Created | Updated Dec 23, 2008
Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, between Wadi Rum (scene of T E Lawrence's base of activities during World War One and seen in Lawrence of Arabia) and the Dead Sea. It is best known for appearing in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and in 2007 was voted one of the New Seven Wonders.
It consists of a series of ruins built around 2000 years ago by the Nabateans. The ruins were re-discovered by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. Just as Hiram Bingham will always be associated with the (re)discovery of Machu Picchu, and Schliemann with Troy, so the colourful Burckhardt will always have an association with the ruins at Petra.
On 6 June, 1276, the Mamluke Sultan Baybars visited the ruins. His visit gives us the only written record of the site for a millennium between its abandonment and re-discovery by Europeans.
On 22 August, 1812, Jean Louis Burckhardt made his famed clandestine visit. He knew immediately that he was looking at the ruins of Petra and, with remarkable foresight, wrote back to his sponsors in Britain that 'the antiquities of Wady Mousa will be found to rank amongst the most curious remains of ancient art.'
Burckhardt's re-discovery began a slow trickle of visits by interested and adventurous Europeans. Two naval commanders, Charles Irby and James Mangles, visited in May 1818, followed by Leon de Laborde in 1826 and the artist David Roberts in 1839.
By 1845, Petra's fame had spread to John William Burgon (later Dean of Chichester), who penned his famous verse 'Petra', further enhancing its reputation. His description of 'A rose-red city half as old as time' has become almost synonymous with Petra. By this point, the ruins were becoming firmly embedded in the consciousness (and itineraries) of wealthy Europeans who were keen to see the classical Mediterranean ruins. The Thomas Cook Company began to include Petra in its tours, with luminaries such as Agatha Christie (who set Appointment with Death amidst the ruins) and Edward Lear among their visitors.
By the 1980s, a direct bus from Amman was established, and when Jordan signed a peace accord with Israel in 1994, the site had a bumper year as Israelis who, in many cases, had lived only a few dozen miles from the ruins but had never been permitted to visit them legally took advantage of their new-found freedom.
Layout and Geography
The rocks, through which the river of Wady Mousa has worked its extraordinary passage, and in which all the tombs and mausolea of the city have been excavated, as high as the tomb of Haroun, are sandstone of a reddish colour.
- Jean Louis Burckhardt
The main entrance to the site is through a narrow, winding canyon called the Siq ('Shaft'). The approach from the east is over flat ground, into which the Siq descends. The Siq is never much wider than the footpath which follows its base, and twists back on itself so that it is rare to be able to see more than a few metres ahead. On the left-hand side, a trough-like waterway has been carved along its whole length, and overhead the rock arches and folds crazily over itself, seeming to rise higher as the path descends.
As if the enclosed Siq were not spectacular enough, the rock is a gentle pastel hue of pinkish-orange when the light catches it at the right angle (although the frequently-quoted 'rose-red' is perhaps a little strong) and in places is shot through with coloured mineral bands. There are numerous carvings along the walls, including some prominent God Blocks (see below). Most striking of these carvings are the surviving legs of some camels, which the waterway runs behind.
The Siq runs for nearly two kilometres, and it is possible to hire a camel to make the journey.
Its end, when it comes, is sudden. As the canyon twists it is possible to glimpse between the vertical walls a sliver of a façade ahead. The Siq emerges from a vertical cliff-face, leaving the visitor in a small clearing. Directly ahead is the famous Treasury, with the path continuing ahead and to the right in the form of a wider cleft called the Outer Siq. Burckhardt put it this way:
On the side of the perpendicular rock, directly opposite to the issue of the main valley, an excavated mausoleum came in view, the situation and beauty of which are calculated to make an extraordinary impression upon the traveller, after having traversed for nearly half an hour such a gloomy and almost subterraneous passage as I have described.
Continuing past this dog-leg, with the Treasury on your left, you come to the centre of the town. Although it is built following the lines of a steep-sided valley, by comparison with the Siq it is open and spacious. Most notable nowadays are the tombs, their façades carved directly into the rock. In this area are most of the civic buildings and tombs that have survived, sheltered from the elements by their isolated position and the surrounding cliffs.
At the far northwest of the site, a stiff climb leads to another outlying ruin, known as The Monastery. Details on each of the major ruins can be found in the section below.
At its peak, Petra is thought to have housed around 30,000 people. The Nabateans produced most of the most significant buildings here between 100 BC and 100 AD. In 106 AD the city came under Roman control. The initial effect of this was a huge boost to the town, a 'golden age' of Roman-financed architecture. However, the Romans also slowly diverted trade away from the city, and without it a long, slow decline began, culminating in complete abandonment after the earthquake in 747 AD.
