The Qasr al-Farid – the Lonely Castle of the Nabataeans

The Nabataean Kingdom ruled over an area that spanned from the southern Levant to northern Arabia, a position that allowed them to control the Incense Route that passed through the Arabian Peninsula. As a result of this lucrative trade, the Nabataeans grew immensely wealthy and powerful. One expression of this wealth can be seen in the monuments they built. The most well-known Nabataean monument is arguably the al-Khazneh in Petra, modern day Jordan. Nevertheless, the Nabataeans were highly skilled craftsmen when it came to carving rock, and numerous examples of their workmanship can be found throughout their kingdom. One such monument is the Qasr al-Farid.

The Nabataeans were skilled craftsmen who carved their monuments out of solid rock

The Nabataeans were skilled craftsmen who carved their monuments out of solid rock ( Wikimedia Commons )

The Qasr al-Farid (meaning ‘Lonely Castle’) is located in the archaeological site of Madâin Sâlih (known also as al-Hijr or Hegra) in the north of Saudi Arabia. Although called a castle, the Qasr al-Farid was actually a tomb constructed around the 1 st century AD. The Qasr al-Farid is just one of the 111 monumental tombs scattered around the landscape of the Madâin Sâlih, a site which was inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 2008. Of these tombs, 94 of them are decorated. The Qasr al-Farid is one of the most famous tombs in Madâin Sâlih, and was named as such due to the fact that it is completely isolated from the other tombs situated in the area. This is unusual, given that most of the monumental tombs in Madâin Sâlih were found to have been made in groups. These include the Qasr al-Bint tombs, the Qasr al-Sani tombs, and the tombs of the Jabal al-Mahjar area.

The archaeological site of Madâin Sâlih, Saudi Arabia

The archaeological site of Madâin Sâlih, Saudi Arabia ( Wikimedia Commons ).

The Qasr al-Farid is reported to be four stories high. As such monuments were meant to be an indication of the wealth and the social status of the people who commissioned them, bigger definitely meant better. Another noteworthy aspect of the Qasr al-Farid is the number of pilasters it has on its façade. All the other tomb façades of the Madâin Sâlih contain only two pilasters, one on the left and another on the right. The Qasr al-Farid, however, has four pilasters on its façade, one on each side, and two additional ones in the middle. This may be further evidence that the owner of this tomb was an immensely wealthy and important individual in Nabataean society.

The enigmatic Nabataeans were originally a nomadic tribe, but about 2,500 years ago, they began building great settlements and cities which prospered from the first century BC to the first century AD, including the magnificent city of Petra in Jordan.  As well as their agricultural activities, they developed political systems, arts, engineering, stonemasonry, astronomy, and demonstrated astonishing hydraulic expertise, including the construction of wells, cisterns, and aqueducts.

Unlike other structures in Madâin Sâlih, the Qasr al-Farid has four pillars rather than two

Unlike other structures in Madâin Sâlih, the Qasr al-Farid has four pillars rather than two ( Wikimedia Commons )

It may come as a surprise then that the building of the Qasr al-Farid was actually never completed. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that we will ever find out for whom this tomb was built. Neither will we know the reason for the abandonment of this project by either its owner or the workmen. The Qasr al-Farid’s incomplete nature, however, reveals something tantalising about the way it was built. As the quality of the work is rougher on the lower part of the tomb’s façade, it has been suggested that the monument was fashioned from the top down. It may also be possible that other similar monuments were also made in such a manner.

Qasr al-Farid, the Lonely Castle

Qasr al-Farid, the Lonely Castle ( Wikimedia Commons )

By the 3 rd century A.D., the Incense Route was in decline due to the political and economic crisis that was faced by the Roman Empire. Consequently, many of the towns along the trade route would be affected by the deterioration in trade. Even Medain Salih, once a major staging post on the main north-south caravan route, was not spared, and eventually shrank into a tiny village. The 10 th century Arab traveller, for instance, wrote that during his time, Madâin Sâlih was but a small oasis whose activities centred on its wells and peasants. This is undeniably 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. Still, the Qasr al-Farid and the other tombs built by the Nabataeans remain as a testimony to the greatness that the Madâin Sâlih once was.

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