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The Nabataean Kingdom ruled over an area that spanned from the southern Levant to northern Arabia, a position that allowed them to control the Incense Route that passed through the Arabian Peninsula. As a result of this lucrative trade, the Nabataeans grew immensely wealthy and powerful. One expression of this wealth can be seen in the monuments they built. The most well-known Nabataean monument is arguably the al-Khazneh in Petra, modern day Jordan. Nevertheless, the Nabataeans were highly skilled craftsmen when it came to carving rock, and numerous examples of their workmanship can be found throughout their kingdom. One such monument is the Qasr al-Farid.
The Nabataeans were skilled craftsmen who carved their monuments out of solid rock ( Wikimedia Commons )
The Qasr al-Farid (meaning ‘Lonely Castle’) is located in the archaeological site of Madâin Sâlih (known also as al-Hijr or Hegra) in the north of Saudi Arabia. Although called a castle, the Qasr al-Farid was actually a tomb constructed around the 1 st century AD. The Qasr al-Farid is just one of the 111 monumental tombs scattered around the landscape of the Madâin Sâlih, a site which was inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 2008. Of these tombs, 94 of them are decorated. The Qasr al-Farid is one of the most famous tombs in Madâin Sâlih, and was named as such due to the fact that it is completely isolated from the other tombs situated in the area. This is unusual, given that most of the monumental tombs in Madâin Sâlih were found to have been made in groups. These include the Qasr al-Bint tombs, the Qasr al-Sani tombs, and the tombs of the Jabal al-Mahjar area.
The archaeological site of Madâin Sâlih, Saudi Arabia ( Wikimedia Commons ).
The Qasr al-Farid is reported to be four stories high. As such monuments were meant to be an indication of the wealth and the social status of the people who commissioned them, bigger definitely meant better. Another noteworthy aspect of the Qasr al-Farid is the number of pilasters it has on its façade. All the other tomb façades of the Madâin Sâlih contain only two pilasters, one on the left and another on the right. The Qasr al-Farid, however, has four pilasters on its façade, one on each side, and two additional ones in the middle. This may be further evidence that the owner of this tomb was an immensely wealthy and important individual in Nabataean society.
The enigmatic Nabataeans were originally a nomadic tribe, but about 2,500 years ago, they began building great settlements and cities which prospered from the first century BC to the first century AD, including the magnificent city of Petra in Jordan. As well as their agricultural activities, they developed political systems, arts, engineering, stonemasonry, astronomy, and demonstrated astonishing hydraulic expertise, including the construction of wells, cisterns, and aqueducts.
Unlike other structures in Madâin Sâlih, the Qasr al-Farid has four pillars rather than two ( Wikimedia Commons )
It may come as a surprise then that the building of the Qasr al-Farid was actually never completed. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that we will ever find out for whom this tomb was built. Neither will we know the reason for the abandonment of this project by either its owner or the workmen. The Qasr al-Farid’s incomplete nature, however, reveals something tantalising about the way it was built. As the quality of the work is rougher on the lower part of the tomb’s façade, it has been suggested that the monument was fashioned from the top down. It may also be possible that other similar monuments were also made in such a manner.
Qasr al-Farid, the Lonely Castle ( Wikimedia Commons )
By the 3 rd century A.D., the Incense Route was in decline due to the political and economic crisis that was faced by the Roman Empire. Consequently, many of the towns along the trade route would be affected by the deterioration in trade. Even Medain Salih, once a major staging post on the main north-south caravan route, was not spared, and eventually shrank into a tiny village. The 10 th century Arab traveller, for instance, wrote that during his time, Madâin Sâlih was but a small oasis whose activities centred on its wells and peasants. This is undeniably a stark contrast compared to the site’s heyday during the Nabataean period, when merchants and camels laden with the incense of Arabia would have thronged its streets on their way to the north. Still, the Qasr al-Farid and the other tombs built by the Nabataeans remain as a testimony to the greatness that the Madâin Sâlih once was.
