Exploring the Ancient City of Petra

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Of course, no trip to Jordan would be complete without walking through the spectacular archaeological site of Petra. It was already well known before being used in the pivotal ending of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But the movie brought even more fame, and tourists, to this site. And this fact is not lost on the local merchants:

Indiana Jones Gift Shop

We spent about half a day at Petra, but let me warn you now, it’s not enough time. Petra isn’t just the one iconic building seen in every National Geographic photo or movie. It’s actually a huge complex of buildings, including areas yet to be explored and understood.

We headed towards the center of Petra in the morning and on foot. The walk is about half a mile. If you feel so inclined, you can go on horse or even by horse drawn buggies. But if you’re able-bodied, the trail is flat so it’s pretty easy.

Right from the beginning of the walk though, there was evidence of human settlement.

On the way to Petra

The Nabataean Arabs built Petra, though its exact date still isn’t clear. But the city became prosperous around the 1st Century BC. They traded frankincense, myrrh and spices. In fact, Petra controlled the main commercial trading routes which passed through it, turning it into a major hub.

The first major building we passed on the trail was the Obelisk Tomb on the left side of the trail. The Obelisk Tomb is the upper section, while the bottom entrance is the Bab as-Siq Triclinium. The tomb contains a burial chamber, while the triclinium was used as a dining hall for feasts to honour the dead.

Obelisk Tomb, Petra

As the path drops you will continue through the siq proper. This is the narrow gorge that leads you to the center of Petra.

As a side note, I’m allergic to horses. Due to the gorge walls enclosing the space, I found my allergies started acting up from all the horses coming through this path. Just a warning for anyone else who might have issues. Taking allergy meds with you isn’t a bad idea!

The Siq

The Nabataeans were pretty ingenious when it came to building and infrastructure. Along the siq they carved out a covered water channel, and added a system of clay water pipes. The water came from a spring located in Wadi Musa.

Petra waterworks

There are also several water cisterns which collected rain water. The area experienced flash floods from time to time. The Nabataeans learned to use these to their advantage. They created dams and water conduits to control the flow of water. These were really vital inventions for a desert city that had as many as 20,000 residents at its height!

As you reach the end of the siq you get that first, unforgettable sliver of the Treasury into your line of sight.

The treasury through the siq

I can only imagine what travellers two thousand years ago must have thought when they came across this image for the first time!

Approaching the Treasury

And here of course, we reach the Treasury, carved into the sandstone rock face. Contrary to what you think you know about the Treasury from Indiana Jones, there are no secret passages or doorways inside.

The “Treasury” was in fact a mausoleum and crypt. Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear for whom. There were rumours that the urn at the top of the structure held Petra’s vast treasure. The story goes, that local Bedouins shot the urn full of holes trying to break it to spill out the contents. But the urn is actually solid sandstone, so there’s nothing inside.

You see those little squares cut into each side of the facade? Scientists figure that the carvers created the facades by working from the top down. These indentations were where the carvers placed their working platforms at each stage.

The Treasury, Petra

If you’re thinking to yourself, “this building looks kind of….Greco Roman?” you would be correct. In fact, it contains influences from numerous cultures. The overall style is primarily Greek, but the columns are Corinthian, and experts believe that the center relief is that of Isis, an Egyptian goddess. The carvings even depict Amazons.

center relief of Isis

Is this a representation of the Egyptian goddess Isis?

The Nabataeans had no issues with borrowing different architectural styles from other cultures. When we were there, our guide told us that the belief was that by incorporating all of these elements into their buildings, the Nabataeans were telling traders from all regions that they were welcome here, and gave them a little reminder of home at the same time.

This is the Urn Tomb, one of the Royal Tombs. The detail that still remains on many of these buildings is really astounding.

The Urn Tomb

At this point we had a choice to make: with limited time, we could only climb to one additional major site; the High Place of Sacrifice, or the Monastery. We chose the Monastery, with no other reasoning beyond eeny meeny miny moe. We could only do one, though we wished we had time to do more.

The Monastery is one of the largest buildings in Petra (the entry alone is over 8 meters high!) and is also the furthest one from the main gate. It’s well worth the hike though:

The Monastery

The view from the top is nothing to sneeze at either:

view from the Monastery

So if the Nabataeans were so wealthy and Petra was such a flurry of trading activity, what happened? Eventually, caravans that once passed through Petra began favouring other trade routes, and the reigning king Rabbel II (AD 70 – 106) decided to move the capital of Petra to the northern city of Bosra. after the king died, Petra lost its independence to the Roman Empire.

A major earthquake in May of 363 AD destroyed many major buildings and monuments including much of the water supply, further sending the city into decline. Still, some people chose to stay, though the numbers probably amounted to hundreds rather than the 20,000 that once lived here.

Once the Umayyad Caliphate took control in 636 AD, the remainder of Petra fell into rapid decline. Eventually they abandoned the city entirely. The site was virtually forgotten about until Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered it in 1812.

Upon our exit, we walked through the Colonnade Street, severely damaged by earthquakes and flash floods over the years, but still stunning even in ruins.

Petra exit

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Petra Jordan

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