In the northwestern corner of Arabia lies an ancient city, thought to have been inhabited between 2000 B.C. and 200 A.D. One of the largest settlements of the Nabataean civilisation, it is known today as Al-Hijr or Mada’in Saleh. Like its more famous sister city Petra (which has appeared numerous times in movies), Hegra boasts many rock-cut monumental tombs—111 to be exact, of which 94 are decorated. The city also has early water wells, and the whole site is a worthy testament to the Nabataeans’ architectural abilities and hydraulic expertise.
One other interesting legacy is that the Nabataeans developed the North Arabic script from which today’s modern Arabic script is descended.
RELATED: Writing for the Associated Press, Donna Abu-Nasr enumerates some of the difficulties with trying to study pre-Islamic history in a nation that prefers to pretend no such thing exists:
Archaeologists are cautioned not to talk about pre-Islamic finds outside scholarly literature. Few ancient treasures are on display, and no Christian or Jewish relics. A 4th or 5th century church in eastern Saudi Arabia has been fenced off ever since its accidental discovery 20 years ago and its exact whereabouts kept secret.
In the eyes of conservatives, the land where Islam was founded and the Prophet Muhammad was born must remain purely Muslim. Saudi Arabia bans public displays of crosses and churches, and whenever non-Islamic artifacts are excavated, the news must be kept low-key lest hard-liners destroy the finds.
…But the call to keep the land purged of other religions runs deep among many Saudis. Even though Madain Saleh site is open for tourism, many Saudis refuse to visit on religious grounds because the Quran says God destroyed it for its sins.
Excavations sometimes meet opposition from local residents who fear their region will become known as “Christian” or “Jewish.” And Islam being an iconoclastic religion, hard-liners have been known to raze even ancient Islamic sites to ensure that they do not become objects of veneration.
— Abu-Nasr, Donna. “Digging up the Saudi past: Some would rather not.” Associated Press, 31 August 2009.
I could probably write a whole post on how Saudi religious proclivities are effectively preventing mankind from learning about its early history, but that’s for another day.