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A Rediscovered City

In January, a French-Saudi team began archaeological excavations due to last four years at the site of Mada'in Salih, the former city of Hegra, in Saudi Arabia. This first set of excavations should help improve our understanding of the history of this Nabataean city, second only to the world-renowned Petra.

The abandoned city of Hegra, located in northwestern Saudi Arabia has found new inhabitants. Armed only with trowels, French and Saudi archaeologists have come to uncover secrets that have lain buried in the ground for nearly 2000 years.
Jointly led by Laïla Nehmé1 and François Villeneuve (Arscan)2 for France, and by Daifallah al-Talhi3 for Saudi Arabia, this is the first mission to this archaeological site–the largest in the country. It is jointly financed by public and private funds.4

latin inscription

© Photo aimablement transmise par D. Al-Talhi

Latin inscription discovered in the Saudi excavations.

“It’s been a very short time since this country opened up to cooperation in the field of archaeology,” Nehmé explains, “and the excavation agreement was only signed in November 2007.” Yet this isn’t the first time the researchers have been to Hegra. Between 2001 and 2005, several exploratory missions were carried out to investigate the subsurface with the help of geophysical instruments, and above all to undertake a systematic description of the remains visible at the surface. And these remains are outstanding. Built during the first century AD by the Nabataeans,5 the founders of the famed city of Petra in Jordan, Hegra was made up of a residential area surrounded by earthen ramparts, an oasis fed by some 130 wells, and a splendid necropolis. The latter contains over a hundred tombs cut directly into the sandstone rock which is scattered across the plain. “This was the southernmost city in the Nabataean kingdom,” Nehmé points out. “It was certainly both a caravan halt and a garrison town for Nabataean soldiers, here at the furthest point of their kingdom, before being annexed by Rome in 106 AD.”
From the inscriptions found outside the tombs, it was long believed that the city had only been inhabited between 1 and 75 AD But the exploratory missions revealed an entirely different story: The city continued to be inhabited until the fourth century AD. It must have been a well-established settlement, because the city center was well looked after during all this time. Saudi archaeologists who carried out several trial excavations in the residential area in 2003 even discovered a Latin inscription dating from 175-177 AD, which relates repairs carried out on the city ramparts at the expense of the inhabitants. The client was the centurion of a Roman legion, and the contractor the “mayor” of the city, who had an unmistakable Nabataean name. Proof not only that the Nabataeans didn’t leave their city in 75 AD, but also that they and the Romans lived there together after 106 AD.
“We know very little about the final centuries before the coming of Islam,” adds Nehmé. “We hope Hegra will give us some clues about this period.” Other inscriptions discovered at the site–this time both in Nabataean and in a script that is intermediate between the classical Nabataean found at Petra and Arabic–should help epigraphists understand how writing developed in the region. “Nabataean, a script derived from Aramaic, is the direct ancestor of Arabic script,” Nehmé explains. “Transitional scripts between Nabataean and Arabic have been observed at other archaeological sites, but this is the first time that we’ve seen them at Hegra.”
The excavations at Hegra are expected to last four years. Fifteen archaeologists are taking part, excavating a protected area of 1460 hectares including the city proper, the tombs, and the sanctuaries. The oasis and its wells are difficult to reach, but the team hopes to excavate at least one. “Many questions are still unanswered,” Nehmé points out. Was the city founded on a more ancient site? What was its role in this pivotal meeting point between the Nabataean, Roman, and Byzantine areas of influence? Hegra is a key piece of the puzzle.” This ancient city is also a major tourist attraction that Saudi Arabia would like to further expand. A development plan for the site is under study, while an application has been filed with Unesco for it to be classified as a world heritage site.

Fabrice Demarthon

Notes :

1. Laboratoire “Orient et Méditerranée” (CNRS / Universités Paris-I and IV / Collège de France / EPHE).
2. Archéologies et sciences de l'antiquité (CNRS / Universités Paris-I and X).
3. Antiquities Department, Riyadh.
4. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the French Senate, CNRS, the French Embassy in Saudi Arabia, OTV (a subsidiary of Veolia Eau), Total, as well as individual benefactors.
5. They were originally nomads who gradually adopted a sedentary way of life, and accumulated large amounts of wealth–particularly through the trade in myrrh and incense.

Contacts :

Laïla Nehmé,
Orient et Méditerrannée, Ivry-sur-Seine.
François Villeneuve, ARSCAN, Paris.


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