Set deep in the rock and protected by the walls of a valley is one of the world’s most marvelously preserved and impressive archeological sites: Petra. There has been human settlement here since prehistoric times, but before the Nabataeans came, Petra was just another watering hole. Between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD, they built a superb city, the center of a vast trading empire.
In AD 106, Petra was annexed by Rome. Christianity arrived in the 4th century, the Muslims in the 7th, and the Crusaders in the 12th, Petra then lay forgotten until the early 19th century.
Access to Petra is through a deep ravine called the Siq, which is preceded by a wide valley called the Bab el-Siq. The entrance to the Siq is marked by the remains of a monumental arch and is the start of a gallery of intriguing insights into the Nabataeans. These include rock-cut water channels, graffiti, carved niches with worn outlines of ancient deities, paving stones, and flights of steps leading nowhere. As the Siq descends it becomes almost imperceptibly deeper and narrower (at its narrowest, the walls are only 3 ft/1 m apart). At its deepest, darkest point, the Siq opens out before Petra’s most thrilling monument: the Treasury From here, the path leads into the Outer Siq.
THE ROYAL TOMBS
Carved into the base of El-Khubtha mountain, where the Outer Siq opens out onto Petra’s central plain, are the Corinthian, Palace, and Urn tombs. Together they are known as the Royal Tombs. Their monumental size suggests they were built for wealthy or important people, possibly Petran kings or queens. These tombs and their neighbors are also remarkable for the vivid striations of color rippling through their sandstone walls, an effect heightened in the warm glow of the late afternoon sun. Particularly striking are the Silk Tomb and the ceiling in the Urn Tomb.
The Nabataeans migrated west from northeast Arabia in the 6th century BC, eventually settling in Petra. As merchants and entrepreneurs, they grasped the lucrative potential of Petra’s position on the spice and incense trade routes from East Asia and Arabia to the Mediterranean. By the 1st century BC, they had made Petra the center of a rich and powerful kingdom that extended from Damascus in the north to the Red Sea in the south and had built a city large enough to support 20-30,000 people. Key to their success was their ability to control water. Conduits and terra-cotta piping can be seen along the walls of the Siq — part of an elaborate city water system. Petra continued to thrive under the Romans from AD 106, but changes in trade routes eventually led to its demise.
THE OUTER SIQ
The artwork above shows some of the major constructions on the left-hand side of the Outer Siq, leading from the Treasury to the Theater. In reality, of course, the route bends and twists, and on both the left and right sides are a great number of other tombs and features of architectural interest.
A colossal doorway dominates the outer court and leads to a 129 sq-ft (12sq-m) inner chamber. At the back of the chamber is a sanctuary with an ablution basin, suggesting that the Treasury was, in fact, a temple.
Castor and Pollux, sons of Zeus, flank the portico.
This may have been added to aid the sculptors.
“Attic” Burial Chambers
These were a device to protect the dead from animals and tomb robbers.
This was a design devised by the Nabataeans to complement the Classical cornice.
The central figure may be the Petran fertility goddess EI-Uzza. Bullet marks in the tholos and urn have been made over the years by Bedouins attempting to release hidden treasure.
Street of Facades
Carved on four levels, these tightly packed tombs may include some of Petra’s oldest facades. Most are crowned with multiple crowsteps.
Outer Siq Designs
A range of intermediate design styles are displayed throughout, including on the Treasury and Theater tombs. One free-standing tomb uniquely combines Classical features with a crowstep used as a battlement.
These were cut away when the rear wall of the Theater was being made, leaving just the interiors.
This would have hidden the auditorium from the Outer Siq.
For access, there were tunnels on each side of the stage. Inside, these were dressed with painted plaster or marble.
IN SEARCH OF PETRA
After the departure of the Crusaders in the 12th century, Petra lay almost forgotten for more than 500 years. In 1812, lured by tales of a lost city, the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt managed to persuade a guide to lead him to Petra.
3rd century BC: The Nabataeans settle in Petra and make it their capital.
1100s: Petra falls into decline after the departure of the Crusaders.
1812: J. L. Burckhardt is the first European to visit Petra.
1985: Petra joins UNESCO’s World Heritage list.