Featured image: The Qasr al-Farid. Photo source: Wikimedia.
EricGrundhauser, 2015. The Lonely Castle. [Online]
Available at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-lonely-castle
Kaushik, 2015. Qasr al Farid: The Lonely Castle of Mada'in Saleh. [Online]
Available at: http://www.amusingplanet.com/2015/02/qasr-al-farid-lonely-castle-of-mada.html
Lendering, J., 2009. Nabataeans. [Online]
Available at: http://www.livius.org/people/nabataeans/
Pemberton, B., 2015. Riddle of the The Lonely Castle: Abandoned in the middle of the desert, the ancient tomb carved out of rock which has endured since the first century. [Online]
Powell, E. A., 2010. Petra's Sister City. [Online]
Available at: http://archive.archaeology.org/1007/abstracts/hegra.html
Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, 2009. Sites in Saudi Arabia. [Online]
UNESCO, 2015. Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih). [Online]
Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1293
The Lonely Castle
Among the dozens of ruins located in the archeological playground of Mada’in Saleh, one literally stands alone. Carved into a massive boulder, Qasr al-Farid, or “The Lonely Castle,” is a stunning ancient structure that rivals the majesty of any carved architecture in the world.
Created around the 1st century CE, the tall facade was never actually finished. The description of the site as a “castle” is misleading, as the grand carving is actually a tomb that was built as part of the ancient Nabatean site of Hegra. The Nabateans had a unique construction technique that saw their tombs being chiseled right out of the rock from the top down. Such is the case with Qasr al-Farid, although the monument appears to never have been completed, so the craftsmanship and precision of work slowly deteriorate closer to the base of the structure.
Generally speaking, this may be seen as a strike against the site in terms of its beauty or its archeological importance, but the tapering finish on the facade has actually turned out to be a boon. The incomplete portion of the tomb is a terrific window into the steps taken by the ancient carvers before the rougher work was polished away.
Archeological importance aside, The Lonely Castle stands out as a starkly unforgettable wonder in a region that is crowded with them.
Meet Qasr al-Farid—carved out of a single rock, and abandoned in the middle of the desert
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In the arid desert landscape of northern Saudi Arabia, an ancient tomb carved from a single rock rises to a height of about four to five stories. Erected thousands of years ago by the builders of the Stone City of Petra, Qasr al-Farid is one of the most impressive ancient stone structures on the surface of the planet.
Abandoned in the middle of the desert, the ancient tomb carved out of a single rock is known as Qasr al-Farid—or the solitary castle.
The unfinished structure is believed to date back to the first century AD, specifically to the reign of the Nabataeans. Located near the pre-Islamic site of Madain Saleh (also known as Hegra) some 1,400 kilometers north of the capital, Riyadh, Qasr al-Farid is one of the 131 monumental tombs that were carved centuries ago in the area.
Although many refer to Qasr al-Farid as the lonely castle, rather than being a castle it’s a tomb. Out of the 131 tombs in the area, Qasr al-Farid is one of the most famous tombs in Madain Salih, named lonely castle because it was completely isolated from other monuments in the area.
While researchers know that was never finished, we still have no idea for who this magnificent tomb was actually built.
Qasr al-Farid, tomb in Archeological site Mada’in Saleh, Al-`Ula, Saudi Arabia
Qasr al-Farid is one of those magical ancient places where time has stopped to evoke in those contemplating, memories of nomadic tribes, desert men, and the majesty and silence of the mythical cities of stone.
The ‘Lonely Castle’ is considered as the most emblematic symbol of Madain Saleh. Its impressive façade, trimmed by a solitary sandstone outcrop, allows anyone to witness how the Nabataeans chiseled their buildings from top to bottom.
Although the tomb was never finished, it has remained in very good condition thanks to the arid climate. The “solitary castle”, as well as the surrounding monuments, have enjoyed renewed fame after UNESCO proclaimed Madain Saleh a World Heritage Site in 2008, becoming the first World Heritage Site of Saudi Arabia.
