Cursed stone city

Al-Khazneh, the temple carved out of a cliff in Petra, is the most famous remnant of the Nabataean Kingdom. But to its south lies Hegra, the cursed stoneland city.

Sammy Six, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Nabataean Kingdom existed for about half a millennium before being conquered and subsumed by the Roman Empire in 106 CE. One of several Bedouin tribes, the Nabataeans used this area as an important waypoint for Middle Eastern trading routes, especially the spice trade. Petra was the most important settlement (and was also probably the capital city): it connected Southern Arabia with Europe, so this area grew rich and powerful.

What did they spend their money on? Carving buildings. The famous temple Al-Khazneh, carved out of the solid rock of the Siq gorge, is undoubtedly the most famous surviving building of Petra – if you’re a pop-culture fan you may know it from the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But it is not the only such building.

At the southernmost point of the Nabataean Kingdom lies Hegra. This ancient city contains 131 more temples, tombs, and buildings cut out of the solid rock. The gorgeous temple pictured above, Qaṣr Al-Farīd, is carved out of a monumental sandstone boulder 16 metres high.

Hegra features in the Quran as a cautionary tale: the prophet Saleh warns the residents to repent of their idolatry. They do not. A pregnant camel shows up as a test. The people of Hegra harmed the camel (either killing it or just hamstringing it). Three days later, the cursed city is destroyed by an earthquake and lightning storm.

Hegra is now a part of Saudi Arabia, but has not received a lot of attention because Wahhabists in the country are strongly opposed to any kind of veneration of buildings. (Wahhabism has been responsible for the destruction of many early archaeological sites connected to Islam, but that’s another story.) Fortunately that attitude seems to be shifting a little, and in 2008 Hegra became Saudi Arabia’s first World Heritage Site.

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