Around Halloween, you can’t beat a haunted house for a little spooky fun. If you are fortunate enough to have a visa to enter Saudi Arabia, the ultimate taboo is Mada’in Salah. The dark history of this place extends back to the period of the Nabateans, the architects of Petra; their civilization extended into the Arabian peninsula, and their trademark sandstone tombs can be found there as well. According to our local guides, the Quran describes this area and its inhabitants as cursed. Something about killing a sacred camel; thereafter, Muslims have avoided this area. Our flight to the neighboring airport even flew a longer path to avoid the obviously dangerous airspace above the tombs; ironically, it took us closer to Iraq, but I guess you choose your risks in life.
Next to the World Heritage Site around the tombs, there is a restored portion of the Hijaz railway; not the exact section blown up by T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, but close enough.
There are two unique qualities of this tourist attraction; the first is that, being declared cursed, you won’t find many local Saudis there. Secondly, being under the protection of the tourism board, you also won’t find any Muttawa (religious police), so the few tourists there tend to be western women in yoga pants enjoying the freedom to hike without an abaya!
Look! Her ankles are almost showing! Scandalous.
Once you arrive at the tombs, the differences with Petra are astounding. No gypsies, no swarms of tourists, not even a gift shop! Also, no marked trails, no tour guides (bring your own), no place to buy water (bring your own), no snack shops (you get the point…).
It is just you and the work of the Nabateans:
You can wander around freely, as long as you pack plenty of water and have a four wheel drive to navigate the “road” on site.
The edifices are not as grand as Petra, so after an hour or two of exploring, you can shift gears and climb the bizarre rock formations that give the area a truly haunted feel.
Nearby, at the end of an unmarked dirt trail, you can find Elephant Rock. Actually, you would never find it on your own, but hopefully your guide knows where it is!
Like any travel adventure, there are a few nuances to traveling in this area. Because it is close to the Jordan/Iraq border, there are some people who are somewhat less friendly to Westerners. In fact, the local police Captain arranged an escort to and from the airport:
We were almost late because our driver had evidently planned on driving at twice the legal limit, and had to maintain a slightly less insane pace. Of course, police escorts don’t eliminate the other hazards of crossing the desert T. E. Lawrence-style. Like waiting for road crews to move a sand dune off of the road:
Or yielding to four-legged pedestrians:
I’ll probably never set foot on Mars, but it would feel familiar there I think:
There’s something appealing about venturing into that which is forbidden; I’m glad we were able to visit before the area is developed and is littered with chain hotels and tourist traps. Add in the vast desert landscape and achingly beautiful sunsets as a backdrop, and Mada’in Salah makes for a perfect Halloween weekend getaway.