Tomb Time, or “ActiveSteve Nearly Causes an International Incident”…

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Welcome back all. I’m sorry if you’re all reading these one after the other, as I know that the text of my narrative can sometimes drag on. Just remember that for every 5 paragraphs you read, there’s probably another 15 paragraphs of memories and thoughts that I’m sparing you. I kid you not when I say that it takes me at least an hour for each of these posts. And that’s only if I sit and write them straight through… This tale revolves around another magnificent adventure that we had in Saudi Arabia. Namely, the visit to the Kingdom’s first, and so far only, Unesco World Heritage site, Mada’in Saleh. Many of you may have heard of a little place called Petra in Jordan, right? Well, Mada’in Saleh, is the 2nd city of the Nebateans, this one carved in to the rock hills very close to Al Ula. The stone in this area is actually harder than in Jordan, and as a result, some of these tombs are even better preserved. However, for reasons beyond the scope of this post, many Muslims have a beef with this site, and so they have tried to deface and damage it, and in many cases have succeeded. Read on for more great information about this place, and what we did there. As usual, make sure you check out all the pictures on flickr before you read on!

In the spirit of what I wrote for the last post, I will now once again summarize the essence of Mada’in Saleh through quoting some text from Lonely Planet: ” If you can only visit one place in Saudi Arabia, make it Mada’in Saleh which rises up from the sands in a landscape of rare beauty. This crossroads of ancient civilisations, pilgrims, explorers, trade caravans and armies finds its most remarkable expression in the elaborate stone carved temples of the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans, who carved the astonishing city of Petra chose Mada’in Saleh as their second city. Although the tombs are less spectacular here than those in Petra, the landscape of sweeping sand and wonderful rock formations is stunningly beautiful. The tombs are also in an excellent state of preservation, due largely to the fact that the local stone is much harder than that found at Petra.”

As you have gathered from the above passage, not only is this area significant due to the immense amount of Nabataean Tombs (175+ I think), this was also an important place due to it’s role in the Hejaz railway, which ran from Damascus down to the south of Saudi Arabia. Although Lawrence of Arabia destroyed the entire railway, there are still signs of its existence, as well as relics to be seen. On the Mada’in Saleh site for example, there are restored rooming houses, a railway workshop shed, complete with locomotive. There are water towers, a coal tender, and even a fortress. I think the master plan for the UNESCO status includes completely restoring this area to resemble what it did during the brief period this line was in operation. The train won’t run, but there will be a short run of track to show what it looked like. They have ’employed’ Indian people familiar with the history to try and make it as accurate as possible.

Needless to say, to the train buff of the family, Patrick Hill, was quite happy to witness this place, and Helena also seemed to enjoy scrambling around the locomotive and the area in general. This was a good precursor to a book that he got for Christmas, which is an entire history of the Hejaz railway. Lucky him. Although this spot was really cool, the main attraction was really the tombs of the site themselves. We actually visited two different times in the same day. Once early in the morning, once later in the afternoon. This was because the tombs face different sides, and we wanted to be able to see them all with good light from the sun. For the most part, we’d just dirve to one spot, then get out and wander around groupings of tombs. Each time, we’d get a bit of information, and take note of the subtle differences between different tombs.

Some tombs were not even finished. We’d see things like the upper part carved out the way you’d expect, then it would just stop there, with mountain bubbling out beneath the finished part. The explanation? Well, like everything, money and influence matter. If someone was having a tomb made, but then someone came along with more money, or was more important, work would stop on one tomb and commence on another. After a while, we realized that taking pictures of every last tomb might not be interesting, as there are so many and they are all just basically caves chiseled into rock mountains. Cool the first few times on film, but kinda repetitive. However, in person, every single one was worth investigating. So investigate we did.

After a time, we were taken to a slightly different are, which is more akin to a worshiping place. There was a rather large chamber carved into one particular mountain, then a narrow passage with various altars carved into the cliff face where the Nabataeans would pray. When you got out of the cliffs, you emerged into another ‘holier’ place where sacrifices were made, and prayer rituals were performed. We also climbed higher up into the mountains from here, to check out other prayer sites. Eventually, we were pretty high up one are, and were told we’d be going to the other side, by climbing back the way we came, then driving around. Andrea politely asked if we could just climb over, and we were hesitantly told yes, and given vague directions. Sounded like a great adventure to me. I volunteered myself to lead our adventure party and quickly scrambled down one face, with Jody not too far behind. That’s when things went a bit awry.

