dive into heritage


Dive into Al-Hijr

The Hijaz mountains run north to south along the eastern shore of the Red Sea. Just to the east of the towering ridge of Jabal al-'Uwayrid lies a rugged, arid plain whose archaeological remains bear witness to millennia of agriculture and long-distance trade in this ancient crossroad of cultures.

Here on this arid plain lies the Hegra Archaeological Site-- remains of an ancient Nabatean trading city called Hegra, surrounded by monumental tombs cut into the outcrops of red sandstone.

Long known to the people of the region as Mada'in Salih, "the cities of the prophet Salih," its ruins offer evidence of life here from the Early Bronze Age (c. 2000 BCE) to the early 20th century.

Hegra, like the more than 1,000 extraordinary sites inscribed on the World Heritage List, has value for all humanity.

At the crossroads of civilizations in the distant past it possesses "Outstanding Universal Value" as a crucial meeting place of the ancient civilizations of Arabia, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Arabian Gulf.

What makes Hegra special?

The Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of Hegra lies in its testimony to the impressive funerary architecture of the Nabateans and their development of agricultural techniques that relied on a unique system of groundwater wells and sophisticated hydrology.

Beyond its remarkable architecture and unique landscape, the site also demonstrates Outstanding Universal Value as a meeting place of ancient cultures-- documented by ancient Arab, Greek, and Roman authors and typified by the unique mix of styles in the ornamentation of its monumental tombs.

There is no other place quite like it in the world.

The site of the ancient Nabataean city of Hegra was more than just a passage through the mountainous terrain. For thousands of years, it offered an oasis for weary travelers, traders, and pilgrims. Even today it welcomes visitors to uncover its ancient secrets.

We invite you to listen to the wind and imagine the sound of heavily laden caravans arriving in Hegra. Come explore the secrets of the ancient city.

Where does your journey lead?


A city of wind, sand and water

Explore the extraordinary secrets of this arid plain and open yourself to the value it holds for all of us.

Hegra's plain is flat but not empty, dotted with towering sandstone outcrops. The largest, Jabal Ithlib, rises nearly 100 m above the desert floor. Over hundreds of thousands of years, the wind and sand of the desert have transformed the red and brown outcrops into imposing landmarks.

The site's harsh environment is characterized by hot summers and freezing winters, and little rainfall. Few wild animal species can survive here, with its sparse vegetation of tamarisk and acacia trees.

But life here did not just survive, it thrived. How did this harsh desert plain sustain human settlement for thousands of years?

The answer lies 10-20 meters below the surface of the sandy plain. The rain that falls on the towering Jabal ‘Uwayrid range to the west provides a steady stream of groundwater accessible through carefully placed wells.

Water is the source of life and key to the possibility of growing hardy crops.

If you look closely enough, evidence of life starts to emerge from the barren landscape.

Wâdî al-'Ulâ cuts diagonally across the arid plain, a usually dry river bed that sometimes overflows with the torrents of seasonal flash floods.

Even in dry seasons, the green vegetation along its banks stands in sharp contrast to the sparse brush that dots the rest of the desert floor.

A patchwork of 130 ancient Nabatean wells pierce the surface of the Hegra plain, the majority located in the north and west of the site where the water table is highest.

Dug through the earth into the rock, they are narrower at the top, and wider at the bottom, allowing the collection of as much water as possible.

Intangible cultural heritage

Date palm, knowledge, skills, traditions & practices

Evidence of canals and channels points to an irrigation system. Unlike today's brown and dusty scene, ancient Hegra was dappled with green fields of barley, date palms, and even cotton spread out across the landscape.

In its Nabatean heyday, Hegra was a flourishing agricultural center supporting a local population and providing sustenance to the many travelers and traders who stopped here in their travels.

But this distant past connects to the present. Even today, the cultivation of groves of date palms, irrigated by groundwater, provide a cash crop for modern residents of the region. Indeed, confections made from dates are still a characteristic feature of local cuisine.

Today, the winds from the northwest pass over a silent landscape. But in antiquity, during the eras when Hegra prospered, the sounds of sheep goats, donkeys, and camels filled the air-- along with the sweet smells of spices and date palms. In those eras, Hegra was very much alive.


