Arabia’s Ancient Past Alive at Madain Saleh

April 27, 2006 by · Leave a Comment 

Arabia’s Ancient Past Alive at Mada`in Saleh
By Siraj Wahab, Special to Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)
It may sound strange, but the first time I heard about Madain Saleh was when I was visiting Jordan in the summer of 2000 on a media junket organized by the Jordanian Tourism Board. The JTB guide, Odeh Al-Shobaki—I remember his name because he was a diehard Bollywood fan—while leading us through the beautiful valley where Petra is, said: “This is an extension of your Mada`in Saleh. The structures are similar to what you have in Saudi Arabia. The Nabataean tribes lived and flourished in this area around 500 B.C. Petra was their northern capital, while Madain Saleh was their southern one.”
We, or rather I, was clueless. Still, we nodded our heads. Mada`in Saleh remained in the back of my mind until one fine morning last month when Dr. Ausaf Sayeed, the Indian consul general in Jeddah, and his No. 2, Dr. Suhel Ejaz Khan, wondered if I had been north of Jeddah. If not, would I like to be part of a three-day diplomatic trip to Madain Saleh? “Yes,” was my instant response.
It is not every day that you get to travel with diplomats. Along with being a diplomat, Dr. Sayeed is also a geologist. In fact, he is a geologist first and a diplomat second. It was in geology that he did his doctorate and then joined the Indian Foreign Service. The unique rock formations of Madain Saleh thus hold a special attraction for him. He visited the area years ago when he was stationed at the Indian Embassy in Riyadh.
Day 1
We were a group of five families and we left Jeddah at 5 on a Wednesday evening. As the sun went down, we kept traveling until we reached the SASCO stop, which is midway between Jeddah and Madinah. We prayed maghreb there. It was cold and windy. The children—Shin, Malak, Aiko and Sania —came out of the vehicles but then scurried quickly back inside. We gulped down refreshing cups of tea.
It was here that we asked each other what we might expect at Mada`in Saleh. I had no idea. My friend, Danish Abdul Ghafour, was as clueless as I. Dr. Suhel Khan had only heard about it from the consul general. Saleem Quadri had some idea, thanks to what he had seen on the web. The only person who had been to Mada`in Saleh before was Dr. Sayeed but he and his wife, Farha, sons Faateh, Faaleh and Azhaan and another couple, Mr. and Mrs. Shafiq and their son, Ubair, were already in Madinah. They had started earlier and we planned to join them for dinner in the holy city. About 6:45 p.m., the caravan started for Madinah.
Madinah is the city of peace, the city of radiance and the city of our most beloved Prophet (s). For some reason, your eyes get moist the moment you enter the city’s holy precincts. We were cracking jokes and having fun all the way, but the moment we entered the Prophet’s (s) city we were in a different world. By the time we got to Madinah, ‘isha was over. Unlike the Grand Mosque in Makkah, which is open 24 hours every day, the Prophet’s (s) Mosque in Madinah is closed after ‘isha. We prayed the night prayers in our hotel rooms and had a delicious dinner at an authentic Hyderabadi restaurant called Meraj. During dinner, Dr. Sayeed told us the plans for the next day and what we should expect at Mada`in Saleh.
Day 2
At 5 a.m., we heard the call to prayer. We performed our ablutions and headed to the Prophet’s (s) Mosque. A cool breeze was blowing across the city. Praying in the Prophet’s (s) Mosque so far has been the most moving experience of my life. We prayed fajr and said our salaams to the beloved Prophet (s) and his Companions who rest next to him under the green dome. We then came out of the gate named after the Angel Gabriel, and it was a great sight. The minarets stood out against the light blue sky. Danish and I spent time in the area around the mosque’s majestic courtyard, sipping tea from a nearby “boufiya.”
By 8.30 we were ready to leave for Al-Ula. At this point, we were joined by our guide and his two daughters. Obaidullah Abro is a Pakistani working for a Makkah-based tourist company. He has a passion for Mada`in Saleh and all the Islamic sites and, in addition, he is very well-read. He had all the relevant Qur`anic and literary references about the area. It was he who informed us that Al-Ula is 380 km northwest of Madinah. And, at legal speed limits, it would take us about three hours to reach our destination. What we had not factored in was that long stretches of the road to Al-Ula were single track, and driving can become both hazardous and slow. Abro said plans were under way to build an airport at Al-Ula. Quoting local authorities, he said the airport would promote regional business and tourism and should be operational within three years.
