Monday, February 26, 2007
Madain Salih, Saudi Arabia
The BBC is reporting that a number of French tourists have been shot dead at Madain Salih in north-west Saudi Arabia. Details are sketchy.
Madain Salih (which means City of the Dead, I think I'm right in saying) was founded by the Nabataeans on the frankincense trade route running parallel with the coast north towards Gaza. The site, which is protected by a fence and a guard post, comprises a series of tombs hewn from sandstone outcrops on a sandy plain. It is often seen as Petra's sister city: it too was founded by the Nabataeans and the style of architecture is the same, though the effect is nothing like as dramatic as at Petra. It is Saudi Arabia's top tourist attraction (not that that is saying much) but a popular weekend destination for ex-pats working in the country nonetheless. Visitors have to have permission from the Department of Antiquities to visit. When I visited in 2005 the site was almost completely deserted.
Madain Salih is also regarded as the gateway to the Hijaz: the holy area of Arabia in which non-Muslims were traditionally extremely unwelcome, and this may help to explain the significance of the attack - though it is not clear whether the victims were Muslim or not.
UPDATE: AFP quote an unnamed French diplomat saying that none of the group attacked were Muslims.