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In the middle of the vast, golden desert of northern Saudi Arabia, a castle rises out of the sand, emerging from a massive stone. Its facade is all clean lines and right angles, in contrast to the natural surface of the stone, and the structure is instantly striking. Seeing it, you can”t help but wonder: Who built it? Why? How long has it been here, looking out over the empty desert?

The structure is known as Qasr al-Farid, which means “lonely castle,” and was built in the first century, during the pre-Islamic Nabataean kingdom. It”s located in Mada”in Saleh, also known as Al-Hijr or Hegra, and is one of over a hundred similar monuments in the area. If it reminds you of the carved city of Petra in modern-day Jordan, it should. Petra was the capital of the Nabataean kingdom. Mada”in Saleh was the second largest city and was a major trading center.

Qasr al-Farid isn”t actually a castle, though; it”s a tomb. It”s unfinished, and in its unfinished state, it allows us a glimpse into how the Nabataeans constructed their massive stone buildings. They liked to use single pieces of sandstone, and carved from the top down. They also borrowed decorative elements from Egyptian, Hellenistic, and Assyrian styles. The size of the tomb indicated the person”s social status. Qasr al-Farid is the largest of the 131 tombs in the area. Despite having faced the elements for 1,900 years, Qasr al-Farid is in very good condition thanks to the dry climate.

(via My Modern Met)

Today, Qasr al-Farid isn”t quite so lonely. It”s a popular spot with tourists, and the whole archaeological site where it”s located has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Saudi Arabia”s first.

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