Remnants of Past Glory Endure
Comparisons to Jordan’s pink-stone city of Petra are inevitable, although Mada’in Saleh is more compelling in many ways.
Less known, less accessible, and therefore less visited than Petra, Mada’in Saleh, carved out of large outcrops of rock in the Arabian Desert, is known for tombs dating back to 100 B.C. Though their design is considered less spectacular than those in Petra, the local stone is more resistant to the elements, so the tombs are slightly better preserved.
However, erosion has resulted in some bizarre formations, and multicolored mineral strata are revealed and warmed by the changing light of the day. Due north of the Wadi Hadhramamawt in what is now Yemen, Mada’in Saleh was a stopover on the famous frankincense route for caravans transporting the precious cargo and other aromatics and spices to the Mediterranean ports of Syria.
But Mada’in Saleh’s heyday was short-lived (the last tomb was built in A.D. 76); the Romans, always ingenious, began to ship their cherished incense by boat on the Red Sea directly to Egypt.