February 21, 2023
The Rose City of Petra
Most of us know that there were Seven Wonders of the Ancient
World. On the very first day of this trip, we had seen the only one of them still standing, the Great Pyramid of Giza. (And a few days later, we stood on the very spot where
another of them - Pharos, the Lighthouse of Alexandria - had once shone its
But did you know that there are Seven New Wonders of
the World? The seven were chosen by tens
of million voters in an online survey done by a Swiss organization, “The New 7
Wonders Foundation.” And today, Rob and
I visited one of them – the ancient city of Petra.
|Al-Kahzneh, the "Treasury," is the most famous building in Petra,|
but there was so much more!
All I really knew about Petra was that it had a beautiful
building carved right into the face of a cliff.
Our visit revealed so much more! This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one
of the greatest archaeological treasures in the world. It sits in a valley midway between the Gulf
of Aqaba and the Dead Sea, its ancient populations protected by high walls of sandstone
mountains on all sides. And those mountains were covered with carved buildings!
We woke up early and met our guide, Samir, immediately after
breakfast in a not entirely successful attempt to beat the crowds. The entry gates into Petra were across the street from our hotel. We entered, dashed through the gauntlet of the vendors hawking
their souvenirs from the row of stalls, then headed down the dusty road toward the ancient settlement.
|The entrance to the archaeological site of Petra|
|The road to Petra in the early morning.|
My first hints that there were some unexpected marvels here came in the Bab as-Siq, which means “gateway to the Siq." We first passed by the "Djinn Blocks," which are large funerary monuments. They get their nickname from a Bedouin belief that they were inhabited by djinn. Just beyond was a double tomb - the Obelisk Tomb above and Triclinium below. The Triclinium still contains the stone benches that were used for funerary feasts.
|The Djinn Blocks|
|The Obelisk Tomb and Triclinium|
|The Obelisk Tomb sits above the Triclinium|
Soon we entered the Siq, the long, narrow gorge that winds
through a deep canyon, cut by rain and wind, to the valley below. Sandstone hills loomed up
to 240 feet on either side of us, and there were a multitude of man-made caves,
temples, inscriptions, and other decorations carved into the sandstone
walls. As we walked, Samir shared some of
the history of Petra. It is believed that humans have lived in this area for
about 7,000 years, but the golden age of Petra was between the 2nd C.
B.C. through the end of the 1st C. A.D. The city was home to between 20,000 and 30,000
people, the Nabataeans, who carved these gorgeous monuments and tombs. Under the Nabataeans, Petra thrived as a major
stop on the “Incense Route,” the trading route that carried frankincense and
myrrh, spices, pearls, and other luxury goods between the Roman Empire and
|Entering the Siq|
|Products of the ancient "Incense Route" are still sold in Petra.|
I loved the long walk through the Siq. Petra’s nickname is “The Rose City” due to the
vivid pink shade of many of the rock walls, although for me, one of the most
striking and beautiful things about Petra were the many colors, greys, purples, blacks, and browns streaking
through those rocks, and the way they glowed bright gold in the sunlight.
|Joan and Rob in the Siq|
|The Siq winds through the natural passageways cut by water, wind, and sand.|
|The black lines in the rock are evidence of ancient volcanic eruptions.|
|The pink sandstone that gives "The Rose City" its name.|
|The pinks and greys give the smooth rock a marble-like effect.|
|Pinks, golds, and browns streak through the rock walls|
|Pinks and purples chiseled by human hands|
Samir had grown up here and was proud to show us his knowledge of some of
the secrets of the canyon unnoticed by many of the other visitors – the profile
of a face in one cliffside, a rock that looked like a fish from the side but an
elephant from straight on, and the remains of a sculpture showing a camel caravan. During the 1st
C. A.D., Petra became a “client state” of the Roman Empire, and we could still
see remnants of the stone road the Romans had laid down on the passage through
|The profile of a face in the passage|
|The profile of a fat fish becomes...|
|...the face of an elephant when viewed from the front!|
|The remnants of a sculpture of a trader and his camel|
|The Romans laid this ancient cobblestone road. They eventually annexed Petra.|
|More remnants of the Roman road|
This is an arid climate, so, in addition to their architectural skills, the Nabataeans became amazing
water conservationists. They carved or built long channels along the walls of the Siq and filled these channels with clay pipes
that carried the water to the valley below for irrigation. But this canyon could be a dangerous place in
the rain, as flash floods would turn it into a raging river, so the Nabataeans built small dams to stem the
flow of water from the numerous smaller gorges on the sides of the canyon.