We thought we would drive nonstop to Al-Ula, which is what Abro told us, but he and Dr. Sayeed had charted a different course. Our vehicles suddenly veered off the main road and we got into an area of ancient, crumbling mud houses. They were baking in the scorching sun. As we rolled along, in the distance we saw an imposing fort perched high on a cliff. As we got closer, cameras clicked away. This was Khaybar. It was here that a very important battle between non-Muslims and the Companions of the Prophet (s) was fought. The fort was almost impregnable and had given the holy warriors a tough time. After many failed assaults by different Companions, Prophet (s) finally asked Sayyidina Ali (ra) to lead the final battle and he was victorious. The spring where he performed his ablutions is still flowing. The shade of the palm trees was indescribable. The peace and tranquillity there has to be experienced to be believed.
Our caravan then rolled on, and soon we were in Al-Ula. It was an amazing landscape. The mountains had a red hue while Al-Ula was green. There were plenty of date farms, and the tall trees swayed in the wind. We soon arrived at the beautiful Mada`in Saleh Hotel (www.mshotel.com.sa), which sits in front of a huge mountain. The hotel is relatively new. Asghar Baig Younes, the hotel manager, was waiting for us. We were welcomed with cool drinks and then we had lunch. We were tired but excited.
That evening, we explored Al-Ula. Abro took us to the place where the Prophet (s) stayed after returning from the Battle of Tabuk. It is said that the Prophet (s) prayed at one of the mosques in Al-Ula, which is unfortunately now closed.
As the sun was about to set on the town of Al-Ula, we saw haunting silhouettes of the mountains. One particular peak looked as if it were a woman begging for mercy. From the other side, it gave a completely different impression, but an eerie one nonetheless. “Caravans never stopped here in ancient times,” Abro explained. “They scheduled their trips so that they would cross the valley before sunset.” When we returned to the hotel, we prepared for the next morning’s trip to Mada`in Saleh.
The word mada`in comes from the Arabic word madina. Madina means city, and mada`in is its plural. Many expatriates from the Subcontinent confuse the Arabic word mada`in with the Urdu maidaan, meaning a plain stretch of land. We were visiting “Mada`in Saleh,” (the cities of Prophet Saleh (as)).
Day 3
We got up early on Friday, and by 8:30, we were on our way to Mada`in Saleh, 22 km north of Al-Ula. The area was once the location of a significant city located on a major trade route from Yemen to Damascus. During the early Islamic period it became an important pilgrimage station for Syrians and Egyptians traveling to the holy cities of Madinah and Makkah. We saw tombs with massive facades decorated with eagles; there were dozens of tombs carved inside the rock. Someone has rightly mentioned that the first thing that strikes you is the Nabataeans’ skill at carving mountains into burial chambers. The symmetry of their work testifies to their knowledge of geometry. Outside each tomb there is an inscription.
Before arriving at Mada`in Saleh, we saw billboards telling people to discover Islam rather than discovering Mada`in Saleh. We were curious to know what was wrong in visiting an ancient Nabataean city. According to scholars, Prophet Saleh (as) was the son of Thamud. He came from the tribe of ‘Ad. Saleh’s tribe moved from Yemen and had moved to a place called “Hager.” This is what is known as Mada`in Saleh today.
Like the tribe of ‘Ad, the Nabataeans built their homes on mountaintops. They learned the art of building from the tribe of ‘Ad and they were also blessed by God as the tribe of ‘Ad before them had been blessed. They had power, riches and gardens rich in plants. However, they too, like the tribe of ‘Ad, worshipped idols. God sent them Prophet Saleh (as), who was one of them—from a good family and wise—people often came to him for advice. They admired and liked him, and had hopes that one day he would become one of their leaders. They were disappointed, however, when he began preaching to them about one God. They were so disappointed with him and angered by his teachings that they began to turn from him. They told him that they would believe in him if he performed a miracle—but not just any miracle. They pointed to a huge rock and told Prophet Saleh that they wanted to see the rock split in two and that they wanted a she-camel to come out of it. They wanted the she-camel to be 10 months pregnant, tall and beautiful. God allowed Prophet Saleh (as) the miracle and as the rock broke into two pieces a magnificent she-camel appeared from within. Some of Prophet Saleh’s people believed and became his followers, but most continued in disbelief.