Andrea and Patrick couldn’t follow us down this spot, and tried to scout another way around. Being quite determined, I started climbing various cliffs in the area looking for the way over. At one point, I spotted Andrea and Patrick far above me, and I advised them to turn back and walk. The Ambassador had chosen a slightly different route, and actually found a sandy route up and over. His wife decided to go back with our guide and take the ride. Where does that put us? Well, in a party of 6 adults, there were now 4 different mini parties, only one of which was officially being escorted by security in this area! Jody was camped out at the base of the first series of cliffs, waiting for my intermittent reports on conditions. Prognosis was not good on my end. Everytime I’d fight my way up, I’d get cliffed out.

The routes I was picking were not easy either. I was definitely in my element, but I could have used a couple top ropes and rapelling gear. I could have VERY easily fallen and broken many bones. I knew these route would not likely work for Jody, who was wearing here Abaya and toting here digital SLR with no lens cap!!! In the meantime, the Ambassador had made it to ‘safety’, as did Andrea, Patrick and Helena. It was now just Jody and I somewhere in the mountains. Now, it’s not like hours passed or anything, but the police escort had already worked itself into high gear on the cell phones. News of numerous parties unaccounted for did not bode well with local and regional authorities, and apparently, a second security detail, this time non-uniformed, secret-type police were dispatched. A search was already being co-ordinated and apparently put on standby should be fail to emerge.

At one point, I did get to a cliff top and see the cop, as well as our guide. I waved, shouted, and we exchanged a few phrases. Our guide, bless his heart, just said to go around to another trail. Um, Ahmed, I’m sorry, but there was no other trail, unless you had wings :-). Eventually, I called the trek off, and worked my way back to Jody and told her we’d have to double back, which was actually made difficult due to the initial cliff we scrambled down. Getting down was sight easier then getting back up, but we had no equipment and no choice, and there was no way I was waiting to get rescued. Using some teamwork, we did get out, then started jogging back the way we came and all the way around the mountain. At one spot, we emerged to see the police SUV tearing off in one direction, and our van taking off in the other direction. Luckily, they spotted my waving and shouts, and stopped to collect us, calling off the imminent search. Be sure to check out my 3-part action movie once I post them. It was my last diary should I fail to get out alive 🙂

As a result of all this excitement, we permanently picked up that 2nd police detail for the remainder of our time in the Al-Ula area. Believe me when I say that this treatment is not standard protocol, but it appeared that they would be taking no chances with us for the remainder of the trip. In effect, the second unit was just there to keep tabs on the first unit. Too funny, don’t you think? The rest of the day was fairly uneventful, but rest assured I was the butt of many stories for the rest of our journey. We did make it home safe and sound in the end, with no harm and no foul.

Although I wish I could say that was the end of our stories for you to enjoy, I do have one other little funny story to relay, one that I hope I’ll be able to show you in more detail in the future. That is the fact that we were sort of interviewed by a local paper on account that the Ambassador of Canada was visiting. A picture was taken and everything. They didn’t actually seem to record our names or anything, but I’m quite excited to see if my picture gets plastered in an Arabic newspaper. How cool would that be? Keep your eye open for that in the future.

I’m sure there are tons of more things I could write about for this part of the trip, but I think most of you will simply appreciated my silly mis-adventures from the day, rather than read a whole lot of narrative about the light on the rocks, and the human bones, as well as the rock carvings throughout various cliffs in the region. Rest assured, there was a lot of magnificent things to see here. Sadly, although I would like to say you should all visit, the chances are you won’t get the opportunity, so please take the time to look through our photos and if you have any questions, feel free to ask Jody and I. Next step in this journey will be chronicled next, and will consist of our last half day in this region, and heading off to the coast, and Jeddah. Stay tuned till then.

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