|Water channels carved out on either side of the Siq.|
|These fitted clay pipes that used to lie in the channels were displayed in the Petra Museum|
|One of the many dams that prevented water from flowing into the Siq|
|One of the several small canyons that needed a dam to prevent flooding|
My heart beat faster when, through the opening in the passage at the end of the Siq, we
caught the first glimpse of the monument that draws most visitors to Petra –
Al-Khazneh or “The Treasury.” We emerged
from the canyon into a large square filled with visitors, souvenir vendors, and
Bedouins offering photo opportunities with the many camels lying patiently on
|First peek at Al-Khazneh, the Treasury|
|Happy Travelers at Al-Khazneh|
|The busy square in front of Al-Khazneh|
|Some of the many camels in the square|
|Rob makes friends with a sweet-looking camel.|
|Tourists could buy camel rides throughout the square and the rest of the site.|
Al-Khazneh, or "The Treasury," is one of the best preserved of all the monuments in Petra. It is the mausoleum of King Aretes IV, the king who ruled here from 9 B.C. to 40 A.D. during the period of the construction of the most notable monuments of Petra. The Treasury got its nickname because of the mistaken belief that it was filled with a pharaoh’s hidden treasure. The orb sitting at the top center of the building became the focus for the treasure hunters and is pocked with bullet holes, but actually, the orb is a solid funerary urn. The sandstone building is weathered by years of sand and wind, but it is still an impressive sight.
|Details of the upper level of Al-Khazneh, with the orb at the top center|
|Details of the lower half of Al-Khazneh. Entry into the tomb was prohibited.|
The biggest surprise for me were all of the other tomb
facades and other monuments surrounding us here in the square.
|A tomb in the great square|
|Another of the "Djinn Blocks" that are found throughout the site.|
My amazement continued throughout
the rest of the visit. What a magnificent city this must have been! Almost every cliff face was carved into
temples, tombs, buildings. The “Tombs of the Royals” filled the cliffside high above us. There were other giant facades around the tombs of other prominent nobles. One wall
was filled with smaller, but beautifully decorated, tombs of the lesser nobles. And other hills were filled with the simple
tombs of the common people. Because of
the Nabataeans’ trade with other cultures, the Treasury and other buildings here
showed Hellenistic and Roman influences, including acanthus-topped columns,
floral friezes, and figures of Greek gods.
|Samir leads Joan further into the valley|
|The Tombs of the Royals covered a hillside high above us.|
From the left: The Palace Tomb, the Corinthian Tomb, the Silk Tomb, the Urn Tomb
|Below the Tombs of the Royals were smaller tombs and dwellings.|
High-ranking people in Nabataean society included governors, high-ranking military officers, priests and wealthy merchants. Some of their tombs are shown below.
|The Urn Tomb, one of the Tombs of the Royals|
|Some cliff faces were completely carved into the facades of tombs of notable people.|
|There are over 1,000 tombs in Petra. Most of them do not identify the people who lie within.|
|The tall Uneishu Tomb to the left is one of the few identified as belonging to a particular family. Uneishu was the head minister to Queen Shaqilat II.|
|A donkey and camels take advantage of the shade provided by one of the tombs.|
|The "Street of Facades" is believed to be one of the oldest burial sites in Petra|
|Tombs of the common people dotted the rocks all over the site.|
|Visitors visit the empty tombs.|
The valley was not just full of ancient and silent buildings. It was bustling with life, and we enjoyed watching the tourists, Bedouins with their camels, donkeys, and horses, stalls selling souvenirs and scarves, goats grazing on the hillside.
|Vendors selling souvenirs in front of the ancient tombs|
|A Bedouin and his donkey in front of the Street of Facades|
|A herd of goats on the hillside|
|An ancient way of life connects with modern life in Petra|
|An ancient pistachio tree |
|Halfway down the valley, we stopped at a small shop to rehydrate.|
As we walked further into the wide valley, the Roman influence
became more evident. The amphitheater
resembles a Roman theater, except the Nabataeans carved it into the stone, as
they did their other monuments. The
Great Temple is free-standing, but strongly resembled Greek and Roman ruins we
had seen in other places. And in front
of the Great Temple stands Temenos Gate, constructed during the reign of
Hadrian or Trajan after Rome annexed Petra in 106 A.D.
