Petra, Jordan; a Travel Guide to the Rose Red City
INTRODUCTION TO PETRA ; THE 'ROSE-RED CITY'
In 1812 Swiss adventurer and explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt was travelling through Jordan when he heard rumours of an ancient hidden city, which he decided to investigate. He disguised himself as a devout Muslim (the only way he could gain the trust of local bedouin tribesmen) and got them to escort him to the valley which was the site of the legendary ruins. It was a dangerous ruse - if his true identity as a European had been discovered he would certainly have been killed; but it wasn't, and his great reward was the first glimpse by a Westerner of the fabled lost city of Petra.
Petra in Jordan is unique. It is a vast accumulation of buildings mostly carved out of the rock face, of which tombs predominate. There are rock-cut tombs in other parts of the world but nothing on this scale. Petra covers a vast area. And there is also nothing else quite like the characteristic pinkish reddish sandstone of which this city is composed - sandstone which earned that most famous and romantic of epithets for Petra when Victorian Dean John Burgon described it as the ‘rose-red city, half as old as time.’
All photos on this page were taken by the author in the City of Petra.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF PETRA
Petra was created by a race of nomadic traders from Arabia called the Nabataeans. The history of these people before the 1st century BC is largely uncertain, but around this time or earlier, they seemed to have settled in a remote valley in Jordanian desert - a valley protected by mountains on all sides, and in a strategic location from which trade routes to Africa, Europe and Asia could be controlled. Here the Nabataeans established their city of Petra, and began to spread their influence throughout the region. Ultimately - perhaps inevitably - the Roman Empire developed into the area and embraced the Nabataean Kingdom and Petra, and a Roman Governor came to live in the city. Petra continued to thrive for some centuries after, but around the 6th century AD, there was a succession of earthquakes and a change in the vital trade routes away from the region which led to the decline of Petra. The city disappeared from Western awareness, and its ruins were known only to local tribesmen until its rediscovery in the 19th century. Today Petra is a major tourist atttraction, recently accorded status as one of the updated seven wonders of the world.
Petra was just part of the Nabataean Kingdom, and there are numerous other sites dotted around the surrounding countryside, but Petra is undoubtably the most impressive. Even before the narrow entrance to the city, known as the Siq, there are many tombs and rock-cut inscriptions in the valley called Bab as-Siq or 'gateway to the gorge'. Perhaps the most impressive of these structures is the Obelisk Tomb, shown here.
There is more than one route into Petra, but by far the most dramatiic is via the Siq - a natural cleft in the rock more than a kilometre long, which was formed by the seizmic upheavals which created the Great Rift Valley of Africa and the Middle East, thirty million years ago, The Nabataeans or their ancestors clearly recognised that this was an entrance to the valley beyond which could help keep their new city hidden, or at least well defended, from prying eyes and rival tribes. But the Nabataeans turned the Siq into more than just a mere passage between two tall cliff faces. The Siq has various altar-like carvings in its walls, and the floor was paved (some of this paving still remains). And all along the length of each wall, the Nabateans gouged a deep channel into the rock to allow life-giving water to flow into the desert city.
Walking the Siq today perhaps lacks some of the magic that the earliest Western travellers must have experienced when Petra was rediscovered in the 19th century - today one has to share the moment with legions of happy snapping tourists, whilst keeping a wary eye open for local donkey riders, some of whom seem to treat the Siq like a racecourse. And occasionally one has to make way for a horse-drawn carriage careering down the path. Thankfully, no petrol-driven vehicles can pass this way, and much of the appeal still remains.
And of course, anyone who walks this way today knows exactly what to expect at the end of the Siq - the Treasury is the very first building of all to be seen, and its facade is the most ornate and most famous. Anticipation of the Treasury grows with each bend in the path, until finally this unique building comes into view. That anticipation, and the final revealing of the Treasury as the visitor rounds one more rock outcrop, makes this route into Petra perhaps the greatest of all entrances to any archaeological site in the world.
