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“You’ve travelled through time”

Despite the mild mercury, the sun is somewhat aggressive in this month of February on the dunes of Mada'in Saleh.

Among the pioneering tourists in this sandbox, some have opted for the turban as a protective cap, no doubt to stay in the “Arabic” theme, others are overly coated with sun cream. Sunburn, some will probably get it at the end of the day, but a red skin is a necessary evil as the landscape is worth the detour.

The tomb of Qasr al-Fareed as seen from the sky.

Tombs in the rock

In this ancient city, the last legacy of Nabataean civilization in the region, the eyes are obsessed with the tombs carved into the rock with the precision of a goldsmith. The territory has dozens of them, scattered among the gargantuan rocks of which it is composed. Spotting them is like a treasure hunt, and at times it is fun to count them along the long walk that leads to the grail: Al-Fareed Rock. The most imposing of the tombs of Mada’in Saleh would be, according to the speculations of archaeologists, that of a former king or governor of the region. The monument is, in any case, the one around which camera flashes most often crackle.

The star of the day is briefly eclipsed by the voice of a guide: “The play will soon begin.” At the foot of the thousand-year-old ruins, a theatre group offers the curious an interactive play in which the spectators are at best actors, at least extras. We are in the second century after Christ. The Levant is ruled by King Rabbel II. We are in a local market, bathed by the deafening cacophony of shopkeepers offering spices, fruit, vegetables, and textiles to visitors. The audience hangs on the lips of a weak narrator dressed in a modest white cloth and the stage is surrounded by soldiers in armor to prevent tourists from getting too close to the actors.

A historical fresco

The tale takes us to the king’s court, where his two sons and heirs, Damascus and Rabbel III, fight over the future of the kingdom. The tension mounts and the two princes come to the sword. An unfortunate and fatal blow is dealt by Damasi to his mother who came to intervene. The king is made aware of this accident and finds himself torn between guillotining his son or sparing him. He decides to consult the hearing. “Kill him,” some people yell. “No, he’s your son, spare him,” judged another voice in the audience. Rabbel II finally opted for clemency, the small historical fresco ending with the burial of the Queen in one of the tombs of Mada’in Saleh to the applause of the crowd.

The story, true, is that of the last Nabatean monarch. Its protagonists are all Saudis. They are actors, youtube players, models and set up the project in a few months with the aim of making it a fun experience to discover the region. “You’ve traveled through time, you’ve seen who we are,” concludes the storyteller in a mysterious voice.