Mada'in Salih is identified by Muslims with the story of the prophet Salih in the Koran. As with Noah in the Bible, this concerns a prophet whose teaching was rejected by the people to whom he was sent, with the result that their city was destroyed by a natural calamity.
Over the centuries the commentators have elaborated the tale in all sorts of ways, particularly as regards the reference in the Koran (in connection with the story of the prophet) to a she-camel which the disbelieving people hamstrung. According to the legend, when the people of Thamud refused to listen to the prophet's words, they proposed that at a certain festival they should pray to their gods and he to his, and see which would answer. When the day came the Thamudites first prayed to their idols, with no result. Then their prince, Jonda, challenged Salih to conjure forth a she-camel, big with young, from the rocks nearby and swore that if the prophet brought this miracle to pass they would believe him.
Salih asked it of God. The rocks shuddered as though in labour and a she-camel came forth, big with young. Seeing the miracle, Jonda believed, and some few with him; but the rest of the Thamudites still repudiated the prophet and glorified their own idols.
Meanwhile the miraculous she-camel drank up all the water from the village well, but at the same time she produced inexhaustible supplies of milk. Some commentators say that she went through the village streets crying, "If any wants milk, let him come forth!" This caused both wonder and dismay, for although the people appreciated the milk they feared for their supply of water. Finally, although Salih begged them to spare the she-camel if they hoped to avert the wrath of God, the Thamudites lamed the miraculous animal by cutting her tendons, and then killed her. Her young foal, however, came forth from the womb unharmed and vanished into a great rock which still stands as a landmark on the western side of the valley, its summit close to a thousand feet.
Then Salih warned the people to stay inside their houses for three days. And on the third day "a terrible noise from heaven assailed them; and in the morning they were found in their dwellings prostrate on their breasts and dead."
Whether the Thamud were contemporary with, and related to, or subject to, the Nabateans is not clear. Pliny and Ptolemy mention their settlements, including one that is apparently Mada'in Salih, as oasis towns on the route from South Arabia. Later this route was gradually abandoned, being replaced by sea travel and by a trade route up the Persian Gulf and then overland, through Palmyra. The settlement at Mada'in Salih probably came to an end at about the same time as the Nabateans at Petra were finally overthrown by the Romans (A.D. 106). From the inscriptions copied by Doughty it is clear that all the monuments there date from the first century A.D., that all are Nabatean, and that all except one are tombs.
But in the time of Muhammad five hundred years later, no one could read these inscriptions. The history of the people was forgotten. Passing by these rock-hewn facades, scattered throughout the valley, and seeing no other houses (for no one yet knows where the people lived), the Bedouin concluded that these buildings must have been the dwellings of an ancient pagan race. Those who were brave enough to venture inside discovered human bones, which even in Doughty's time they claimed to be those of giants, although he found them quite ordinary.
So, presumably, arose the legend of the people of Thamud, struck dead in their houses overnight. Tradition may also have associated their downfall with one of the volcanic outbreaks which long ago led to the formation of the Harrat, as they are called, the enormous fields of black lava which cover several areas in North Arabia and which are desolate enough to make anyone brood on past cataclysms. And so the city of Thamud became one of the cursed cities, like Midian, and Sodom and Gomorrah, its fate an awful warning of what might befall those who rejected the prophets of God.
Lady Peter Crowe, world traveler and author of five books, is the wife of the former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. In 1363 she visited Mada'in Salih and wrote an article for the Royal Central Asian Journal, July-Oct. 1964, from which this excerpt, with the permission of the Royal Central Asian Society, is reprinted.