The Thamud: Petra and Madain Salih

· Archeology, Islam, Saudi Arabia

This popular Google-knol was first written in March of 2010

Thamud or the Nabataeans were known for hewing houses in mountains. Madain Salih and Petra are ruins of their civilization.

Madain Salih (Dedan) is in Saudi Arabia and is known in the European literature as Hegra derived from Al-Hijr. It was once inhabited by the Thamud or the Nabataeans. Petra (located in Jordan) being the capital of the Nabataean kingdom. The Nabataeans are of Arab origin that became rich by their monopoly on the trade of incense and spice in particular between the East and the Roman, Greek and Egyptian empires. Madain Saleh, is in north of Madinah and has about 130 dwellings and tombs that extend over some 13 kilometers.

Petra in Jordan has been declared to be one of the world wonders in 2007.

The prophet Salih was sent to the Thamud. The Holy Quran says, “The Thamud rejected the Messengers. When their brother Salih said to them: Will you not be righteous! I am sent to you as a trusty Messenger.” (Al Quran 26:142-144)

The Holy Quran says about the Thamud:
And to Thamud We (Allah) sent their brother Salih. He said, ‘O my people, worship Allah; you have no other deity but Him. Indeed, there has come to you a clear evidence from your Lord — this she-camel of Allah, a Sign for you. So leave her that she may feed in Allah’s earth, and do her no harm, lest a painful punishment seize you.  And remember the time when He made you inheritors of His favors after ‘Ad, and assigned you an abode in the land; you build palaces in its plains, and you hew the mountains into houses. Remember, therefore, the favors of Allah and commit not iniquity in the earth, causing disorder.’  The chief men of his people who were arrogant said to those who were reckoned weak — those among them who believed — ‘Do you know for certain that Salih is one sent by his Lord?’ They answered, ‘Surely, we believe in that with which he has been sent.’  Those who were arrogant said, ‘Indeed, we do disbelieve in that in which you believe.’ (Al Quran 7:74-77)
The Thamud who were the addressee of the prophet Salih were destroyed in an earthquake because of their arrogance and mischief.  When we study the history of earlier nations we can draw certain lessons and inferences.  In the words of Dr. Robert McGhee, Curator of the Canadian Museum of Civilization:
“At a more abstract level, Petra’s history allows us to contemplate the vulnerability of even the most successful and technologically assured society. Petra existed over a period of time equivalent to that between today and the mediaeval period in Europe. Like inhabitants of our modern world, the people of Petra would not have considered the possibility that their city would eventually be abandoned and their nation scattered. The disastrous effects of an earthquake on Petra’s buildings and water system could not have been calculated. The sudden rise of a religion among their southern neighbors, and its consequences for changing trade patterns throughout the known world, was impossible to predict.
Archaeology’s most valuable contribution may be its demonstration of the transience of cities and civilizations — the realization that even the most successful eventually find themselves vulnerable to catastrophes that cannot be foreseen. Contemplating the ruin of Petra may well be an opportunity for us all to further cherish the present moment in our own ways of life.”[1]
The conclusion drawn by Dr Robert McGhee resonates with the teaching of many of the verses of the Holy Quran:
The case of those who take helpers besides Allah is like the case of the spider, who builds itself a house, but the frailest of all structures is the house of the spider, if they but knew. Surely, Allah knows whatever they call upon beside Him. He is the Mighty, the Wise. These are illustrations that We set forth for people, but only those who possess knowledge comprehend them. Allah has created the heavens and the earth for a purpose. In that surely is a Sign for the believers. (Al Quran 29:42-45)
Does it not lead those, who have inherited the earth in succession to its former inhabitants, to realize that if We please, We can smite them also for their sins and seal up their hearts, so that they would not listen to words of guidance.  Such were the towns some of whose news We have related to thee. And verily the Messengers came to them with clear Signs. But they would not believe what they had rejected before. Thus does Allah seal up the hearts of the disbelievers. (Al Quran 7:101-102)
Allah has saved these ruins for us so that we can draw lessons from them.  There is a tendency for humans to get involved with the apparent and present and ignore hidden and distant.  So, by saving these ruins, Allah has intended a profound lesson for us, by demonstrating the temporary nature of purely worldly pursuits.  As is said in the Holy Quran, “They know only the outer part of the life of this world, and of the Hereafter they are utterly unmindful.” (Al Quran 30:8)
According to Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Thamud are an ancient Arabia, tribe or group of tribes that seem to have been prominent from about the 4th century BC to the first half of the 7th century AD. Although the Thamud probably originated in southern Arabia, a large group apparently moved northward at an early date, traditionally settling on the slopes of Mount Athlab. Recent archaeological work has revealed numerous Thamudic rock writings and pictures not only on Mount Athlab but also throughout central Arabia.