There are a number of accounts of this camel and her miraculous nature. Some mention that she used to drink all the water in the wells in one day, and that no other animals could approach the wells. Others claim that the camel produced milk sufficient for all the people to drink, on the same day that she drank all the water and left none for them.
For a while, Prophet Saleh’s (as) people let the camel graze and drink freely but in their hearts they hated her. The unbelievers now began complaining that this huge camel with its unusual qualities drank most of the water and frightened their cattle. They hatched a plot to kill the camel. They watched her closely, observing all her movements. As she came to drink at the well, one of them shot her in the leg with an arrow. She tried to escape but was slowed by the arrow. Another followed the camel and struck her with a sword in the other leg. As she fell to the ground, he stabbed her with his sword. The killers were given a hero’s welcome, cheered with songs and poetry composed in their honor. They mocked Prophet Saleh (as), but he issued a warning. “Enjoy life for three more days, then the punishment will descend upon you.”
Prophet Saleh hoped that they would see the folly of their ways and change their attitude before the three days had passed. Instead, they plotted to kill him. Nine men were sent to kill him, but God protected him by sending large birds from the sky, killing all the nine assassins.
After three days, thunderbolts filled the air, followed by a rumbling noise and severe earthquakes that destroyed the entire tribe. The land was violently shaken, destroying all living creatures in it. Neither their strong buildings nor their rock-hewn houses could protect them. All were demolished before they realized what was happening. As for the people who believed in the message of Prophet Saleh (as), they were saved because they had left the place.
It is said that while Prophet Muhammad (s) was passing through the area on his way back from the Battle of Tabuk, he stopped to meet with the people there. The people fetched water from the wells from which the people of Thamud used to drink. They prepared their dough (for baking) and filled their water-skins from it (the water from the wells). The Prophet (s) ordered them to empty the water-skins and give the prepared dough to the camels. Then he went away with them until they stopped at the well from which the she-camel (of Prophet Saleh) had drunk. He warned them against entering the area where the people had been punished, saying: “I fear that you may be affected by what afflicted them; so do not enter upon them.”
In other `ahadith, it is narrated that the Prophet Muhammad (s) warned his people that should they enter Mada`in Saleh, they should think about what had happened to the unbelievers.
This is why people have not been encouraged to visit Mada`in Saleh. Now, however, the Supreme Commission of Tourism (SCT) is putting emphasis on tourism and in the future, tourist traffic to Mada`in Saleh is expected to increase considerably.
When we got back to the hotel, it was nearly 1 p.m., and we headed straight to the biggest mosque in the center of Al-Ula to say our Friday prayers. The imam had a sonorous voice, and the Qur`anic verses reminded the believers of the life in the Hereafter and God’s punishment for those who disobey. I was again reminded of the community of disbelievers who met such a fate in the mountains in Mada`in Saleh.
We got back to our hotel, had lunch and said good-bye to the hotel staff before setting off for Madinah. It must have been four in the afternoon. Abro wanted to take us to the exact place from where the she-camel had emerged and so we went, thanking him profusely for his knowledge and his skills as a guide. We were in Madinah by 8.30 and back in Jeddah by 1 a.m.
Mada`in Saleh is an excellent place to visit and learn about Saudi Arabia’s pre-Islamic past. One also can actually walk in the footsteps of Prophet Muhammad (s). The modern accommodations and good people in the area will welcome visitors who, I suspect, will hope as I do to return.
For those who are interested in a trip to Mada`in Saleh, Obaidullah Abro can be reached at 0502509688. His firm also organizes field trips for schoolchildren. The manager of the Mada`in Saleh Hotel, Asghar Baig Younes, can be reached on 04-8842888. The hotel’s e-mail address is: info@mshotel.com.sa. -

It’s Not Just Me

April 24, 2006 by · Leave a Comment 

It’s Not Just Me
By Bob Wood
Any Bear will tell you it’s tough making a living on the short side of the markets, risking your hard-earned capital on the idea that markets are heading lower. And it’s just as hard for the Bear writing weekly columns about the markets’ shaky footing. Since, in both cases, “wrong” can be costly, never assume that a Bear takes his position just to be contrarian or different.