A city of art and architecture

The monumental architecture of Hegra bears testimony to the artistic achievements of its ancient craftsmen. Explore the many tombs and witness the value they hold for humanity.

The impressive sandstone outcrops scattered across the plain provided the backdrop-- and raw material-- for the skillfully carved tombs of Hegra's rulers and notable families.

These monuments represent a dramatic contrast to the rough stone-built cairn tombs of the earlier pastoralists in this region who roamed the harsh and arid landscape with their flocks.

Two main types of cairn tombs date to the early Bronze Age c.2000 BCE: rectangular pit graves and burial within circular mounds or towers. These two tomb styles (often used in combination) are common across northern Arabia.

These differed from the elaborate monumental façade tombs of Hegra's golden age.

A more permanent settlement occurred nearly 1500 years later. By c. 500 BCE people began settling along Wâdî al-‘Ulâ, the dry river valley that cuts diagonally across the desert plain.

What we know about these original residents is limited. They lived in mud brick houses, crafted and used pottery described as Al-Ula, and are linked to the Kingdom of Dedan, and later possibly members of the Lihyanite kingdom.

The first evidence for long distance trade and contact with other cultures is evident in the local imitations of tiny Athenian "owl" coins, which were a common medium of international exchange during the Hellenistic period (4th-3rd centuries BCE).

These earlier inhabitants deposited their dead in small square tombs hewn into the sandstone outcrops. The first indication these formations were used in this way.

Hegra's golden age occurred when it was a Nabatean outpost, reaching its height as a city center between (c. 50 BCE- 106 CE).

During this time, its most famous monuments were built, its population peaked, and its residents enjoyed the wealth that only participation in long-distance trade could bring.

But who were the nabateans?

Were they a political network of existing settlements or a newly arrived ethnic group? In either case, their settlement at Hegra marked a new age. While there were earlier kingdoms in northern Arabia, this was far greater. Indeed the Nabatean territory covered an area that stretched from Hegra to Petra in present-day Jordan 500 km to the northwest, eventually reaching all the way to southern Syria.

The Nabateans controlled the trade in incense and exotic spices, the most valuable and sought-after commodities in the great cities of the Mediterranean world.

As the city grew, its wealth caught the eye of Greek and Roman authors, as a community of landowners, traders, and great families was overseen by a series of governors, whose names and titles were recorded on the facades of their tombs.

Hegra was surrounded by a city wall, and contained stone mansions, and temples. Beyond the city wall rose Hegra's monumental tombs.

Nabatean pottery was a hallmark of their unique culture. Characterized by eggshell thin bowls and other vessels, it was often painted with bold floral patterns. Examples of this were found in great quantities in the "new" quarters of the site.

Mirroring Nabatean society's social structure, Hegra's tombs were cut into sandstone outcrops in four distinct areas of the site.

While some of the tombs can only be described as monumental, meticulously carved, with facades reaching as high as 16m, many others were simple pit tombs dug above or near their monumental counterparts.

The monumental tombs feature elaborate facades with a mixture of Egyptian, Greek, and original Nabatean elements. The combinations suggest cosmopolitan influence in a multi-ethnic world. They include a classical entrance with pediment and pilasters, capitals with Nabatean "Corinthian," and characteristic "crowsteps."

The tombs with inscriptions are of notable families, and the grandest are on the most prominent outcrops.

With a design already in mind, artisan stone carvers roughed out the facade and then carefully chiseled out the details, beginning at the top of the outcrop and working toward the bottom. Evidence of the process can be seen in their unfinished work.

Each monumental tomb included a burial chamber. Archeological investigations of these chambers produced enough evidence to begin piecing together Nabetean burial customs. The extremely arid environment resulted in unique preservation, including some organic material.

The bodies of the deceased were wrapped and placed either directly on the floor of the chamber or in special burial niches. Grave goods buried along with the dead included, among other items, jewelry, carved bone, and coins.

Qasr al-Farid (Arabic: "The Lonely Castle") is perhaps the most photographed and iconic of Hegra's monumental tombs. Constructed in the 1st century AD, it was carved into a sandstone outcrop completely isolated from the other, larger outcrops in the surroundings of the city. Qasr al-Farid was apparently never completed as the carving is rougher on the lower part of the tomb’s façade. Yet its completed upper portions are elaborately decorated with a mixture of architectural styles.


