The Nabataean city of Petra

17th Apr 2017

The magnificent city of Petra is rose-red city half as old as time. The giant red mountains and vast mausoleums of a departed race have nothing in common with modern civilization. If you plan to visit this ancient city, ask nothing of it but except it to be appreciated at its true value. It is one of the greatest wonders ever wrought by Nature and Man.

Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 1/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan

Although much has been written about Petra, nothing really prepares you for this amazing place. You have to see it to believe it. Petra is without a doubt Jordan's most valuable treasure and greatest tourist attraction. It is a vast, unique city, carved into the sheer rock facade by the Nabataeans, an industrious Arabs who settled there more than 2000 years ago. They turned it into an important junction for the silk, spice and other trade routes that linked China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome.

Petra Siq

The entrance to the city is through the Siq, a narrow gorge, over 1km in length, which is flanked on either side by soaring, 80m high cliffs. Just walking through the Siq is an experience in itself. The colours and formations of the rocks are dazzling. As you reach the end of the Siq you catch your first glimpse of Al-Khazneh (Treasury).

Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 2/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan
Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 3/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan
Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 4/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan

This is an awe-inspiring experience. A massive façade, 30m wide and 43m high, carved out of the sheer, dusky pink rock-face and dwarfing everything around it. It was carved in the early 1st century as the tomb of an important Nabataean king and represents the engineering genius of these ancient people.

Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 5/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan
Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 6/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan

The Siq emerges dramatically in front of the Treasury along the way. To reach the start of the Siq, you need to walk about a half a mile along the wide valley known as the Bab as-Siq. If it all seems rather long, there are two pieces of good news: 1) you can rent a horse or donkey to carry you there; and 2) there are several interesting sights to see along the way.

The journey to Petra's center begins in the Bab as-Siq (Gate of the Siq) or Outer Siq, a modern gravel road with a side for horses and a side for pedestrians. It runs alongside the Wadi Musa, which is dry most of the year but runs with water in the winter. Unlike the famous "rose-red" hue of the rest of Petra, the Bab as-Siq is mostly white rock with subtle earth tones of browns and beiges.

Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 7/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan

Around the first corner of the Bab as-Siq is a first glimpse of Nabatean rock-carving: three god-blocks, standing 6 to 8 meters high. They were almost certainly shrines for the gods who guarded Petra's water supply, but the Muslim Bedouin called them "jinn blocks" based on the belief they contained Djinn, or desert spirits. Opposite the god-blocks is a cave containing a relief of an obelisk, representing the soul of a deceased person.

Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 8/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan
Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 9/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan
Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 10/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan

The first major monument visitors encounter in Petra is a few meters down from the jinn-blocks. Actually, it is two separate monuments, stacked on top of each other: the Obelisk Tomb (upper) and Bab as-Siq Triclinium (lower). The four great obelisks of the Obelisk Tomb, with a figure in a niche in the center, guard a rock-hewn cave containing burials.

Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 11/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan

The lower half, the Bab as-Siq Triclinium, functioned as a dining room (triclinium) where feasts were held in honor of the dead - a practice that was also common among the Romans. The interior is a single room with rock-carved benches on all three sides. Across the road from these monuments is an inscription in Nabatean and Greek, recording that Abdmank chose this site to build his tomb. This may or may not refer to the tombs across the road. The Siq itself begins where the path drops sharply down. The entrance to the Siq was originally marked by an ornamental arch; it collapsed in 1896, but its decorated abutments survive.

Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 12/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan
Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 13/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan

The Siq is not technically a gorge, as it was formed not by erosion but tectonic forces, which caused the the rock to split dramatically in half. It was only then that the waters of the Wadi Musa flowed in and the winds blew through the newly-formed gap, gradually rounding the sharp edges into smooth curves. Today, the Siq is a meandering path between beautifully-colored sandstone cliffs about 150m high on each side. Occasionally the path widens enough to allow in warm sunlight and even a tree; other times it becomes so narrow (as little as 2 meters apart) that the stone seems to block out virtually all heat, light, and sound.

Along the way are some small niches, shrines and carvings to investigate, and running alongside the length of the Siq are water channels carved by the Nabateans to provide water to the city of Petra. Anticipation builds as the walk goes on, and the end of the Siq is a dramatic moment - planned that way by the Nabateans to impress their visitors. The gorge narrows, and the soft curves of the Siq frame a sunlit strip of an extraordinary sight: the Treasury.


The Treasury is merely the first of the many wonders that make up Petra. As you enter the Petra valley you will be overwhelmed by the natural beauty of this place and its outstanding architectural achievements. There are hundreds of elaborate rock-cut tombs with intricate carvings - unlike the houses, which were destroyed mostly by earthquakes, the tombs were carved to last throughout the afterlife and 500 have survived, empty but bewitching as you file past their dark openings.

Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 14/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan
Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 15/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan

The Treasury was probably constructed in the 1st century BC. As its design has no precedent in Petra, it considered to be carved by Near-Eastern Hellenistic architects. The purpose of the Treasury remains something of a mystery. One thing that is fairly certain, however, is that it was not a treasury. In reality, the Treasury is generally believed to be a temple or a royal tomb, but neither conclusion is certain.

The tomb/temple got its popular name from the Bedouin belief that pirates hid ancient pharoanic treasures in the tholos (giant stone urn) which stands in the center of the second level. In an attempt to release the treasure, Bedouins periodically fired guns at it — the bullet holes are still clearly visible on the urn. When the first Western visitors arrived at Petra in the 19th century, a stream ran from Siq and across the plaza. The stream has since been diverted and the plaza levelled for the sake of tourists.

Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 16/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan
Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 17/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan
Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 18/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan
Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 19/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan
Photo of The Nabataean city of Petra 20/20 by Maithili Madhusudanan

The Treasury's façade has two levels, decorated with columns, classical rooflines and badly weathered sculptures. Perched atop the façade is an eagle, a Nabataean (and Greek) male deity symbol. The central figure on the upper level tholos may be the fertility goddess of Petra, El-Uzza (associated to the Egyptian goddess Isis). The vertical footholds on either side may have been made to aid the sculptors.

The portal on the bottom level is reached by small flight of steps, and is flanked by mounted figures believed to be Castor and Pollux, sons of Zeus. Inside, a colossal doorway dominates the outer court and leads to an inner chamber of 12 square meters. At the back of the chamber is a sanctuary with an ablution basin (for ritual washing), suggesting that the Treasury was a temple or some other kind of holy place. The chamber can no longer be entered, but it is possible to look in from the doorway.

Be the first one to comment