You can be sure of one thing about the Bears whose work I follow. Neither are they pessimistic or negative by nature. But to me, it seems only the Bears are doing any real analytical work, though few people prefer listening to or believing Bears over Bulls, so strong cases must be made for their side.
Several better-known Bears tend to agree about the near- and long-term future of stock and bond markets and now add information relating to real estate. To me, their analyses are much more compelling than those offered by TV’s Bulls. And to assure you that not only the guy writing on page 6 of TMO is bearish, I’m sharing thoughts from other financial writers, whose thinking I respect and follow.
On the stock market, I can hit two birds with one rock by citing a quote from one guy whom I wouldn’t have known except for the other. In his most recent work, the Mogambo Guru quotes Robert Prechter from the “Elliot Wave.”
And in talking about Newtonian physics and “big moves,” Robert Prechter, of Elliott Wave fame, says that the recent huge (>40%) losses in Middle-Eastern stock markets is just prolog. “This year the U.S. stock market is shaping up to drop at least as fast. Generally when stocks levitate into a market cycle, they make up for it by crashing.
In 1929, stocks rose for 2.5 years into the 2.7-year cycle. Then they lost 50 percent of their value in 2 months. In 1987, stocks rose for 3.1 years into the 3.3-year cycle. Then they lost 40 percent of their value in 7 weeks.” If you think you got the guts to weather a 40% drop in your portfolio, maybe you ought to re-think that optimistic assessment when he goes on to say “But given that the bear market is of Grand Supercycle degree, the largest in nearly 300 years, the coming drop should dwarf both of those crashes.”
And not only these two voice their concerns about today’s stock market. Richard Russell also chimed in this past week.
“But with the massive amount of debt built into the US economy, I don’t see how the Fed could tolerate a path of contracting liquidity—it would be too dangerous. The more probable path would be the Fed raising rates too high and setting off trouble in the housing market— remember, the effects of rate changes don’t usually appear until six months to even a year after the last rate change.
In the meantime, stock market action is erratic and suspect. While the Dow holds and even creeps higher, the majority of stocks are failing to follow. How about this surprising statistic—only 50% of the stocks in the S&P 500 are now holding above their 50-day exponential moving average (statistics from the great DecisionPoint site). In other words, we’re seeing persistent internal deterioration in the stock market, despite the better performance of the Dow.
What are the markets waiting for or looking at? One thing they’re looking at is the oil situation, and they’re wondering if there’s any way that it can be resolved—Nigeria, Iraq, Venezuela, Iran? Has the US lost control of the world’s oil markets? Well, there’s always Canada.
In response to all the uncertainty, the stock market seems to have adopted a “what, me worry?” attitude. Here we have an “Iran problem,” an expensive mess in Iraq, huge negative trade balances, China taking away our manufacturing base, rising interest rates, record high oil prices—and lots, lots more. And does Wall Street worry? Not at all. The only thing the boys on Wall Street are worried about is the size of next year’s bonus.
Jim Stack of Investech Research now allocates 39% of his model portfolio to cash. While his reading of technical tools like charts leads him to think that bull market trends will continue, his concerns center on the real estate market. Of particular concern: more than $2 trillion in mortgages are the adjustable rate variety. And with rates now rising, those debts will see rates “that will be reset at much higher levels in 2006-07.’’
Since the middle class seems to save little, the pain could be most intense there. And speaking of real estate, Bill Fleckenstein noticed this Wall Street Journal item.
“It is indeed the financial institutions that are most at risk in the real-estate market (which is not to say that consumers and speculators won’t get hurt). They will bear the brunt of the pain, because in many cases, they loaned the entire purchase price. As I have said often, the housing bubble has been more a lending bubble. It will be the impairment of the financial institutions that will stop the flow of credit to the real-estate market.
In turn, that will accelerate the collapse in house prices somewhere along the way.
The story closes with a description of how slow the market has recently become in Florida, demonstrated by an email sent last week by real-estate broker Mike Morgan read as follows: “We went three days this week with not a single showing.
That’s incredible. I have 35 listings. We usually get 2-6 showings a day. . . . I received more desperate calls from sellers than ever. One lady broke down into tears. Her husband bought two investment properties, and they are now going to lose their ‘life savings’ if they sell the homes in today’s market.”