Qasr Al Farid—a stone tomb located on an arid plain in northern Saudi Arabia and close to the center of the ancient Nabataean pre-Islamic city of Hegra—now Madain Saleh—some 1,400 kilometers from Riyadh is filled with incredible stories, backed by the incredible yet mysterious history of the ancient Nabataeans.
The Nabataeans were a nomadic people who achieved prosperity in the period between the first and second centuries BC and the first century AC.
Experts point out that the Nabataeans were a village of nomadic traders who may have originated from an area near Yemen, or from present-day Saudi Arabia.
Jane Taylor points out in her book Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans that the Nabataeans were one among several nomadic tribes that roamed the Arabian Desert, moving with their herds to wherever they could find pasture and water. These nomads became familiar with their area as seasons passed, and they struggled to survive during bad years when seasonal rainfall diminished.
2,500 years ago, the Nabataeans started building incredible cities—among them the magnificent city of Petra in Jordan—and developed agricultural activities, politics, art, engineering, and astronomy.
Photo Lonely castle stands out in the desert
The castle is strategically located on one of the most important ancient trade routes, connecting the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula as well as the major economic and cultural centers of Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt. .
Photo 2 Lonely castle stands out in the desert
The castle was carved from a single rock around the first century AD.
Photo 3 Lonely castle stands out in the desert
The lonely castle stands out in the middle of the desert intact after thousands of years.
Photo 4 Lonely castle stands out in the desert
Lonely tombs tomb was recognized as a United Nations heritage site in 2008.
Photo 5 Lonely castle stands out in the desert
The striking castle in the desert is no longer lonely now as more tourists come to visit.
Mada'in Saleh is considered one of the most important and oldest ancient cities, also the second largest city of the Nabateans that ruled in the first century AD.
Today, Mada'in Saleh becomes an important archaeological site with majestic ruins. The best of the most iconic ruins of Mada'in Saleh is Qasr al-Farid.
In 2008, Mada'in Saleh became the first National Heritage Site and UNESCO World Heritage Site in Saudi Arabia. It is a testament to the Post-Ancient period, especially dozens of monumental and elaborate cutting stone structures with decorative facades that illustrate the development of the Kingdom of Nabatea.
Four-story Qasr al-Farid castle is actually an old tomb. The reason it became famous because the entire castle block was carved from a single rock around the first century AD.
Qasr al-Farid is just one of ninety monumental tombs carved here during the Nabataeans' golden age. With the climate and weather of the sunny desert, the ancient tomb wind seems to have remained intact even over a period of 2,000 years. The huge tomb size is a symbol of the social status of the deceased.
Qasr al-Farid (The Lonely Castle), an incomplete solitary tomb made by the Nabataeans located at Madain Salih, Saudi Arabia. It is unknown who this tomb was being made for before it was abandoned.
If the ruler dies before the tomb is finished you're legally allowed to leave work and never come back.
Wasn't it for the Mondoshawans?
They killed the professor!
In 2000 years when the evil returns, so shall we.
Anyone know if there is a documentary about how places like this were made back in the day? Side note, one that doesn't say "aliens did it". I'll settle for an article.
This might be like something you’re looking for!
I just recently watched a BBC documentary on Petra, which was by the same civilisation, no link though.
I remember watching a documentary on this exactly, but I cannot remember the name of it. I belive I watched it on Amazon. I know its not enough info, but its a start
Petra: Lost City of Stone is a PBS one you can find for free on YouTube.
Unfortunately i do not have an article nor a documentary, but we were taught about this in school.
So, the people who used to live here were LITERALLY giants, if you google more pics of this place you’d see how big their doors were, the sculpture all this by hand (and primitive tools i assume). They weren’t just giants, they were strong-built (obviously) but like in unnatural way. As obvious, they lived in the desert, and they inherited the qualities of those who did live in such a harsh environment.
Of course there’s more to the story, but its a religious one.
Edit: ok i just realized that i didn’t really add a lot of info on this, but i might re-edit this later on and try my best to explain the whole story if anyone is interested.
