en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 16, Number 5September/October 1965

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

The Monuments-I

Written by Charles M. Doughty

"In a warm and hazy air, we came marching over the loamy sand plain, to Mada'in Salih and we alighted at our encampment of white tents, pitched a little before the kella (fort)...

"Now I had sight at little distance, of a first monument, and another hewn above, like the head of some vast frontispiece, where yet is but a blind door, little entering into the rock, without chamber. This ambitious sculpture, seventy feet wide, is called Kasr el-Bint, 'the Maiden's Bower.' it is not as they pretend, inaccessible; for ascending some ancient steps, entailed in the further end of the cliff, my unshod companions have climbed over all the rocky brow. I saw that tall nightmare frontispiece below, of a crystalline symmetry and solemnity, and battled with the strange half-pinnacles of the Petra monuments; also this rock is the same yellow-grey soft sandstone with gritty veins and small quartz pebbles ..."

"Backward from the rock, we arrived under a principal monument; in the face I saw a table and inscription, and a bird I which are proper to the Hijr frontispiece; the width of sculptured architecture with cornices and columns is twenty-two feet—I mused what might be the sleeping riddle of those strange crawling letters which I had come so far to seek! The whole is wrought in the rock; a bay has been quarried in the soft cliff, and in the midst is sculptured the temple like monument. The aspect is Corinthian, the stepped pinnacles—an Asiatic ornament, but here so strange to European eyes—I have seen used in their clay house-building at Hayil. Flat side-pilasters are as the limbs of this body of architecture; the chapiters of a singular severe design, hollowed and square at once, are as all those before seen at Petra. In the midst of this counterfeited temple-face is sculptured a stately porch, with the ornaments of architecture. Entering, I found but a rough-hewn cavernous chamber, not high, not corresponding to the dignity of the frontispiece ..."

"We returned through the ... rocks; and in that passage I saw a few more monuments ... Under the porch of one of them and over the doorway are sculptured as supporters, some four-footed beast; the like are seen in none other. The side pedestal ornaments upon another are like griffons; those also are singular. The tablet is here, and in some other, adorned with a fretwork flower (perhaps pomegranate) of six petals. Over a third doorway the effigy of a bird is slenderly sculptured upon the tablet, in low relief, the head yet remaining. Every other sculptured bird of these monuments we see wrought in high natural relief, standing upon a pedestal, sculptured upon the frontispiece wall, which springs from the ridge of the pediment: but among them all, not a head remains; whether it be they were wasted by idle stonecasts of the generations of herdsmen, or the long course of the weather. Having now entered many, I perceived that all the monument chambers were sepulchral ... The mural loculi in the low hewn walls of these rudely foursquare rooms, are made as shallow shelves, in length, as they might have measured to the human body, from the child to the grown person; yet their shallowness is such that they could not serve, I suppose, to the receipt of the dead. In the rock floors are seen grave-pits, sunken side by side, full of men's bones, and bones are strewed upon the sanded floors. A loathsome mummy odour, in certain monuments, is heavy in the nostrils; we thought our cloaks smelled villainously when we had stayed within but few minutes. In another of these monuments, Beyt es-Sheykh, I saw the sand floor full of rotten clouts, shivering in every wind, and taking them up, I found them to be those dry bones' grave-clothes!"

"Little remains of the old civil generations of al-Hijr; the caravan city; her clay-built streets are again the blown dust in the wilderness. Their story is written for us only in the crabbed scrawlings upon many a wild crag of this sinister neighbourhood, and in the engraved titles of their funeral monuments, now solitary rocks, which the fearful passenger admires, in these desolate mountains. The plots of potsherds may mark old in habited sites, perhaps a cluster of villages: it is an ordinary manner of Semitic settlements in the Oasis countries that they are founded upon veins of groundwater. A suk perhaps and these suburbs was Hijr emporium, with palm groves walled about ..."

Charles M. Doughty, author of the classic Travels in Arabia Deserta, was probably the first Westerner ever to visit the northwestern corner of Saudi Arabia and see the monuments at Mads'in Salih. These few comments are reprinted from an abridged version of that book with the permission of the Liveright Publishing Corp., 386 Park Avenue S., New York.

This article appeared on page 15 of the September/October 1965 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1965 images.