AL-HIJR, Saudi Arabia: Fully draped in a black veil, Irish blonde Angela Miskelly stares out in awe as she strolls through Al-Hijr, the ancient Saudi city of tombs carved into rose-colored sandstone mountains. “Spectacular ... wonderful ... breathtaking,” she says.
“But where are the tourists? If we had a site like this in my country, we would have millions of tourists.”
Dating back to the second century B.C., the Nabataean archaeological site – also known as Madain Saleh – has long been hidden from foreign visitors in this ultra-conservative kingdom that rarely opens up to tourists.
Saudi Arabia is thought to have been wary of archaeologists and scientists seeking to study its ancient ruins for fear their findings could shine the spotlight on pre-Islamic civilizations that once thrived there.
In recent years, however, Saudis have increasingly ventured to these sites with the authorities more tolerant of their curiosity.
Described as the largest and best-preserved site of the Nabataean civilization south of Petra in Jordan, Madain Saleh is the first Saudi archaeological site to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
It lies 320 kilometers north of Medina, the Islamic holy city of western Saudi Arabia, and extends for some 15 square kilometers.
According to UNESCO, it includes 111 tombs, most of which boast a decorated-facade, cave drawings and even some pre-Nabataean inscriptions.
It also boasts intricately designed water wells that serve as a prime example of the Nabataeans’ architectural and hydraulic genius.
The Nabataeans first inhabited the area in the second century B.C., but their ancient civilization existed as far back as the eighth or seventh century B.C. in the countries of the Levant – including Lebanon, Syria and Jordan – at times even extending into the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.
Originally nomads from the Arabian Peninsula, the Nabataeans were masters of trade, dominating the incense and spice routes in the pre-Islamic period. Their civilization collapsed in 106 A.D. at the hands of the Roman empire.
After decades of prohibiting visitors, authorities are now increasingly allowing entry into pre-Islamic archaeological sites in the kingdom, though Western tourists are still rare.
In February 2007, four French citizens were murdered while returning from an outing to Madain Saleh.
The victims were in a party of nine French people from three families living in the Saudi capital Riyadh, and were killed when two individuals opened fire with machine guns after they lost their way 90 km from Medina.
No group ever claimed responsibility, but authorities at the time said that the mastermind behind the attack was a 23-year-old suspected Al-Qaeda militant who held Saudi citizenship.
Officials at Madain Saleh say that the number of visitors to the site reached 40,000 last year, most of them Saudis and foreign residents of the kingdom.
They hold hopes that figure will double in 2012 with the government relaxing entry restrictions.
Though prior consent is required for access to Madain Saleh, it can now be obtained more easily from Riyadh or the nearby town of Al-Ola.
The highest volume of visitors is between December and March, given the lower temperatures in the otherwise scorching desert heat.
Two museums also exist on site, including one devoted to the famous Hejaz railway built by the Ottomans in the early 20th century that ran from Damascus to Medina and passed through Al-Hijr.
The second museum, which opened its doors to visitors just two months ago, traces the pilgrimage route to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.
On his first visit to the ancient site, Saudi national Tareq al-Adawi from the northwestern city of Tabuk says he was “overwhelmed.”
“I encourage all Saudis to come visit this place,” he says.
Another Saudi tourist, Ahmed al-Moghrabi, says he was “shocked by the majesty of the place.”
A small team of French and Saudi archaeologists are now carrying out excavations on the site in an effort to preserve and better understand its ancient history.
Madain Saleh, though likely one of Saudi’s most famous archaeological sites, is not its only one.
The area bears evidence of other ancient civilizations.
Just 22 km from Madain Saleh is Al-Ola, located on the ancient incense route. The city served as the capital of Lihyan, an ancient Arab kingdom.
It is home to archaeological remnants that date back thousands of years, including its citadel that is some 8,000 years old.