The Qur’an mentions the Thamud as examples of the transitoriness of worldly power. Traditionally, the Thamud were warned by the prophet Salih to worship Allah, but the Thamud stubbornly refused and as a result were annihilated either by a thunderbolt or by an earthquake. Actually, they may have been destroyed by one of the many volcanic outbreaks that have formed the far-reaching Arabian lava fields.”[2]
 There is general consensus that the Thamud were a people of ancient Arabia who were known from the first millennium BC to near the time of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him.  Although they are thought to have originated in southern Arabia, from the people of the ‘Ad, Arabic tradition has them moving north to settle on the slopes of Mount Athlab near Madain Saleh. Numerous Thamudic rock writings and pictures have been found on Mount Athlab and throughout central Arabia.  The oldest known reference to Thamud is a 715 BC inscription of the Assyrian King Sargon II, which mentions them as being among the people of eastern and central Arabia subjugated by the Assyrians.  They are referred to as ‘Tamudaei’ in the writings of Aristo of Chios, Ptolemy and Pliny.[3]
According to the Holy Quran:

But they rejected Shuaib, and a violent calamity seized them and they were left prostrate on the ground in their homes.  The same happened to ‘Ad and Thamud, and their fate are discernible by you by looking at their dwelling places. Satan made their ways appear good to them, and thereby turned them away from the straight path, for all that they were intelligent people.  (Al Quran 29:38-39)

In other words the ruins of ‘Ad and Thamud are discernible by the posterity.  There is a separate knol about the ruins of the people of ‘Ad in southern Arabia.  The ruins of the Thamud are Madain Salih and Petra.

Madain Salih or Dedan

Madain Salih is known in the European literature as Hegra derived from Al-Hijr.  Madain Salih are the ruins of the people of the prophet Salih, may peace be on him.  In a separate knol, I have reviewed that the term Al Hijr, may be more applicable to Petra than Madain Salih, in a knol that is completely devoted to Petra.  Madain Salih was once inhabited by the Thamud or the Nabataeans.  Petra (located in Jordan) being the capital of the Nabataean kingdom. The Nabataeans are of Arab origin that became rich by their monopoly on the trade of incense and spice in particular between the East and the Roman, Greek and Egyptian empires. Madain Saleh has about 130 dwellings and tombs that extend over some 13 kilometers. Thamud or the Nabataeans were known for hewing houses in mountains.
The archaeological site Madain Saleh, is one of the best known archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia, located near Ula (previously known as Dedan).  It is 400 km north of Madinah in northwestern Arabia and was located on the incense trade route.

