Ahmed leads me between two steep cliffs to the oldest inscription, written 6,000 years ago.
Below, a square hole in the rock floor denotes a sacrificial spot from the time of the Dedanites.
By contrast, in Al-Ula, the local town for Mada’in Saleh, there has been a concerted drive to educate the locals, giving scholarships to 150 children, but also to attract experts armed with the latest methodol One reason for the blankness on Saudi Arabia’s archaeological map, says Tuttle, has been the resistance of conservative religious leaders to question their history.
“You don’t need to study the past when you’ve been given a manual from God.” Suddenly, a multi-thousand-year-old story has become an open book, not a closed one, and the revelation it contains could be a complex of sites more significant even than Petra.
“I never try smoking weed, but when I hear someone react, I feel like that.
“The survival of the archaeology is remarkable, some of the best condition remains I’ve ever seen.
We’re not finding it close to the surface, it’s above surface, well and truly visible.” Deploying a drone, he has begun creating a three-dimensional textural surface of the area. “You can see all the archaeology jumping out and biting you on the bottom.” When, aged 20, I visited Petra, sleeping in one of the caves, I talked to the head of the Bdoul tribe, allegedly descendants of the Nabateans, who told me: “We have a saying that the more wealth you have, the more brain cells you need to be able to cope with it.
“I turned from it at length with an impression which will be effaced only by death.” These tombs were carved for the Nabatean tribes who ruled this region for 300 years until the Romans annexed them in 106AD.
Nomads who had settled and grown wealthy, the Nabateans controlled the lucrative spice route from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.
The prospect of following in Doughty’s flapping shadow gave me a jolt of anticipation that I hadn’t experienced since my twenties.