A pre-Islamic people, Nabataeans carved palatial tombs at Madain Salih.
A pre-Islamic people, Nabataeans carved palatial tombs at Madain Salih.

The Wells of Memory

One of the first travelers in a century to walk through the Hejaz desert of Saudi Arabia, Paul Salopek encounters a fabled past of caravans and pilgrims, of empires come and gone.

There are thousands of wells in the old Hejaz. We walk to them.

Sometimes their water is sweet. More often it is salt. It matters little. These wells, which pock the long-disused caravan trails of Arabia, are monuments to human survival. Each concentrates a fine distillation of the landscape. And the same applies to the people who drink from them. In the Hejaz—the fabled realm of a vanished kingdom of the Hashemites, who once ruled the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia—there are bustling wells and lonesome wells. There are wells whose waters convey the chemistry of sadness or joy. Each represents a cosmos in a bucket. We take our bearings off them.

Wadi Wasit is a well of forgetting.

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