JOR­DAN: The won­ders of Pe­tra

Ar­chae­ol­o­gist Ben Churcher ex­plores the high­lights of a visit to this ‘rose red city, half as old as time’

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

As an ar­chae­ol­o­gist who has been priv­i­leged to travel widely, I’m of­ten asked “what is your favourite site?” While the pyra­mids at Giza are awein­spir­ing in their size, the ru­ins of Palmyra in Syria evoca­tive in their desert lo­ca­tion and the Lion Gate at Myce­nae ma­jes­tic, I al­ways an­swer “Pe­tra” as no other site in the world is quite like Pe­tra.

As an icon for Jor­da­nian history, this pop­u­lar and much-vis­ited site is sim­ply stun­ning. No other site in the world can match the en­try into Pe­tra and nor can they com­pete with the sheer artistry and labour that was ex­pended in the cre­ation of the site’s mon­u­ments. The oft quoted de­scrip­tion of Pe­tra as ‘the rose-red city half as old as time’ is al­most right: the site is set in a chain of rose-red (and yel­low and buff ) moun­tains, although the site, for an ar­chae­ol­o­gist, is not ‘half as old as time’. How­ever, I won’t let dry aca­demic niceties de­tract from the more ro­man­tic no­tions that do cap­ture the feel­ing one gets when at Pe­tra.

Although a set­tle­ment has ex­isted at Pe­tra at least from the Iron Age (ca. sev­enth cen­tury BCE), what visi­tors see to­day dates from an amaz­ing floruit that oc­curred at the city around and shortly af­ter the time of Christ. The builders of Pe­tra were the Na­bataeans, an Arab peo­ple who grew rich by con­trol­ling the over­land route bring­ing vi­tal in­cense from Saudi Ara­bia to the mar­kets of the Ro­man Em­pire. To un­der­stand the im­por­tance of in­cense in the an­cient world one must re­mem­ber that, in what we would re­gard as an un­washed world with­out the mod­ern lev­els of hy­giene, the aroma of frank­in­cense and myrrh would have been near es­sen­tial to mask the smells of the ev­ery day.

In ad­di­tion, moun­tains of the ex­otic fra­grances were burnt dur­ing re­li­gious cer­e­monies and it is no co­in­ci­dence that the three wise men of Bib­li­cal fame pre­sented the young Christ with gold, frank­in­cense and myrrh: three equally valu­able com­modi­ties of the time.

Frank­in­cense and myrrh are both sourced from the sap of low, thorny trees that are en­demic to south­ern Saudi Ara­bia and Ye­men and Pe­tra, lo­cated in south­ern Jor­dan, was ideally si­t­u­ated to con­trol the trade routes bring­ing the in­cense north to Ro­man mar­ket places. Nor were the Na­bataeans con­fined to Pe­tra alone; at their zenith be­fore Ro­man ter­ri­to­rial con­quests in the first cen­tury BCE, the Na­bataean King­dom stretched from south­ern Syria to the He­jaz Coast in Saudi Ara­bia and their in­flu­ence spread even fur­ther.

Pe­tra’s history

It is no won­der that this trad­ing en­trepôt at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the Ro­mans as their in­ter­ests turned to the Near East dur­ing the late Re­pub­lic. The first clashes came in the mid­dle of the first cen­tury BCE but it was not un­til 106 CE that the Na­bataean King­dom was for­merly an­nexed into the Ro­man Em­pire, be­com­ing the province of Ara­bia Pe­traea. The trad­ing skills of the Na­bataeans en­sured that Pe­tra con­tin­ued to not only sur­vive dur­ing this pe­riod but pos­i­tively flour­ish and it is from this time that most of the mon­u­ments we see to­day date. Still oc­cu­pied dur­ing the Byzan­tine pe­riod (fourth cen­tury CE and fol­low­ing), the strate­gic im­por­tance of Pe­tra had be­gun to wane. The main rea­son for this was the ‘dis­cov­ery’ of the mon­soon weather pat­tern by the west dur­ing the Hel­lenis­tic Pe­riod (fourth to first cen­tury