THE TREASURY BUILDING
Everybody knows the Hollywood version of the Treasury at Petra in Jordan; it’s the great temple-like building which Harrison Ford enters in ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ - the one with the old crusader knight who guards an assortment of Holy Grails, and a swinging scythe strategically placed to decapitate unwary travellers. Of course, sadly, the real thing isn't quite so dramatic on the inside, yet equally impressive on the outside when you first encounter it via the Siq (through which Ford rides at the end of the film).
The Treasury, or al-Khazneh, was in fact probably a Nabataean tomb, or a temple, but was mis-named after an ancient myth that treasure (not the Grail) was buried inside. It probably dates from the first century BC.
THE STREET OF FACADES
For some, the Treasury Building is Petra, but turning right out from the Siq visitors soon become aware that Petra is much much more than one building. It is a vast area of tombs, ceremonial buildings, temple ruins and a theatre. A pathway between the rock faces leads first to the Street of Facades. There is a grouping of numerous smaller tombs on the left of the street stacked one on top of the other towards the cliff top. Most have a simple rectangular entrance and a few adornments. Other tombs are to be found on the right, including the Aneisho Tomb seen at the bottom of this page. Further down the street there is a Nabataean theatre.
THE COLOURFUL ROYAL TOMBS
Still further down from the Street of Facades and the theatre, but on the right hand side are the 'Royal Tombs' (It is assumed by their impressive appearance that they are the tombs of kings). The first of these is the Urn Tomb, dated to the 1st century AD, and named for an urn-like carving above the facade. The Urn Tomb, interestingly, was converted into a church in the 5th century AD during the spread of Christianity into the region at this time. Next is the Silk Tomb, which is rather smaller, but one of the most colourful, with a range of cream, pink and rust coloured banding in its rock strata. Next to this is the Corinthian Tomb, and finally the Palace Tomb. The Palace Tomb,which dates from the late 1st century, is one of the largest structures at Petra, but would have been even more impressive in its heyday - much of the upper part of the structure has since fallen.
Beyond the Royal Tombs, the path divides and leads to further tombs and other rock carved buildings. Turning right leads the visitor past the tomb of Roman Governor Sextius Florentius who died c130 AD, and up to a view-point over the Petra ruins. Turning left is the Colonnaded Street - once the main thoroughfare of the city - as well as free-standing temple ruins, a gateway, and other Nabataean and Roman remains.
(Incidentally, this is also the location of Petra's modern day restaurant and archaeological museum!)
THE ROMANS IN PETRA
In 106 AD the Roman Empire had begun to extend its influence into Petra, though it's not clear whether it was the result of violent suppression of Nabataean independence, or peaceful trade-based co-operation.
During their time of occupation, the Romans constructed new buildings, and also modified existing buildings
Continuing along from the Colonnaded Street the visitor eventually arrives at the first of a steep flight of 800 rock-cut steps. There are donkeys for hire near this point to take the strain of climbing, or you can climb the steps by foot. But climb them you should, because it is the only way to reach the largest of all the monuments at Petra, and the second most impressive rock carved structure after the Treasury.
The Monastery, or 'ad-Deir', in Arabic, is believed to date from the end of the 1st centruy AD, and may have served as a ceremonial meeting place and banqueting hall. It is known as the Monastery because it was taken over by Christians in the 4th or 5th century AD, but its high location and grand design indicate that it also was likely to have had a sacred function for the Nabataeans.
The plateau where the Monastery stands is a fine location to rest awhile and just take in the panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, before once again descending those steps on the return journey to the Treasury, and the Siq and the outside world.
IF YOU'RE INTERESTED IN LEARNING MORE ...
This is the conclusion of my tour of the main sites of Petra. But Petra was a major centre of life 2000 years ago, and there are many other sites both within the city, and in the surrounding countryside which I could not cover in this brief guide. Visitors should spend at least one full day in Petra - maybe two.
I hope that this guide gives some impression of what to expect on a visit to Petra, but of course, no guide like this can truly do it justice. It needs to be seen.