What was the timeline for the development and eventual destruction of Madain Salih or Dedan? Encyclopedia Britannica offers certain details:

“In the 5th century BC, the oasis of Dedan (al-‘Ula) was the capital of a short-lived Dedanite kingdom; then, from the 4th century to the 1st century BC, it was the capital of the kingdom of Lihyan, which for nearly two centuries was home to a colony of Minaean tradesmen from South Arabia. Dedan and the neighbouring site of Al-Hijr (Hegra’) were occupied from the north in about 25 BC by the Nabataean kingdom. The Nabataeans were originally a nomadic tribe from the land of Madian in the northern Hejaz who settled in North Arabia, the Negev, and southern Jordan as far north as the Dead Sea, from which they extracted bitumen. Their capital, Petra, north of the Gulf of Aqaba, is historically attested from the beginning of the 4th century BC. In spite of their Arab origin, they used an Aramaic dialect as their written language. At the time of their greatest wealth and power, under Aretas IV (8 BC–40 AD), their territory extended from Al-Hijr in the south, northward past Petra, along the northern route east of the Jordan River as far as the Hawran region south of Damascus. The Nabataean territory—except for its southern part—was incorporated into the Roman Provincia Arabia in AD 106. The last dated Nabataean text dates from AD 356.”[4]

Madain Salih


This gallery is provided by Zubeyr Kureemun:

A video:



The Treasury at Petra



It is mentioned in the commentary of the Holy Quran, titled Ibn Kathir:

“Al-Hijr through which the Messenger of Allah passed on his way to Tabuk. He covered his head and urged his camel to go faster, saying to his Companions:

«لَا تَدْخُلُوا بُيُوتَ الْقَوْمِ الْمُعَذَّبِينَ إِلَّا أَنْ تَكُونُوا بَاكِينَ، فَإِنَّ لَمْ تَبْكُوا فَتَبَاكُوا خَشْيَةَ أَنْ يُصِيبَكُمْ مَا أَصَابَهُم»

(Do not enter the dwellings of those who were punished unless you are weeping, and if you do not weep then make yourself weep out of fear that perhaps what struck them may also strike you.)”[5]   This Hadith in Ibn Kathir has been quoted from the most reputed collection of Hadith Sahih Bokhari.[6]

Narrated by ‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar and quoted in Bukhari, under the book of the prophets, “The people landed at the land of Thamud called Al-Hijr along with Allah’s Apostle and they took water from its well for drinking and kneading the dough with it as well. (When Allah’s Apostle heard about it) he ordered them to pour out the water they had taken from its wells and feed the camels with the dough, and ordered them to take water from the well whence the she-camel (of Prophet Salih) used to drink.”[7]


  2. “Thamūd.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 09 May. 2010>.
  4. Arabian religion.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 18 Aug. 2007>.


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  1. Zia H. Shah

    Additional verses about the Thamud in the Holy Quran
    The Thamud (people) rejected the messengers.
    Behold, their brother Salih said to them: “Will you not fear (Allah)?
    I am to you a messenger worthy of all trust.
    So fear Allah, and obey me.
    No reward do I ask of you for it: my reward is only from the Lord of the Worlds.
    Will ye be left secure, in (the enjoyment of) all that ye have here?
    Gardens and Springs,
    And corn-fields and date-palms with spathes near breaking (with the weight of fruit)?
    And ye carve houses out of (rocky) mountains with great skill.
    But fear Allah and obey me;
    And follow not the bidding of those who are extravagant,
    Who make mischief in the land, and mend not (their ways).”
    They said: “Thou art only one of those bewitched!
    Thou art no more than a mortal like us: then bring us a Sign, if thou tellest the truth!”
    He said: “Here is a she-camel: she has a right of watering, and ye have a right of watering, (severally) on a day appointed.
    Touch her not with harm, lest the Penalty of a Great Day seize you.”
    But they ham-strung her: then did they become full of regrets.
    So the punishment overtook them. In that verily there is a Sign, but most of these would not believe.
    And surely thy Lord — He is the Mighty, the Merciful.

    (Al Quran 26:142-160)

    The word and attribute, ‘Merciful,’ here implies that God punishes humans as a last resort only, after they have demonstrated that they are beyond reformation!

