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Letters from the Desert (7) Ghosts and Camels and the Graffiti of the Doomed

Iíve been thinking about the Taleban, not because Iím in Afghanistan. As you know, Iím in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Recently, however, I over-nighted in a small hotel some 800 kilometers north of Jeddah in a small city called Al Ula. Al Ula is the jumping off point for trips to Medain Saleh, the ruins of an ancient city with tombs and homes carved in the soft sandstone hills that shoot out of the desert.

Medain Saleh was built by the same people who built Petra in Jordan. Petra is a world famous tourist destination. Medain Saleh is Petraís poor relation, a little older, a lot shabbier, and far more ravaged by the same impulse to cultural destruction that the Taleban unleashed on Afghanistanís ancient Buddhas.

There are no giant Buddhas in Medain Saleh, but there used to be wonderful carvings of eagles and winged lions. Over the centuries these were either completely destroyed or at least rendered headless, although many of the more than 300 tombs show damage from more modern tools Ė rifles. Bedouin, our guide told us: some of them pious and bent on destroying the idols of a blasphemous pagan religion, some bent on showing the power of their rifles to prospective customers by blowing holes in the sandstone in the less pious pursuit of gunrunning.

Yet the tombs remain, artificial caves gouged from the rock with small hand tools. The peculiar, worm-like pattern of the tools is everywhere on the insides. On the outsides, smooth facades have been carved, some only fifteen feet high, others fifty or more. Most of the facades have a unique pattern. From each corner at the top, what look like large, inverted steps work down and inward until the final steps meet. You can imagine that if the whole of a tomb were turned upside down these symmetrical steps would form an interesting doorway. Some of my students at the school I teach in insist that all the tombs were indeed turned upside down in some divine retribution for their inhabitants worshipping of false gods.

Medain Saleh Ė the City of Saleh. Saleh was an ancient Islamic prophet and his story is in part the story of the end of the ancient city. The cityís rich and powerful refused to heed the prophetís teachings. They demanded, at the very least, that Saleh provide a miracle as proof, a camel say, to appear live from the very rocks of the mountains. Saleh, being a man and not a magician, asked his god for guidance, and a huge camel leading a calf did indeed come forth from the mountains. The people were ordered to leave the camels be, and to allow them to drink on certain days from the well, while the people would drink on the alternate days. The rich didnít like this, and in fact the size of the camels scared not only the local herds of goats and sheep but also the people themselves.

The camel and its calf were killed.

Then, a great cry was heard over all the land, and all who heard the cry fell sick, changing colours from red to yellow to black, then finally dying. One old woman, an evil woman, survived the terror, but only long enough to tell the tale in other cities before finally expiring.

Our tour guide related this tale in the central meeting chamber in Medain Saleh, a man-made cave maybe forty feet a side, with smooth sandstone benches on three sides of the cavern. We listened politely, after which he gathered us together for a group picture then handed out box lunches from the hotel in Al Ula.

Medain Saleh is a large complex cut in sudden thrustings of sandstone in a high desert plain. Here and there around the hills stand the remains of less grand mud brick houses reinforced with the trunks of small palm trees. Most of the people likely lived in such houses, and large areas of the complex remain fenced off waiting for excavations at some unknown, future date. Only a few would have lived in the rock houses since most of them seem to have been tombs. A fifty-foot high faÁade might conceal a room of no more than fifteen feet a side in the walls of which crudely cut slots held the bodies of the dead.

A few of the structures, though, were probably homes, and some of these seemed to be both home and tomb in one, the dead buried in small chambers off the main rooms. A few of the structures have second floors which we clambered up to then looked out from across the desert and tried to imagine the mud city that once stood below.

Visitors can wander through many of the tombs, though some are fenced off. The guide might tell you that this one or that has bones still in it. I did find a finger bone, but most of the bones seemed likely to be goat bones tossed in for effect. Indeed, two of us stumbled across the remains of a goat, hooves and fur still intact, tossed in a small bush and certainly not dating from Nabataean times.

Visitors can also search out the impressively large well or a harder to find cistern carved into the side of large sandstone formation. The cistern was once filled and fed by rainwater running down the cliffs and collected and directed by ingenious stone gutters. One can also find a narrow cleft between two cliffs into which, so said our guide, prisoners awaiting execution for their long-ago crimes were once herded. Ancient script, faint with time, can still be seen scratched into the walls of this natural prison, the graffiti of the doomed.

Time passes quickly on a visit to Medain Saleh. Tourists arenít allowed to stay on-site over night, and care must be taken anyway to leave time for a visit to a more modern construction. On the edge of Medain Saleh stands a Turkish fort that looks exactly as if it came from the movie Beau Geste, except it is surprisingly cramped.

The fort guards part of the Hejaz railway, the Turkish rail link that knifed deep into the heart of Arabia in the early twentieth century, the very railway that Lawrence of Arabia was once busy blowing up. An engine that Lawrence missed sits in one of the sheds near the fort, its only passengers now just curious tourists.

There is more, but the bell for classes is ringing and I have to go. My students will be asking me about Medain Saleh, of course. They have never gone there. Some will insist again that the tombs are upside down houses. They will tell me that the reason no one stays overnight is because there are ghosts, and some will tell me there are sound religious reasons for the deliberate destruction of eagles and winged lions.

I am not allowed to argue religion with my students, so I will nod my head politely, but I will be thinking of the destruction. I will be thinking it is lucky that Medain Saleh is not in Afghanistan where the Taleban is busy obliterating cultural history with a ferocity beyond even the pious gunrunner in the Arabian desert. I will be thinking I am lucky to have had the chance to see some history in the Kingdom. Even if I donít really buy the story about the giant camel.

From the Kingdom,

The Major

   

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