Saudi Arabia Trip – Mada’in Saleh, Al-‘Ula, Elephant Rock, KAUST

Trip Overview: A multi-day trip to Saudi Arabia to see several historic sites and to visit/explore the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST). The Mada’in Saleh archaeological location is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has many large tombs carved into impressive rock structures. Other areas explored include the Al-‘ula Old Town and Fort and the incredibly large and unique Elephant Rock structure. KAUST is a large university campus that was opened in 2009 and aims to be world-class research institution. The scenic campus sits on the coast of the Red Sea near Jeddah.

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Map of Saudi Arabia showing the approximate locations of KAUST, Mada’in Saleh, Al-‘Ula, and Elephant Rock

Jump to Part 1: Mada’in Saleh
Jump to Part 2: Al-‘Ula Old Town and Fort
Jump to Part 3: Elephant Rock
Jump to Part 4: Explore KAUST

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Logistics Overview:

Foreigners visiting Saudi Arabia must have an appropriate visa to enter the country. There is now a tourist visa available to visitors of many different countries, which opens Saudi Arabia up for different tourism options.

To reach the destinations described in this report, the easiest airport to fly into is the King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah. KAUST is a ~1 hr drive and the other sites are a ~7 hr from the airport.

All foreign visitors should be aware that Saudi Arabia is a very conservative country with many strict laws and regulations. Tourists are responsible for following local laws. To get around the country it is recommended to either hire a driver or rent a car. Using a tour guide service is also advised unless an Arabic speaker is along with you.

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Part 1: Visiting the Mada’in Saleh archaeological site and Hejaz Railway Museum

Our trip started out with a long van ride to the Mada’in Saleh archaeological site. We booked a van and driver through our tour guide and it ended up being a good decision. There were a few instances where the van was stopped and having a driver who spoke Arabic was helpful. The ride was long, but there were some interesting sights along the way.

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Our tour van that took us to Mada’in Saleh from Jeddah. It was a tight fit with 8 people in there.

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At a pit stop our driver insisted that we all buy “Saudi Beer.” It was basically just malty grape soda and was pretty terrible.

After roughly 7 hours of driving, we reached the Hejaz Railway Museum. This was a relatively quick stop. It was nice to walk around after the long van ride and it was interesting to read a bit about this railway. The railway has quite a long history.

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Arriving at the Hejaz Railway Museum in Saudi Arabia
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Hejaz Railway Museum in Saudi Arabia
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Hejaz Railway Museum in Saudi Arabia
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Hejaz Railway Museum in Saudi Arabia (credit: Fahrudin Al Fatah)
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Hejaz Railway Museum in Saudi Arabia (credit: Fahrudin Al Fatah)

We next drove to the Mada’in Saleh Archaeological site, which is close by. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the more popular tourist attractions in Saudi Arabia. Mada’in Saleh consists of many large and ornate Nabataean tombs carved into sand stone outcrops. The tombs are similar to the famous Nabataean tombs in Petra, Jordan. We had a guide to drive us around and tell us about the various tombs. The Mada’in Saleh site is very unique in that the tombs have been left largely undeveloped and remain in very good shape. This is a product of the dry climate and also of the locals believing the site is cursed (resulting in fewer visitors over the years).

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Row of several Nabataean tombs at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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Row of several Nabataean tombs at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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Landscape view with interesting rock structure as seen from Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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Nabataean tomb in relatively poor shape at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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Nabataean tomb with ornate details at the top, at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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Nabataean tomb with three detailed carvings near the top, at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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Large and smaller Nabataean tombs, at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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Nabataean tomb with ornate details well intact, at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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Row of several well-preserved Nabataean tombs at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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Nabataean tomb with large rock structure above it, at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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Solitary Nabataean tomb cut from a large sandstone outcrop, at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia

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Interesting rock structure resembling a face, at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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Several Nabataean tomb cut from a large sandstone outcrop, at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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The Qaṣr Al-Farīd Nabataean tomb is one of the largest tombs at the site and is cut into an isolated outcrop, at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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The Qaṣr Al-Farīd Nabataean tomb is one of the largest tombs at the site and is cut into an isolated outcrop, at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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One interesting aspect of the area is that the tour guides drive around the various tombs and even drive right up to the tomb doorways.
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Two well-preserved Nabataean tombs at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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Nabataean tombs at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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Row of several Nabataean tombs at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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Large Nabataean tomb at an elevated location, at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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Pair of identical and well-preserved Nabataean tombs at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia

The site at Mada’in Saleh is composed of a few different areas. After viewing many of the primary tombs, we headed over to area that had some interesting and large rock outcrops. There was also a very large tomb here.