Ancient civilization of Nabataeans secretly kept in a lonely castle
Madain Saleh is a majestic and significant ancient city built in the pre-Islamic period. It is located in the north of Saudi Arabia. The city stands on one of the most important ancient trade routes, which connected such powerful states of those ancient times as Arabia, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Egypt.
The majestic ruins of Madain Saleh are a stunningly important archaeological site. It is very often compared to the capital of Nabatea, Petra. The Nabataean city of Petra is located in what is now Jordan. Historians learned the name of the city from ancient Greek texts means “rock”. The capital of the Nabatean state is Petra.
Their cities were very inaccessible and had their sources of water supply. This was especially true in the desert. There was only one way to their capital, Petra – this is a very narrow road between impregnable rocks. Even the almighty Roman Empire was unable to break and conquer this magnificent city.
The architecture of the Nabataeans in the Hellenistic style is amazing even now. Then it was just an unsurpassed masterpiece. It is primarily because the Nabateans were simple nomads. The city of Petra is equipped with an incredibly complex system of dams and irrigation canals. The houses in this city, all the buildings, royal palaces, and religious centers – all this miraculously fits perfectly with the surrounding sandy landscape. It seems that the city simply dissolves into the surrounding rocks.
©BBC News – Hidden Tomb
In the 1st century AD, Nabatea nevertheless became part of the Roman Empire. It was an act of goodwill on the Nabataeans’ part because the Roman soldiers never conquered the impregnable city. The state became a Roman province and received the name Arabia Petreia. The Roman period was marked by constructing architectural monuments traditional for this culture – columns and a theater.
The Nabataean state ceased to exist in the 2nd century. Researchers believe that the decline of this advanced society was due to a change in the network of trade routes. The Syrian city of Palmyra has become the new hub of this network. The caravans from Persia, India, China to Rome ran through it. The importance of Nabatea began to diminish and then completely disappeared. The state fell into decay. Residents left their beautiful cities in search of a better life.
Today, Nabatean cities are included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Leading archaeologists and researchers work here, and restoration work is underway. Thousands of tourists visit the region every year to enjoy a magnificent and amazing example of the stunning ancient architecture of the enigmatic Nabatean civilization.
Saudi Arabia’s little-known ancient civilisation
Saudi Arabia’s counterpart to Jordan’s Petra, Mada’in Saleh is a fascinating Unesco-listed desert necropolis.
Jordan&rsquos sandstone-carved city of Petra is widely revered as the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, an ancient Arabic civilisation that flourished in northern Arabia and the southern Levant between about 312BC and 106AD. But a few hundred kilometres south, a sweltering three-to-four-hour drive from Saudi Arabia&rsquos city of Medina, lie the remains of a mysterious settlement that was once a critical centre of their mighty civilisation.
Until archaeological excavations in the last few decades, little was known about Saudi Arabia&rsquos ancient culture, which left behind massive rock-carved monuments in the vast desert. Mada&rsquoin Saleh, a Unesco-listed site sometimes called Hegra, was a key Nabataean hub along an ancient trade route connecting Persia to the East with the Mediterranean world to the west. The surrounding area of al-Ula is a stunning sand-swept landscape of ancient ruins and millennia-old tombs, much of which remains well-preserved to this day.
Mada&rsquoin Saleh has been inhabited since the 1st Century BC and was a bustling hub for incense and spice trading until the invasion of the Romans in the 1st Century AD. The site is comprised of more than 100 boulder-cut, monumental tombs, reflecting the Nabataeans&rsquo artisanal prowess. Qasr al-Farid (&ldquoThe Lonely Castle&rdquo) is one of the most majestic, with stairs at its crown believed to support the soul&rsquos passage to heaven. Greco-Roman, Assyrian and Egyptian architectural influences, such as eagles, sphinxes, triangles and columns, are visible throughout the sandstone-chiselled tombs.
