Extracts from Visions in the Rock*

A visit to Al ‘Ula and the tombs of the Nabateans

Photo-essay: a lightning trip to Meda’in Saleh

By Phil Hall

Next day, at work, Dunstan had a proposal. He wanted to go on a road trip to Meda’in Saleh. Quickly, Peter invited me to go along too.

‘Meda’in Saleh means the City of Saleh.’

‘Giants built it’ said Karim.

‘Giants?’

‘Yes.’

‘The doors are much too big for normal people.’

I decided to  ignore him.

‘Why is it called Meda’in Saleh?’ I asked Mahmoud.

‘Saleh, a prophet who was here in Arabia long before the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, commanded the people in that place to abandon their false idols and follow Allah. These people were called: ‘The ones who worshipped the Gods they made themselves.’ When they refused, he made a living camel appear from the rock, but they still would not believe in Allah, so he cursed them. The town where they lived is named after Saleh.’

We needed special passes to get to Saleh’s town. We hired a big GMC the following weekend and set off.


The inspiration behind the lightning visit, photo Phil Hall (2015)

In the front Dunstan and Peter talked about the hypocrisy of religion, the stupidity of religious people, and the wonders of science. This lasted for about 40 minutes until I decided to break in.

‘Religion doesn’t not oppose science. It’s a way of understanding our lived experience. If I were a poet you wouldn’t take me to task because I wasn’t peer reviewed. Instead, you would examine your feelings concerning the poem. Whether it moved you or not. Whether it felt authentic. It’s originality and expressiveness’

‘And yet religion makes such strong claims regarding the real world.’ Dunstan said. 

Peter nodded.

‘The only real world you will ever see or feel or know is the one you experience. I replied, and so much of that is subjective and emotional. We use religion, among other things, to understand our lives and give them meaning. It’s essential.’ Neither Peter, nor Dunstan agreed. Dunstan looked irritated.

‘By midnight we were in Riyadh and I was driving in a funk: moving through the traffic like a turtle through a school of tuna. Cars overtook us on both sides at high speeds, weaving and changing lanes. I cruised along steadily, looking straight ahead.


Taking a break after six hours of driving, photo Phil Hall (2015)

After Riyadh I was exhausted. Peter and Dunstan finished the night drive without my help. Dawn was breaking when I woke up. The desert all around us. By early morning the dunes had given gave way to a level plain strewn with grey rock. And then, after another hour, a few orange and yellow sandstone outcrops appeared. These grew larger and larger until they were as high as cliffs, and by the time we felt as if we were driving through a canyon, we were at the hotel.


Camels are always a danger to cars and the other way around, photo Phil Hall (2015)

Al Aula has a sandstone escarpment on either side. From the top of the southern escarpment, the valley of Al Aula looks like a broad strip of green. It follows the path of an underground river. The dramatic rock formations continue on to the northern horizon until they reach Petra, in Jordon. Al Aula has enough water to grow all its own vegetables and cereal crops.

The hotel was quite empty. The plan was to spend the whole day looking at the ruins, to sleep there the  night, and then go back to the Eastern Province the following morning.

Our guide, Ahmed Jaber, came for breakfast: he was a handsome man in his early 30s. He told us he was about to get married after two unsuccessful arrangements by his family. The first time she liked me and I didn’t like her. The second time I liked her and she didn’t like me. I am 33 now. I thought I would never get married, but then I decided to pay for a dowry for beautiful Pakistani Muslim wife. Her family agreed. She agreed. Now, I am looking forward to being a husband and a father.

Ahmed had been working with the archaeologists. They had discovered a small city near the tombs and were excavating it. He talked about it. They are digging up a house at the moment. He said. They have found a body. ‘It’s a woman, they think’.

‘What about Saleh and the Camel?’

Pah! This is not science. Science shows us what was really here. People tell stories, but they aren’t always true.’


Our official guide, Ahmed, photo Phil Hall (2015)

Heading towards the Nabatean tombs, photo Phil Hall (2015)

The beautiful desert Qaff tree, photo Phil Hall (2015)

The tombs had a resinous, musky smell which came from gummy traces on the walls – the cocoons of rock beetles. These had been brushed off when the tombs were opened.

The rock everywhere was eroded by the wind into protruding, curving shapes. They were so complex that with the changing light and shifting shadows, you could imagine you saw many things in them. You could project your imagination onto the rock and see different creatures. Even camels. The Nabateans had seen a great bird with a human head in the rock and they carved what they saw above many of the tomb entrances.


