Saudi Arabia. It’s one of the most mysterious countries in the world. The sexes are strictly separated. The list of banned things include alcohol, pork, and movie theaters. Drug possession is punishable by death. While travel visas are notoriously difficult to obtain. And if you do secure one, the expiration date is based on the lunar calendar—good luck with that. But why would you want to go there anyway?
If you’re a history buff, the answer is Mada’in Saleh. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it. Few have. Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site is a pre-Islamic archaeological spot in the northwestern Hijaz Mountains. The Nabataeans (ancient Arabs) carved elaborate stone tombs—131 to be exact—into the mountainside. Think Petra, but you have it all to yourself.
Mada’in Saleh is deserted for two reasons. First, there’s the visa issue, which keeps world travelers away. Second, Muslims believe it’s a cursed place, and many refuse to enter the area. According to the Quran, the Thamūd tribe was punished by Allah for worshipping idols. It’s left the desert site largely undisturbed; archaeological activity only began in earnest during the last 20 years.
So what will you find at Mada’in Saleh? Intricate carvings, including inscriptions and wildlife, on the tombs. Qasr al-Farid, the largest tomb, is particularly stunning. Water wells, a market, sacrificial altars, and a possible military base are around the grounds. A dusty train station, with a World War II engine, is on the northern edge. Plus breathtaking views, particularly at sunrise and sunset, of the basalt plateau. At least that’s what we’ve been told.