At various places around the site - notably the entrance to the Siq - are stone blocks, usually small and in niches, although there are exceptions. These were idols worshipped by the Nabateans and are called - appropriately enough - 'God Blocks' or 'Block Gods'. There are 25 of these scattered throughout the ruins at Petra, ranging from the eight metre cubes near the entrance to the Siq to small protrusions carved into niches in larger rocks. At least one has a crude face carved into it, and a few are in the form of obelisks or altars.
Religion is one of the areas where the Greek influence on Nabatean culture is most prominent.
Nabatean deities included Dushara (the head of the pantheon, and a hybrid of the Greek Zeus and the Syrian Hadad, with elements of Dionysus, the Greek God of wine), Atargatis (responsible for fertility, fruit, grain, fish) and three goddesses mentioned in the Koran: Allat (whose name simply means 'the Goddess', and who was associated with the moon), Manat (patron of luck and fate, as well as Petra, and particularly associated with the Treasury) and al-Uzza (who seems to have had elements of the Egyptian Isis and the Greek Diana and Venus).
Nabatean religion was based around sacrifices, and was probably similar in form to the Canaanite religions described in the Old Testament; several 'High Places' can still be seen around Petra, where sacrifices were offered. It seems, therefore, that Nabatean religion in one form or another existed from at least the sixth Century BC (which is the latest date that the Old Testament could have been composed) to the seventh Century AD (when the Koran was written).
The best-known ruins at Petra are the rock-cut tombs. These, as the name suggests, are carved directly into the rock face, but are designed to look like classical Greek buildings. They have little internal structure; usually just a room for the corpse(s) and a 'triclinium'1, or dining-room for visitors and mourners.
The Treasury (also known as al-Khazneh) is easily the most famous of Petra's ruins.
It was carved in the first Century BC, possibly by Aretas II Philhellene. Its façade is split into several levels, and features carvings of animals that represent various Greek and Nabatean gods, including eagles, lions and the twins Castor and Pollux. Its pillars are carved directly into the cliff-face, which has allowed the structure to survive the collapse of one; they are not weight-bearing structures.
The lower level is a classical six-pillared Greek portico, with a second level featuring a cylinder splitting two sloping roofs. Above that, the sheer cliff-face continues. A series of indentations in the cliff face to either side are believed to be footholds used by the builders.
It can come as something of a surprise to enter through the imposing doorway, perhaps expecting the huge labyrinth of traps encountered by Indiana Jones, only to find three cramped rooms with nothing to see but a small basin and some impressive banding in the rocks.
The Treasury takes its name from the huge urn on its front, which legend and rumour suggested was filled with gold. The urn is now pocked with bullet-holes where impecunious locals have tried to smash it open; but it is now known that the urn is solid rock, with no inner chamber.
220 metres above the town centre and hidden from view stands the Monastery (or Deir). This is superficially similar to the Treasury, but in a much plainer style. It has the same six-pillared portico supporting a cylinder and split roof on the second level, but is much larger, something that can be difficult to appreciate in photographs, due to its perfectly scaled-up proportions.
The Monastery sits on a plateau that was used as a place of worship long before a city was established below. Looking at the amazing view over the River Jordan and the Dead Sea, it is easy to see why. Access to the roof is possible by scrambling up the cliff behind, but this is currently illegal.
There are many other façades carved into the cliff-face, including the Roman Soldier Tomb, the Tomb of 17 Graves and the Garden Tomb. The Urn Tomb, the Corinthian Tomb, the Palace Tomb and the Silk Tomb are collectively known as the Royal Tombs, as they are believed to have housed the remains of the city's rulers. The most densely packed cluster of rock-tombs is known rather aptly as the Street of Façades. All the tombs run along the sides of the main valley, and the majority are visible from the centre of the city.
Other Structures and Features
There are also a few religious buildings, notably the Nymphaeum and the Temple of the Winged Lions. The latter was dedicated to al-Uzza, and features the best example of a block-god with a face carved onto it. Some churches also exist from later in the city's history, although there is little left of them barring some mosaics and pillars.
Although obviously Roman-influenced, the 8,500-seat theatre predates the Roman capture of Petra, having been built in the first Century AD. Petra's Colonnaded Street is one of the finest to survive, running past the temples and with a small plaza at one end.
It is possible to work your way up to the top of the cliffs, which are riddled with smaller cracks and canyons, and with the aid of a guide reach the cliff overlooking the Treasury. There is also an alternative entrance to the site, called the Small Siq, which is a rough scramble through a narrow canyon, often nearly blocked by bushes and fallen rocks. This is only passable when dry, and can be quite perilous during the wet season.
Further afield, an unusual god-block called the Snake Monument (since it has a sinuous, snake-like carving on top) can be found, and there are also popular but longer routes to the top of Jebel Haroun where a shrine to Aaron is located. Al-Beidha, or 'little Petra' is a few kilometres down the valley, and features more rock-cut tombs.