The millennium-old site has remained well-preserved for centuries, largely owing to Saudi Arabia&rsquos dry, arid climate. In light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it is due to reopen for tourism in October 2020, and the government is pumping investment into the surrounding al-Ula region to attract prospective tourists.
(Video by Ana González & Frederick Bernas, text by Yasmin El-Beih)
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Discovering Ancient Arabian Civilizations in AlUla
AlUla, a governorate in the Medina region of northwest Saudi, has long existed at a very important crossroads in Arabia. Boasting an oasis, architectural sites galore, and several thousand years of human history, this is a rare place where one can truly interact with the traces of ancient civilizations. Notice that we said civilizations, plural the many archaeological wonders and artefacts here tell a story of a place that many different people touched, shaping history with their hands. Each culture that settled, traded, or passed through here left behind their own distinct record, such that several different languages can still be observed in rock inscriptions across the landscape. When you come to AlUla, you will be picking up a thread of history that goes for many thousands of miles, across the Middle East and beyond via trade routes and similar settlements. Best of all, this place is pristine and untouched, having just recently opened to the world. Will you be one of the first to explore this living museum?
AlUla has more history than could ever be contained in the extent of one article, but we’ll do our best to capture the mystique of a place so ancient and expansive. Nowhere else can visitors retrace the steps of those who took formative trade routes through this region while also taking in intricate rock reliefs carved in the sandstone by people who came from all over Arabia.
History of AlUla
There is no telling how far back human history stretches at AlUla, but the first of the structures that one can still walk amongst today were constructed in the 6th century B.C. by the Lihyanites and Dedanites, a Kingdom of Arabians who were skilled traders and incredibly advanced in their sculpting: a trend that would live on at AlUla. They left some of the rock-cut tombs that you can see in the outcroppings at Dedan. It is unclear exactly what precipitated their fall, but nonetheless this seat of their kingdom passed into the hands of the Nabataeans during the 1st century B.C. Theirs was a society so advanced that it eventually garnered the attention of the Romans, who would annex Nabataean territory a few hundred years later. In the meantime, though, their metropolis at Hegra in AlUla served as their second capital alongside Petra in Jordan — it is no coincidence that the architecture at both sites is so similar.
The legacy that the Nabataeans left behind here is as intriguing as it is mysterious, with many details of their mythology, lives, and practices either lost or confounding to scholars. In addition to their construction of the now-famous tombs, they were also skilled at managing the abundant water source at the AlUla oasis, managing feats of engineering that would allow this place to prosper until the modern day. Following Roman annexation and decline, little is known about what became of AlUla, until what is now known as the “Old Town” was constructed in the 13th century. The settlement grew and indeed thrived once more until the time of the Ottomans, who came here and established some fortifications that still stand.
You can now book a ticket at any time of year to see the ancient tombs of the Nabataeans at Hegra, about 25km north of the town of AlUla itself. These are the main event, so to speak, and you may be so blown away by their size and detail that you’re left wondering what it all means, or where to even begin understanding it. Luckily for you, a rawi (Arabian storyteller) is always on hand to explain everything that you see, since several thousand years of untouched history requires a kind of expertise and intimate relationship with the material that only they possess.
These are much more than just tour guides — they have all been especially briefed on the archaeological and anthropological work that goes on at the historic sites of AlUla, and many of them were born in the region. You can expect them to speak on their personal connection to the land, offering you a level of insight that will make you feel welcome and privy to some precious knowledge that only few possess at this time.
The largest tomb at Hegra is a gargantuan monolithic structure, standing at 72 feet tall. Called Qasr Al-Farid, or “the lonely castle” in English on account of its distance from some of the other tombs, taking up a solitary position amidst the desert floor. Though it was left unfinished, there are inscriptions describing its dedication to a specific family, which just add to the mystique of seeing a structure cut into a massive desert rock.