Nabatean tombs, photo Phil Hall (2015)
The interplay between geometrical carvings and natural rock is mesmerising, photo Phil Hall (2015)
There are 175 tombs and city to unearth, photo Phil Hall (2015)

Some plants can withstand desert conditions, photo Phil Hall (2015)
Some of the tombs were in better condition, photo Phil Hall (2015)

The lines of the entrances were cleanly geometric. But around them, the rock was unworked, as if its natural form were precious. Inside, the tombs were hollowed out into caves. There were chisel marks everywhere. There were also body sized holes in each wall. Often one cavity was positioned right above another – like the bunks on a train travelling to another world. The rectangular holes in the floor were for servants. Peter measured himself out next to one of the cavities in the wall, but he was too long for it.


The Nabateans carved symbols of their gods above the tombs

A winged god of the air, photo Phil Hall (2015)

Nabatean script was subject to many influences, photo Phil Hall (2015)

The superfine desert sand, photo Phil Hall (2015)

He wouldn’t have fit, photo Phil Hall (2015)

‘They worshiped like this, said Ahmed Jaber. First, they went to the water to wash and then they prayed to their Gods here. He spread his arms and legs against the wall, as if getting ready for a police search. And then they came here. He showed us the large square room, cut out of the rock on our right.


It is an odd feeling being inside a tomb, photo Phil Hall (2015)
Looking out of the tombs, photo Phil Hall (2015)
It was an uncomfortable feeling and there was a smell of resin, photo Phil Hall (2015)

They spoke and wrote a mixture of languages, said Ahmed Jaber. The writing you see above looks like Arabic, but it’s not Arabic. It’s a combination of Greek, Aramaic and the local dialect.

After visiting many tombs, we went to the main temple. This was inside a big crevice between two huge stone hillocks. They had carved a channel for the water between the stone hills. It ran through here, Ahmed Jaber said, and when it rained a lot, the flow was fierce.’


Ahmed at the entrance, photo Phil Hall (2015)
All 175 tombs were hand carved, photo Phil Hall (2015)

Like the Nabateans themselves, I suddenly saw a vision of the rock.

‘In a desert, the most important thing is fertility and fertility comes from liquid and water. The runnel between the rock lead to a crevice. The hillocks were round and feminine. These are female shapes. The room must be analogous to the womb, a place of conception and nurturing. They must have adored a fertility goddess here.’ It made sense. 

When I said this, Ahmed Jaber laughed nervously. 


Camels in the rock, photo Phil Hall (2015)
The scale of the tombs was impressive, photo Phil Hall (2015)
The shapes eroded by the wind, photo Phil Hall (2015)
The earliest tombs took advantage of natural holes in the rock formed by erosion , photo Phil Hall (2015)
There were so many forms hidden in the rock, photo Phil Hall (2015)
Something in the landscape imprints itself on visitors. Can you see the faces? Photo Phil Hall (2015)
The prophet Saleh is supposed to have made a living camel emerge from the rock, photo Phil Hall (2015)

Ahmed continued. ‘The Romans destroyed Nabatean civilisation’ he said. ‘They came as far as Al Aula in search of Frankincense. They killed and dispersed the people in the first century AD.’

‘Can you see the water channel?’ he asked. We couldn’t. You see that thin curving line coming down the rock. That’s a water channel. It’s disguised as a natural feature.’ Now that he had carefully pointed it out, we could see it.

‘They collected the water whenever it rained and streamed it into secret aquifers cut out of the rock. They hid their water from everyone.

We climbed to the top of the sandstone hills on steps which had been cut ergonomically into the sides of them – to take in the view.


The magnificence of the landscape, photo Phil Hall (2015)
Strange flowing forms in gold, photo Phil Hall (2015)
The adventurer contemplates the tombs, photo Phil Hall (2015)

I looked up the old Gods of the Nabateans. There were three important female ones: A Young woman, a middle-aged woman and an older woman. The most important was the youngest: Alia. The Kabbah, before it was rededicated, had been the place where they worshipped Alia, the Goddess of fertility. Perhaps the temple in Al Aula had been hers.

I opened the book my colleague had given me and turned to the pages where it described how Mohammed has all the idols in Mecca destroyed.

‘As he was leaving, the prophet, peace be upon him, stopped and called to one of his companions.’

“Go back! There is one more idol that needs to be destroyed!”

‘The companion set out for Mecca again.

‘But after a day or so he came back.

“What happened?’” Asked Mohammed. “Why did you come back early?”

‘On the way back I saw a beautiful Ethiopian woman who came towards me.’

‘What did you do?’

‘I cut her in two with my sword.’

“Good’ said Mohammed, you have destroyed the last idol.”


Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

  • Text extracted from a story published originally in The London Magazine in 2015