You probably never heard of Mada'in Saleh. Chances are you won't, either - unless some Hollywood studio films a blockbuster movie at this remote spot in Saudi Arabia, much like George Lucas put Jordan's "lost city" of Petra on the map in his 1989 hit, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Mada'in Saleh, by the way, is Petra's sister city and a big dot - about 300 miles south of Petra - on the ancient Incense Road from southern Arabia to the Mediterranean.
The movie helped spark Petra's modern-day prominence as Jordan's No. 1 tourism attraction. Not so with Mada'in Saleh, also known as Hegra. Look close and you might spot Mada'in or Hegra on a map running alongside (more or less) but inland from the Red Sea.
It's possible that Makeda, the queen of Sheba, took the Incense Road from Arabia to Jerusalem by way of Petra - about a 1,400-mile trip - for her biblically reported visit to King Solomon a thousand years before Christ. The sight of her caravan of nearly 800 camels loaded with gifts for the king, mainly frankincense and myrrh, gold, spices and precious gems, must have been a real eye-popper.
What are frankincense and myrrh? They're aromatic resins from scraggy trees, once used for everything from making rooms smell nice to religious ceremonies. They have some medicinal powers, too. Frankincense, for instance, has been tagged as "an ancient form of penicillin." The lands ruled by the queen of Sheba were said to have been covered by vast fields of such uber valuable trees - making her one of the most powerful women (if not THE most powerful) on the planet
Historians disagree on where Sheba was. Some say it was in Yemen (aka the kingdom of Saba) edging southwest Arabia. Still others point to the Kebra Negast, the Ethiopian holy book, which claims Sheba was in Ethiopia.
If you've been to Petra, you likely know this city is where the Incense Road and the Silk Road from China among major trade routes from Asia criss-cross before going on some 90 miles to Gaza and other ports on the Mediterranean. Guides probably told you Petra was the capital of the ancient Nabataean empire. But they may not have mentioned the empire's No. 2 city down the coast at Mada'in, which anchored the southern tip of the empire. Nor the many similarities between the two cities.
Both, for example, are packed with temples, shrines, tombs and other buildings carved out of sandstone, and both boast ingenious water management systems (an absolute must for trade caravans passing through). True, Mada'in has nothing to compare to two of Petra's gems, the towering Treasury (the building featured in Lucas' movie) and the hilltop Monastary (you need to climb 800 steps to get there). Petra is also considerably larger and has many more restorations among the carved structures. Both, however, are spread out over several miles and have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Mada'in is particularly known for its 111 monumental tombs, mostly elaborately decorated. You'll know you've come across the largest tomb when you see it - it's the four-story-high Al Farid Palace, carved from a single rock and standing alone in the desert.
Getting there: Mada'in is a featured stop on tours of western Saudi Arabia operated by a number of tour companies.
Photos by Bob Schulman.