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Very large Nabataean tomb at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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Very large Nabataean tomb at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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Sandstone outcrop rock structure at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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Sandstone outcrop rock structure at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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View looking out into the distance at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia
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After visiting Mada’in Saleh, we headed back to our hotel, which had a nice view of a rock structure from the lobby.

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Part 2: Visiting the Al-‘Ula Old Town and Castle

On the second day of out trip, our guide took us to the Old Town of Al’Ula and the Al-‘Ula Castle (or Fort). The Old Town is constructed at an elevated location to avoid floods and is surrounded by walls and gates for security. There were at point over 1,000 homes in the Old Town and many had two floors. Residents of the Old Town began moving out to a new town center in the early 20th century. The Castle or Fort was built in the sixth century B.C. to defend the town. It rises roughly 45 meters above the town and provides views of the town and nearby valley.

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View looking up at the Al-‘Ula Castle in Saudi Arabia
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View looking up at the Al-‘Ula Castle in Saudi Arabia

 

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View of the Al-‘Ula Old Town as seen from a viewpoint on the Al-‘Ula Castle, in Saudi Arabia
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View of the Al-‘Ula Old Town as seen from a viewpoint on the Al-‘Ula Castle. You can see the new town center and an oasis in the background.
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View of the Al-‘Ula Old Town as seen from a viewpoint on the Al-‘Ula Castle, in Saudi Arabia
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View of the Al-‘Ula Old Town as seen from a viewpoint on the Al-‘Ula Castle, in Saudi Arabia
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View looking out from the top of the Al-‘Ula Castle, in Saudi Arabia

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Part 3:  Visiting Elephant Rock

Next we took the van to visit the nearby “Elephant Rock” structure. This area is isolated in a sandy desert setting with a handful of very large rock outcrops. One of the outcrops looks like a large elephant. The whole area is very interesting and makes for a nice quick stop.

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Photo of the large Elephant Rock in the Al-‘Ula area of Saudi Arabia
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Panoramic view of the Elephant Rock area
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Large rock outcrop near Elephant Rock in the Al-‘Ula area of Saudi Arabia
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Large rock outcrops near Elephant Rock in the Al-‘Ula area of Saudi Arabia

 

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Large rock outcrop near Elephant Rock in the Al-‘Ula area of Saudi Arabia
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Large rock outcrop near Elephant Rock in the Al-‘Ula area of Saudi Arabia
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Large rock outcrop near Elephant Rock in the Al-‘Ula area of Saudi Arabia
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Desert landscape near Elephant Rock in the Al-‘Ula area of Saudi Arabia
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Photo of the large Elephant Rock in the Al-‘Ula area of Saudi Arabia

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Part 4: Exploring King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST)

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Satellite image showing the KAUST campus on the shore of the Red Sea

We were also lucky enough to spend several days visiting the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST). This university was built from the from the ground up in roughly 2 years and sits near Jeddah in a very scenic location on the shore of the Red Sea. Its size and architecture are impressive.

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View of the staircase that leads to the main stretch of campus buildings at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)
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Campus building at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)
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Seen on campus at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)
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View of the Red Sea and the KAUST “Beacon” at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)
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The library building at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)

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A mural near the marina at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)
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A view of the mosque and campus at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) from atop one of the campus buildings
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A canal that meanders through the residential area at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)
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View of the campus at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) as seen from the base of the Beacon

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View of a campus building at night at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)
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View of a campus building at night at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)
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View of a campus building at night at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)
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View of a campus building at night at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)
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View of a campus building at night at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)
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View of a campus building at night at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)
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View of a campus building at night at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)

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