The Nabataean Kingdom ruled an area that spanned from the southern Levant to northern Arabia, which allowed them to control the Incense Route passing through the Arabian Peninsula. As a result of this lucrative trade, the Nabataeans became immensely wealthy and powerful. Their wealth can be seen in the monuments they built, with the al-Khazneh in Petra, modern-day Jordan, being the most well-known. Despite this, the Nabataeans were highly skilled craftsmen in carving rock, and examples of their workmanship can be found throughout their kingdom, including the Qasr al-Farid monument.
The Qasr al-Farid, meaning ‘Lonely Castle,’ is situated in the archaeological site of Madâin Sâlih (also known as al-Hijr or Hegra) in the north of Saudi Arabia. Despite its name, the Qasr al-Farid was not a castle, but a tomb constructed around the 1st century AD. The Madâin Sâlih has 111 monumental tombs scattered throughout its landscape, with 94 of them adorned with decoration. In 2008, the site was inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. The Qasr al-Farid is one of the most well-known tombs in Madâin Sâlih, named so because it is entirely separated from the other tombs in the area. This is unusual, as most of the monumental tombs in Madâin Sâlih were created in groups, such as the Qasr al-Bint tombs, the Qasr al-Sani tombs, and the tombs in the Jabal al-Mahjar area.
The Qasr al-Farid is said to be a four-story structure. As these types of monuments were intended to showcase the wealth and social status of those who commissioned them, bigger often meant better. Another noteworthy feature of the Qasr al-Farid is the number of pilasters on its facade. Other tomb facades in Madâin Sâlih only have two pilasters, one on the left and one on the right. In contrast, the Qasr al-Farid has four pilasters on its facade, one on each side and two additional ones in the middle. This could provide further evidence that the tomb’s owner was an immensely wealthy and significant individual in Nabataean society.
The mysterious Nabataeans were originally a nomadic tribe, but roughly 2,500 years ago, they began constructing great settlements and cities that thrived from the first century BC to the first century AD, including the magnificent city of Petra in Jordan. In addition to their agricultural pursuits, they developed political systems, arts, engineering, stonemasonry, astronomy, and exhibited impressive hydraulic expertise, including the construction of wells, cisterns, and aqueducts.
It may come as a surprise that the construction of the Qasr al-Farid was never finished. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that we will ever discover for whom this tomb was intended or why the project was abandoned by either the owner or the workers. Nevertheless, the unfinished nature of the Qasr al-Farid provides an intriguing insight into its construction. As the quality of the work on the lower section of the tomb’s facade is rougher, it has been suggested that the monument was built from the top down. It is also possible that other similar structures were constructed in the same manner.
In the 3rd century A.D., the decline of the Incense Route was caused by the political and economic crisis faced by the Roman Empire. Consequently, the deterioration of trade along the route affected many of the towns, including Medain Salih, which was once a major staging post on the main north-south caravan route. Eventually, the town shrank into a tiny village. For instance, the 10th-century Arab traveller wrote that during his time, Madâin Sâlih was but a small oasis whose activities centred on its wells and peasants. This is a stark contrast compared to the site’s heyday during the Nabataean period when merchants and camels laden with the incense of Arabia would have thronged its streets on their way to the north. Nevertheless, the Qasr al-Farid and the other tombs built by the Nabataeans remain as a testimony to the greatness that Madâin Sâlih once was.
Featured image: The Qasr al-Farid. Photo source: Wikimedia.