A city to share ideas

At a crossroads of civilizations, Hegra was a site for exchange, a place for travelers, traders, and pilgrims. Come and explore the journey. Discover what makes Hegra unique in this world.

Part of the international caravan trade during late antiquity, the site of Hegra was a crossroads of cultures— where different peoples passed in the desert, exchanging goods and exchanging ideas.

Before the success of Nabatean traders, some overland routes linked south Arabia and India with the Mediterranean— providing access to the precious and most sought-after goods from the distant peripheries of the Ancient Near East.

The incense and spice growers of the south and east needed traders and merchants to move their goods along a southern route from South Arabia and an eastern route from the ports of the Arabian Gulf to market.

Their goods were highly sought in the settled civilizations of Egypt, the Levant, and the northern Mediterranean, including Greece and Rome.

The most important trade goods were essential and expensive commodities for the kingdoms and empires of the entire region.

Goods from South Arabia, now modern Yemen, included frankincense and myrrh. The resin was collected from the sap of trees that grew only in southern Arabia and northeastern Africa. Frankincense and myrrh were used in incense rituals across the region.

Goods from India moved through the Arabian Gulf, including brass and iron, styrax, saffron, embossed works, paintings, and molded works, as well as spices and medicines like Costus, a perennial herb, and Saussurea lappa, which grows in the Kashmir and Pendjab mountains.

The southern trade route was entirely over land, and the eastern route began at the head of the Gulf and cut across to Hegra. Goods were first carried over land on donkeys, eventually replaced by camels. Not only did camels withstand the desert environment better than other beasts of burden, but they could also carry more goods.

With improvements in maritime navigation, Nabatean ports were established along the eastern coast of the Red Sea— the most important, Leuke Kome, was not far from Hegra. It is likely that goods were unloaded at the coast and transported inland on their way further north. Contact with the coast is evidenced in the archaeological remains at Hegra, which included seashell jewelry.

Hegra's location at the northwest of the Arabian Peninsula placed it at the nexus of overland and seaborne trade. Its topography and nearness to the coast made the oasis a natural stopping place. The city flourished as a trade center-overseeing a movement of goods across the peninsula as well as exporting its own agricultural products.

At the height of its prosperity the Nabatean city was a bustling oasis, which featured temples and ceremonial structures. One of the most intriguing is the so-called Diwan, carved in the face of Jabal Ithlib in the northeastern section of the site. It was a large chamber in which religious rituals and lavish banquets were held.

The Roman establishment of the province of Arabia Petraea in 106 CE and the construction of the Roman fort and garrison at the site evidence the intensification of Roman trade in exotic goods.

The former Nabatean settlement had shrunk in size and power. The garrison became the center, and the city was now not much more than a thoroughfare— local agriculture wanned. Archaeological evidence further supports this hard tack to caravans as the percentage of camel bones to all fauna soared to 40%.

With disruptions throughout the Roman Empire, the garrison was eventually withdrawn, leaving the area largely abandoned until the 7th century CE.

With the beginning of the practice of the yearly Hajj to Mecca, it once again served as an important stop along a route, but instead of traders and merchants, the travelers were pilgrims.

As Islam spread northward and westward, the scale of the traffic increased. The benefits of Hegra's natural position were witnessed by the almost 200 Arabic graffiti inscriptions carved into the sandstone outcrops. The route of the Hajj from esh-Shams (Greater Syria) along the Makkah /Madinah road that cut through Hegra was the oldest road used by Muslim convoys.

The attempts of the Ottomans to gain greater control over the Hijaz (and reinforce the position of Sultan as Caliph) led to a concession to German engineers to build a new way to travel to the Holy Cities by rail.

But with the defeat of the Ottomans after WWI, the rail line was abandoned and replaced by highways and airports in the later 20th century.

For thousands of years and up to the present day, the site of the ancient Nabataean city of Hegra has been more than just a passage through the mountainous terrain. An oasis for weary travelers, pilgrims, and traders, it continues this tradition with visitors from all over the world exploring its value for all of humanity.



Discover multiple ways to navigate through a dynamic and interactive space of vibrant intangible cultural heritage practices and expressions. See how together they represent a rich cultural diversity.

Oral Tradition
Food Preparation
Traditional Medicine
Religious Practices