Closer to the town of AlUla, you can see more inscriptions (in several different languages) and even more tombs (of a different, more ancient style) at two adjoining sites: Jabal Ikmah and Dadan. As Dadan was the ancient capital of the mercantile Lihyanites, people from all over Arabia and beyond came here to create a bustling standard of daily life. While the region around AlUla has some of the oldest pre-Arabic inscriptions in the world, no site has more extensive, detailed, and varied inscriptions as the mountain near Dadan, Jabal Ikmah. Carvings that include individuals’ names, pleas to God, and accounts of music and animals can be observed in the languages of Aramaic, Dadanitic, Thamudic, Minaic, and Nabataean.
Rock inscriptions at Jabal Ikmah.
The legacies of Dadan include architectural and agricultural innovation, which allowed them to cultivate a number of different crops and carve their distinct rectangular tombs into the rock wall about 50 meters off the ground. While they look simple from a distance, get closer and you’ll wonder how they managed to cut these spaces that feature intricate reliefs of lions, symbols of power and protection.
There is much more adventure to be had in AlUla, as Saudi institutions seek to draw on history as an inspiration for future development and cultural celebrations at sites such as this. There are fantastic accommodation options in and around AlUla, exciting art installations, and plenty of outdoor space for you to breath, reflect, and even take in the beauty of the stars at night. Learn more about all of this from Visit Saudi themselves, or from one of our other guides!
Check here for the latest information on Covid-19 and travel to Saudi Arabia.
Evaluation of geoenvironmental hazards at Qasr Al-Farid tomb, Mada’in Saleh, northwestern Saudi Arabia
Mada’in Saleh, northwest of Saudi Arabia, has attractive tombs carved in the outcrop cliffs of sandstone. The present study aims to evaluate the geoenvironmental hazards and to determine the main decay factors in the Mada’in Saleh tombs, using different analytical methods to support appropriate decisions. Besides field observations, meteorological data, optical, polarizing, scanning electron microscopy, and x-ray diffraction analysis were used to examine the stone samples. Mada’in Saleh outcrop cliffs are formed of Quweria sandstone (Cambrian). Petrographical analysis reveals that the sandstone detrital grains are composed of monocrystalline and polycrystalline quartz in addition to minor amounts of mica and clay minerals. According to SEM observations, the disintegration of clay minerals and salt crystallization are the major factors in the decay of Qasr Al-Farid’s tomb. The daily high temperature sometimes exceeds 44 °C wind erosion and relative humidity can cause continuous wetting-drying cycles on the stone surfaces.
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Ancient Tomb Chiseled From a Solitary Rock in Saudi Arabia
In the barren, desert landscape of northern Saudi Arabia, an ancient tomb half-carved from a single rock rises four stories tall from the arid plain. Known as Qasr al-Farid (“lonely castle”), the unfinished structure dates back to the first century A.D. during the rule of the Nabateans. Located near the pre-Islamic site Mada'in Saleh (also known as Hegra) about 1,400 kilometers to the north of capital Riyadh, Qasr al-Farid is one of 131 monumental tombs carved in the area centuries ago.
Mada'in Saleh was the Nabatean kingdom's southernmost and second largest settlement after Petra, its capital in present-day Jordan. The ancient city dates back to the second century B.C., when it was established as a strategic post on a major trading route that connected the north and south of the peninsula, as well as important cities around the Mediterranean.
Qasr al-Farid is the most iconic symbol of Mada'in Saleh. The stunning facade, cut out of a solitary sandstone outcrop, allows us to see how the Nabateans chiseled their buildings from the top-down. Although the tomb was never completed, it has remained remarkably well-preserved thanks to the arid climate. The “lonely castle,” as well as the surrounding monuments, have enjoyed renewed fame after UNESCO proclaimed Mada'in Saleh a site of patrimony&ndashbecoming Saudi Arabia's first World Heritage Site&ndashin 2008.
Photo via saudi-archaeology
Photo credit: Andrew Ian Salegumba
Photo credit: Tomasz Trzesniowski
Photo credit: Tomasz Trzesniowski
Photo credit: Tomasz Trzesniowski
Photo via saudi-archaeology