Ladies and gentlemen, that is going to happen to a lot of people around the country.
And, after they have lost their life savings, the financial institutions that were the engine behind this folly will take their own hit. Easy Al tried to bail out one bubble with another bubble. While it bought some time, it will end in far-worse pain.’’
But the overall economy looks pretty good, doesn’t it? How many times have you heard that the economy is ‘’strong and getting stronger’’ and unemployment and inflation rates are nearly at record lows? But here’s another problem: whom do you believe when smart arguments come from both sides of an economics issue? We’ve all seen glorious statistics issued by government agencies and touted by those making fiscal policy!
I tend to listen to people who work for me—those whom I pay for access to their work, including some cited in this article. I don’t see much conflict in their thinking. One such source, Kurt Richebacher, notes in his latest letter how government statistics have changed over the past 40 years.
“We have pursued these and other changes in the U.S. statistics for years with great misgivings. There has been an unusual, concerted drive to produce better looking statistics. Obviously, these contributions have been decisive in creating the perception of the U.S. economy’s superior performance. The particular importance of the inflation rate arises from the fact that it has a large effect on real GDP and productivity growth, two aggregates of highest economic and political assessment’’.
So, if you understate inflation enough, the economy looks like it’s growing smartly when it is actually in recession—the thinking of some right now. John Williams of “Shadowstats.com” shows how using methodology of the 1980s to calculate today’s rate of inflation produces a result of 6.6%, while using a method from the 1970s yields a 7.4% inflation rate. And that would take GDP growth to about a negative 4%.
Speaking of government accountability and the veracity of its reports, Williams offers more interesting items this week. It seems that some have misgivings about reporting our country’s financial position, such as material weaknesses and “problems with fundamental record keeping and financial reporting, incomplete documentation and weak internal control.’’
He adds that auditors will not apply their signatures to attest accuracy of the nation’s financial accounting, with three reasons cited: “serious financial management problems at the Dept. of Defense, the federal government’s inability to account for billions of dollars of transactions between federal government entities, and the federal government’s ineffective process for preparing the consolidated financial statements.’’
Comforting? Here’s more. Deeper in his report is the writer’s opinion of the National Debt, “only $7 trillion,’’ at the time, which does not account for the federal government’s true liability total. Left out are items for projected Social Security and Medicare benefits at about four times that amount. And “the new prescription drug benefit, which is one of the largest unfunded commitments ever undertaken by the federal government, will serve to increase this financial and fiscal challenge.”
It seems the President has pushed through his prescription drug plan with no apparent thought about how to pay for it. This information comes from David Walker, Comptroller General of the United States, who should know! And since we borrow to pay our deficits — and more every year to pay interest costs on that debt, rapid money printing as seen during the Greenspan era seems like the easiest thing for government leaders to do. And so they continue the printing.
Williams concludes that “risks of the current circumstance evolving into a hyperinflationary depression remain extraordinarily high. An unfolding inflationary recession is the worst of all worlds for financial markets. Particularly hard hit will be the U.S. dollar, with downside implications for both equity and bond prices.’’ But the story does get better. He adds that “when the system re-stabilizes, post-crisis, there will be exceptional investment opportunities for those who have been able to preserve their wealth, capital and liquidity.’’ And Russell agrees.
So what do we do about this now? If you’ve been reading this column regularly, you’ve heard it all before. In his latest “Gloom, Boom and Doom Report” (wish I’d thought of that!), Marc Faber says, “In my opinion, the dollar will depreciate mostly against gold. In the long run, what you will see is the standard of living in America decline very significantly compared to the standard of living in Asia.
And the stock market capitalization of the U.S., which is now 52% of the world’s stock market capitalization, which will decline to somewhere between 20 and 30% and the Asian stock market capitalization will rise to between 20% and 30%, possibly 50% of the world’’.
And you thought I was gloomy, eh? To me, these sources make perfect sense. Remember, it is hard being the Bear when investors would much rather be hopeful. But there is hope! In economics, we always find winners and losers, just as in the markets. The outlook for gold, energy and Asian markets offer hope for positive returns. And of course, hedging with bear market mutual funds makes any bear market a lot less worrisome.
Have a great week…I mean it!
Bob

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