  2. Zia H. Shah

    Comparing and contrasting Petra and Madain Salih (Dedan)
    According to Peter Parr:

    “Seen in an Arabian perspective the settlement of the once-nomadic Nabataeans is just one more example of a process which had been characteristic of the region over the previous centuries; Petra was as normal an Arabian phenomenon as was Tayma and Dedan. But it also obviously became something very different from Tayma and Dedan, and this for two reasons. The first is its location. Petra lies on the very edge of Arabia,just below the escarpment of the limestone plateau which the Arab geographers called the ‘brow of Syria.’ As already mentioned, the escarpment is fertile compared with the Hejaz, and well suited to agriculture, and probably well before the beginning of the Christian Era the Nabataeans had established farming villages all over what is now southern Jordan and the Negev, repopulating the abandoned kingdom of Edom. They were thus no longer dependent upon the incense trade or the products of pastoralism;economically they had moved away from their Arabian background and become Levantine. And the second reason relates to time. Between the time when Tayma and Dedan were settled and Petra was settled, the Near East had become Hellenized. The Taymanites, the Dedanites, and the Lihyanites had absorbed and adopted foreign fashions, but they were the fashions of Mesopotamia and south Arabia. When, in the first century BC, the Nabataeans looked outside the confines of Petra for inspiration for the material culture that they now desired and could afford, it was above all in the Hellenized world that they found what they needed.”

    Petra Rediscovered: Lost city of Nabataeans. Glen Markoe, General Editor. Harry N Abrams, Inc., Publishers, in association with the Cincinnati Art Museum, 2003. Page 35.

  3. Zia H. Shah

    Petra: Could it be Al Hijr as mentioned in the Holy Quran
    Petra declined rapidly under Roman rule, in large part due to the revision of sea-based trade routes. In 363 an earthquake destroyed many buildings, and crippled the vital water management system. The ruins of Petra were an object of curiosity in the Middle Ages and were visited by Sultan Baibars of Egypt towards the end of the 13th century. The first European to describe them was Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812.

    Generally the term Al Hijr or Hegra is applied to the Madain Salih. Inhabitants of both, Petra and Madain Salih were part of the Thamud. The prophet Salih belonged to Madain Salih as is also mentioned in a Hadith. But, the term Al Hijr may be more applicable to Petra than Madain Salih. Whereas, Madain Salih was on an established route, that is why the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him happened to pass by the place, Al Hijr as described by the Holy Quran is not on a main route. See the pictures of narrow entrance called ‘Siq,’ of Petra, in the Knol linked here. The Holy Quran states, as it talks about the people of Lot and then the people of the Wood and the people of the Hijr:

    “Then the chastisement seized them at sunrise. We turned the city upside down, and We rained upon them stones of clay. Surely, in this there are Signs for people of intelligence. The city lies along a well known route. Surely, in this is a Sign for those who believe. The people of the Wood were also wrong doers; and We chastised them also. Both these cities lie along an easily identifiable way. The people of the Hijr also rejected the Messengers as liars. We gave them Our Signs too, but they turned away from them. They used to hew out houses in the mountains, dwelling therein in security. The chastisement seized them in the morning; and all that they had worked at availed them nothing.” (Al Quran 15:74-85)

    In case of the people of Hijr there is no mention of ‘well known route;’ additionally, there is mention of ‘dwelling therein in security,’ possibly alluding to the hidden entrance of Petra or Siq.

  4. Zia H. Shah

    Photo gallery of Madain Salih
    Madain Saleh, also known as al-Hijr, is one of the best known archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia, located near Ula (previously known as Dedan), some 400 kilometers north of Madina. Madain Saleh was once inhabited by the Nabataeans some 2000 years ago, Petra (located in Jordan) being the capital of the Nabataean kingdom. The Nabataeans are of Arab origin who became rich by their monopoly on the trade of incense and spice in particular between the East and the Roman, Greek and Egyptian empires. Madain Saleh has about 130 dwellings and tombs that extend over some 13 kilometers. This gallery is provided by Zubeyr Kureemun:

    A video:

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