained via a narrow passageway through the gorge known as the Siq.

Jabal Ithlib (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

To the right of the entrance to the Siq is the Diwan, a large feasting hall, or triclinium, cut deep into the rock. Around this area are numerous betyls, rectangular representations of deities, also cut into the rock face. This example is found towards the top of Jabal Ithlib.

Jabal Ithlib (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

The small outcrop of Ith 78, also known as Qasr al-Ajooz, is located around 150m southwest of Jabal Ithlib. A rock-cut staircase leads to the top of the outcrop where thirteen holes are cut into the surface, nine of which are linked by channels. Below the staircase is a niche with two possible altars, suggesting a religious function to the outcrop, unsurprising given its relative proximity to Jabal Ithlib which has also been interpreted as a religious area.

Qasr al-Ajooz (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

Al-Khuraymat lies to the southwest of the Hegra site. This collective area of rocky outcrops features approximately 53 tombs, with differing facades and ornamentation. Many of them have been affected by weathering. Tomb IGN 100, one of the largest and perhaps most significant of Hegra’s monumental tombs is found here.

Al-Khuraymat (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

Excavations of tomb IGN 117 have shed important light on burial practices in the 1st century CE. At least one burial in the tomb had been wrapped in layers of plain-weave fabric and an outer layer of leather. A mixture of vegetable oil and resin were found amongst the fabrics, used to preserve the body. The head was covered and the individual was wearing a necklace made of mature dates.

Tombs of Hegra (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

Tombs of Hegra


The most spectacular and visible remnants of Hegra are its tombs, and more specifically the elaborate carved facades that honour the dead buried within. Other than Petra, Hegra is the only Nabataean site with this volume of carved tombs.

Tombs of Hegra (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

However, whilst Petra is marked by close, deep red sandstone cliffs forming tight circles, Hegra is instead marked by the distance between its tombs and the landscape views across the site.

Qasr al-Farid, tomb IGN110 (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

Qasr al-Farid (meaning unique or alone), is one of the most iconic tombs of Hegra, cut into an isolated outcrop that is visible from across the site. It is the largest of all the tombs at Hegra, and unfinished, and features architectural elements not seen elsewhere at the site, including the use of four pilasters (columns) on the façade instead of the usual two.

The inscription above the door bears no date, and follows a different formula to other known legal inscriptions. It has been translated both as “Lihyan son of Kuza took it” and “For Hayyan son of Kuzza and his descendants” – the differences in translation can be attributed to ambiguity over one letter in the inscription.

The iconic tomb of Qasr al-Farid (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

The tombs of Hegra illustrate the magnificent skill in carving and stonemasonry of the tomb craftsmen.

Qasr al-Bint, tomb IGN55 (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

In addition to accurately and finely carved columns topped with capitals, framed inscriptions, ledges and geometric patterns, other carved features included vases, eagles and, as depicted here, winged lions. Finer decoration, such as the carving of wings and tailfeathers of the eagles, would have been executed using picks, spindles, chisels and abrasives.

Qasr al-Bint, tomb IGN39 (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

Winged lions have significance in Egyptian iconography, and are linked to the Egyptian god Osiris. There was significant exchange between the Nabataean kingdom and Ptolemaic Egypt, and the influences of this relationship are seen not only through iconographic elements such as this, but also in the Temple of the Winged Lions at Petra.

Carved Winged lions (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

The tomb facades at Hegra, as at Petra, reflect the links between the Nabataean world and the civilisations that surrounded and traded with it, including Egypt and the Hellenistic empire.

Tomb of the physician Kahlân (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

This example of the carving at the top of the façade is from tomb IGN 120, located in the Jabal al-Ahmar outcrop. It features two rows of merlons above the typically placed tomb inscription.

Tomb decoration (2008) by Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)UNESCO World Heritage

Credits: Story

This exhibit was created by the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU)
www.rcu.gov.sa

More on Hegra, Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih) and World Heritage:
whc.unesco.org/en/list/1293

Photos: © Mohammed Babelli; © Jane Taylor, 2019

The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions who have supplied the content.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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