Treasured friends and family members know that B. and I are avid historians, making it a special point in our travels to explore ancient sites big and small throughout the world. When the opportunity to visit the sacred city of Petra (undoubtedly one of the ‘big’ ones) presented itself during a business trip to the Jordanian port city of Aqaba in February 2014, I instantly jumped at it.
Two thousand years ago, Petra – then known as Raqmu – was the rock-cut capital city of the Nabataeans, a nomadic Arab people inhabiting northern Arabia and the southern Levant. Situated between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, it stood at the crossroads of the Near East; camel caravans passed through the city on a daily basis, laden with spices, incense and textiles from distant lands. Commerce – and the development of an ingenious water management system – enabled the city to flourish, and the Nabataean population to soar to an estimated 20,000 by the end of the 1st century AD.
The Nabataeans erected monumental tombs and temples – half-built and half-carved – memorializing their leaders and paying tribute to their gods. By the time the city fell into Roman hands around 100 AD, Petra was a sprawling metropolis covering 102 square miles (264 square kilometers). It remained inhabited throughout the Byzantine period, until the Roman Empire moved its focus east to Constantinople, and the city declined in both importance and population. The Crusaders briefly established a fort at the site in the 12th century, but quickly withdrew, leaving the city to the local Bedouin people until the early 19th century. Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt is credited with “rediscovering” Petra, introducing the city to the Western world – and to successive hordes of tourists – in 1812.
Today, Petra is one of the world’s richest and largest archaeological sites. The ancient city – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – receives approximately 5,000 visitors per day (although conflict in the region reportedly reduced numbers to 500 or 600 per day in 2015). While my visit was the culmination of a lifelong dream, it was also bittersweet – B. wasn’t with me, and I knew she was incredibly disappointed to miss out on this adventure. With her blessing to go regardless, and a promise to return with her in the future, I set off with my ticket in hand to explore this remarkable place…
Bab Al Siq
The gateway to the sacred city is known as ‘Bab Al Siq’. Three massive Djinn blocks, squared monuments carved from white sandstone, mark Petra’s main entrance.
Shortly after passing the blocks, I came to the Obelisk Tomb, named for the four pyramid-like obelisks adorning its façade. The two story tomb, carved by the Nabataeans in the 1st century AD, includes a burial chamber on the upper level and the Triclinium – a traditional dining hall for funerary rites – on the lower.
The main archaeological site at Petra is reached by the Siq, a narrow gorge over one kilometer in length, flanked on either side by soaring 80 meter cliffs.
On both sides of the Siq, channels draw water from Wadi Musa (the Valley of Moses) to supply the ancient city. On the right side, water flowed through pottery pipes, while on the left the channel was carved directly through stone. Aspects of the Siq are decorated with sculptures and statues, mostly representing gods, a tribute to the Nabataean belief that water was sacred.
Movie enthusiasts might recognize the Siq as the canyon through which Indiana Jones raced his horse in pursuit of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
After a 1.2 kilometer walk, the Siq opens to reveal what many consider Petra’s most recognizable and awe-inspiring monument: the Treasury. Also known as Al Khazneh, the Treasury is comprised of three interior chambers and a nearly 40 meter exterior façade intricately decorated with Corinthian capitals, friezes and figures. The façade is crowned by a funerary urn, believed by local Bedouins to conceal a pharaoh’s treasure. Al Khazneh’s original function is a mystery; while some archaeologists have speculated it served as a temple or a place to store documents, the most recent excavation of the site unearthed a subterranean graveyard.
Much to my disappointment, the interior of the Treasury was closed for restoration work during my visit. Hopefully I can get inside when I bring B. here in the future!
The Royal Tombs
Having not done my homework before visiting Petra, I assumed the Treasury to be the only structure present at the site. I was shocked to discover that the city extended for kilometers in multiple directions, and was actually composed of hundreds of intricately carved tombs, temples, altars and statues. Among its most famous and beautiful monuments are the so-called Royal Tombs, once the resting place of the Nabataean elite. The first of these tombs beyond the Treasury is the Urn Tomb, constructed in approximately 70 AD. It is preceded by a deep courtyard with colonnades on two sides. The interior consists of three niches giving way to small burial chambers, converted in 446 AD to serve as a Byzantine church.
Located to the north of the Urn Tomb, the Silk Tomb dates back to the first half of the first century AD. The face of the tomb, measuring nearly 11 meters in width and 19 meters in height, consists of a center door and four flanking columns. It is one of the most dramatically colored tombs in Petra.
The Corinthian Tomb, pictured below, was built between 40 and 70 AD. The façade measures nearly 28 meters in width and 26 meters in height. There are four rooms inside the tomb and four water basins to the front and side, thought to be used in cleansing rituals.
Directly to the north of the Corinthian Tomb lies the Palace Tomb. Measuring 49 meters in width and 46 meters in height, the lower portion consists of 12 decorated columns and four gates leading to four large burial chambers. The upper portion consists of 18 carved pillars.
While most of the tombs at Petra contain(ed) unidentified remains, an inscription on the structure pictured below suggests it belonged to ‘Uneishu, brother of Shaqileth, Queen of the Nabataeans’.
The Street of Façades
This row of monumental Nabataean tombs, carved in the southern cliff face beyond the Treasury, includes multiple burial interfaces adorned with grindstones and other decorations. A number of the façades have been badly damaged by wind and water, and the tombs themselves filled with the mud of flood deposits.
This massive Nabataean-built, Roman-style theatre was constructed during the reign of King Aretas IV (4 BC to AD 27), carved into the side of the mountain at the foot of the High Place of Sacrifice. Later Roman expansion removed an entire row of tombs from the rear of the auditorium, leaving some of the interiors behind as incongruous gaps. Today, the theatre is badly deteriorated; the front, including most of the stage, has been severely damaged by floods. During my visit, the shaded seating area was a favored gathering place for Petra’s army of goats.
The Great Temple
The Great Temple complex represents one of the major archaeological and architectural components of central Petra. The style and quality of the temple’s elaborate floral friezes and acanthus-laden limestone capitals suggest that the sanctuary was constructed by the end of the first century BC by the Nabataeans, who combined their native traditions with classical design. The temple was in use until some point in the late Byzantine period.
Sandstone of Petra
Petra is also known as the Rose City, a reference to the vibrant red, pink and white sandstone mountains from which its altars, tombs and temples were carved. The cliffs and caves at the site are a wonder themselves (as well as a welcome refuge for overheated pack animals!).
Thanks for viewing! – T. June
Next week’s journey: Slieve League Cliffs – Ireland