|The Theater is carved into the cliffside.|
|The Street of Colonnades|
|The Great Temple shows Hellenistic and Roman influences|
|The remains of the Great Temple|
We climbed the stairs to the upper levels of the Great Temple to explore.
|The upper terrace of the Great Temple|
|I wondered what the creature atop this column was meant to be...|
|...until I saw one of the originals in the Petra Museum...an elephant!|
|The Temenos Gate (AKA Hadrian's Gate) below the Great Temple. |
A temenos is the entry into a sacred place.
|Details of the floral decorations on the Temenos Gate|
|The ruins of the Winged Lion Temple lie across from the Great Temple|
|Winged Lion Temple|
After exploring the Great Temple, we continued to the last
large monument in the valley, and the best-preserved free-standing building,
the Qasr al-Bint Far’un, or Castle of the Pharaoh’s Daughter. The name was given to the building based on a
Bedouin legend, but it is most likely a temple to Dushara, the main god of the
|Qasr al-Bint Far'un|
As we finished our explorations, we were approached by eager
young men offering to guide us up the 800 steps to the other best-preserved
building in the complex, Ad Deir, or “the Monastery.” Ten years ago, we might have taken on the
challenge, but this time, we were content to take a welcome lunch break at the
buffet restaurant at the very end of the valley.
|Ad Deir, the Monastery, was one of several buildings we did not see for ourselves in our visit. We learned that there were other buildings hidden up in the hills that we did not have the chance to see, such as the Tomb of the Roman Soldier and the ruins of a Byzantine Church.|
Credit: Azurfrog, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons,
|We had a delicious buffet lunch in the restaurant under the red roof.|
|Rob makes another new friend. |
Following our lunch, more young men gathered around offering
donkey rides back to the Treasury. It
was going to be an uphill climb and the day was getting warm, so Rob, who is a great
negotiator, haggled for a decent price, and up on the donkeys we climbed! We had walked farther than I had realized, so
it turned out to be a great decision – and a fun one!
|A Bedouin and his dogs accompany Rob on his donkey.|
The walk back up the Siq went much more quickly than the
walk down as we were not stopping to gape at the various sights, but we had not
brought water with us, so we were thrilled to find a stand making
fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice as we exited the canyon. What a treat!
|Rob heads back into the Siq|
|Once we were out of the canyon, it was a warm uphill climb.|
|Thumb up! We are saved!|
This rest stop made one of our favorite drinks - fresh squeezed pomegranate juice!
|Weary but happy|
|The Djinn Blocks were a sign that we were almost back!|
We returned to our hotel for a much-needed rest, then I walked back
across the street to the small museum filled with artifacts taken from the
city. The informational videos and
posters helped me gain a better understanding of the history of Petra, and the artifacts dated all the way from Neolithic time through the Edomites (earlier residents of the valley), the Nabateans, the Romans, the early Christians, and the rise of Islam.
Here is just a sampling of some of the artifacts dating from the Nabatean Period and gathered from many of the tombs, temples, and homes we had seen today.
|A bust of Dushara, the primary Nabataean god - associated with Zeus|
|Probably the head of a Nabataean Priest or god|
|Typical Nabataean column capital|
|A head of Medusa shows the Hellenistic influence on Nabataean culture and art|
|This sphinx was found near the Temenos Gate.|
|A statue of Isis in mourning for Osiris shows the Egyptian influence on the art here.|
|"Goddess of Hayyan" This Arabian style goddess was found in the niche of a temple.|
|A Corinthian-Nabataean column capital with the head of Dionysus and grape vines.|
|The Petra site includes the ruins of homes and villas in the adjoining hills. The homes were decorated with colorful plaster. |
|Petra was also known for its pottery, and several examples were shown in the museum.|
|I like this little pottery hedgehog.|
Al-Khazneh may be called The Treasury, but the entire site of Petra is a treasure chest of beautiful sights. Today was one of the highlights of all of our travels. Now it was time to pack once more for the very last stop on our trip, the Dead Sea.
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