Saudi Arabia’s hidden city

The grandiose Jordanian city of Petra, carved out of pink rock, is a first-rate tourist destination. So why has its twin city, in the Saudi desert, been forgotten for so long? Because it is said to be under an ancient curse.


The region of Qasr al-Bint in the city of Mada’in Saleh. Photo: Emmanuel Guyetand.

The grandiose Jordanian city of Petra, carved out of pink rock, is a first-rate tourist destination. So why has its twin city, in the Saudi desert, been forgotten for so long? Because it is said to be under an ancient curse.

This site, in the north-west of Saudi Arabia, is known in the West as Mada'in Saleh, or the towns of Saleh, from the name of the prophet who, according to the Koran, tried long before Mohammed to convert the Thamudtribe to the religion of one God. The town was however not built by the Thamudis, whose presence at this site is not proven archaeologically, but by the Nabateans. Mada'in Saleh constituted the southern point of their kingdom which prospered between the third century BC and the fourth century AD and stretched from the south of Jordan to the north of the Arabian peninsula. The Nabateans also built Petra, their political capital.

The region of Al-Khuraymat in the city of Mada'in Saleh. Photo: Emmanuel Guyetand.

Another view of Al-Khuraymat. Photo: Emmanuel Guyetand.

It was only at the start of the 20th century that the exploration of this site began. However, very little work was undertaken until 2001, when a Franco-Saudi archaeological mission was given the task of carrying out digs and documenting the site. Mada'in Saleh was listed in July 2008 as a UNESCO World Heritage site, becoming the first Saudi site to feature.

Façade of a tomb. The monumental tombs were no doubt reserved for the notables of the town. Photo taken at Al-Khuraymat by Emmanuel Guyetand.

Funerary rock architecture at Al-Khuraymat. Photo: Emmanuel Guyetand.

View of Mount Ethlib at Mada’in Saleh. Photo: Emmanuel Guyetand.

Another view of Mont Ethlib. Photo: Emmanuel Guyetan.

Video filmed at Mada’in Saleh by Emmanuel Guyetand in May 2002.

"The curse originates in the main book of Islam"

Emmanuel Guyetand is a systems integrator engineer in Toulon, France. He visited Mada'in Saleh in 2002 and keeps a well-documented blog on this archaeological site.

I was lucky enough to discover this exceptional site during a stopover on the aircraft carrier "Charles de Gaulle" in Jeddah in May 2002. Back then, I was a marine officer in charge of a programme for the ship's TV channel. I was invited by the Saudi navy, along with twenty or so members of our crew, to share this exceptional moment.

The site is under permanent police surveillance and is not open to tourists. However, expatriates working in Saudi Arabia can enter by obtaining authorisation from the Riyadh department of antiquities and museums, on the recommendation of their company or embassy. But the site is often frequented by foreign VIPs staying in the country, and by the Saudi elite.

In addition, the hotels of the Al-'Ula valley, which adjoins Mada'in Saleh, are all 5-star establishments.

Most Saudis are not interested in this site, which is said to be under an ancient curse. The curse originates from the main book of Islam. The Koran tells the story of a miraculous camel, which was considered proof of the existence of only one God. However, the camel was killed by the tribe of the Thamudis (the prophet Saleh designated the camel as the "camel of God" and ordered the Thamudis not to harm it on pain of death. But the Thamudis disregarded this threat and killed the camel. The Koran says that three days later, a loud scream killed the Thamudis - editor's note). Besides, we get the impression that for the Saudis the important thing is elsewhere, "much higher up"!  History, as understood by a Westerner, is not their cup of tea.

View of Qasr al-Farid at sunset. Photo: Emmanuel Guyetand.

Qasr al-Farid is the place which impressed me the most. There is such a force which emerges from this magnificently carved rock which serves as a final resting place. Archaeologists think that its rock faces were painted at the time. This force is reinforced by the isolated aspect of the tomb compared to the rest of the site, which gives it a certain majesty, as if it was the door to another world, the door before which you take the time to sit and talk about this life which is ending and say to yourself that it is not yet totally over, as its imprint remains carved in the stone!"