BCE) when traders sailed di­rectly to In­dia from the Red Sea, by­pass­ing trad­ing cen­tres such as Pe­tra. Like most things, this dis­cov­ery took time to be widely used, but fol­low­ing 50 BCE more and more trade was util­is­ing the pre­vail­ing winds and slowly the over­land trade routes dwin­dled. Later, in the Byzan­tine pe­riod, Chris­tian cer­e­mony still used in­cense although not in the quan­ti­ties used in the pa­gan tem­ples. This dou­ble-blow of de­clin­ing de­mand and be­ing ma­rooned from the main trade routes meant that the power and in­flu­ence of Pe­tra grad­u­ally faded although it was never aban­doned. While mem­ory of Pe­tra van­ished from western con­scious­ness, the ru­ins and caves that dot the Pe­tra area were used by the lo­cal Be­douin, the Bedul, as their home. In­deed, this sit­u­a­tion con­tin­ued un­til the mod­ern pe­riod when the Jor­da­nian gov­ern­ment moved the Bedul fam­i­lies from Pe­tra it­self to a new, nearby set­tle­ment at Umm Say­houn. How­ever, for bet­ter or worse, the Bedul re­main ubiq­ui­tous at Pe­tra both as a re­minder of their past oc­cu­pa­tion of the ru­ins and, in­creas­ingly, as touts and sellers in­volved in the tourist trade.

You have plenty of time to pon­der this rich history as you make your way into Pe­tra. On leav­ing Wadi Musa (The ‘Val­ley of Moses’ where a spring is shown to you where Moses struck a rock with his staff to get the wa­ters flow­ing) and pur­chas­ing your en­trance ticket, you have a two kilo­me­tre walk to reach the ru­ins them­selves. In the past peo­ple could hire horses with which to make this trip but the crush of horses and the dust they raised prompted the Jor­da­nian gov­ern­ment to in­sist that the jour­ney be done on foot, although for those re­ally un­able to walk the dis­tance there are horse-drawn car­riages avail­able. But the walk is well worth it!

At first the val­ley is broad and be­side the road are the first rock-cut tombs you en­counter. These tombs, util­is­ing the nat­u­ral rock, are carved into blocks sym­bol­is­ing the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of the Na­bataean god Dushara who was rep­re­sented as fea­ture­less pil­lars or blocks.

These tombs in­volved cut­ting away the whole top of a hill or cliff face so as to leave only a block be­hind into which a small cham­ber was chis­elled. Some­times adorned with mer­lons (stepped or crenelated para­pets), or some­times left plain with per­haps just a carved pediment above the door, the func­tion of these struc­tures, as well as the more elab­o­rate ones within Pe­tra it­self, were part tomb and part used by fam­i­lies for feast­ing in the com­pany of their an­ces­tors. The larger are ex­am­ples of façades par ex­cel­lence. The viewer is pre­sented with a soar­ing, elab­o­rately dec­o­rated ed­i­fice, yet in­side is a plain room of­ten only with rock-cut benches on which the fam­ily would have re­clined dur­ing their feast days. Also to bear in mind when look­ing at these struc­tures is that while we are wowed by the stri­ated and colour­ful sand­stone that we see to­day, when in use these rooms were plas­tered and cov­ered in fres­coes. Of­ten the roof had scenes from agri­cul­ture or the gar­den and the walls were dec­o­rated with fres­coes to re­sem­ble block-work to make some­one on the in­side think the struc­ture is built of stone blocks rather than be­ing carved from the moun­tain it­self. Ad­di­tion­ally, we must imag­ine walled en­clo­sures, of­ten with gar­dens, in front of the façades, all of which have now van­ished. So while the struc­tures show their rose-red sand­stone face to­day, when new they would have been soft­ened by gar­dens in front and the sand­stone cov­ered in­side and out with coloured plas­ter work. A very dif­fer­ent scene to what we see to­day.

En­ter­ing through the Siq

Af­ter pass­ing through the broader val­ley you turn a cor­ner and cross a mod­ern dyke which pre­vents flood wa­ters from en­ter­ing the nar­row en­trance to Pe­tra, the 1.2 km long Siq. The mod­ern dyke repli­cates an an­cient one (look to your right and you’ll see the tun­nel the Na­bataeans carved out to carry away the flood wa­ters) and is a ne­ces­sity af­ter a 1963 tragedy in which 23 French tourists and their guide were swept to their deaths by flood wa­ters be­fore the an­cient dyke had been re-built. At the en­trance to the Siq, an arch, un­til re­cently, marked the for­mal en­trance to Pe­tra. Although the arch has now col­lapsed, you can still make out the arch sup­ports and imag­ine how the scene once looked.

Then you en­ter the Siq proper. Shaped by na­ture, the Na­bataeans made the Siq their own, paving the road, carv­ing small tem­ples, niches into the walls, and wa­ter chan­nels along the side.

No other site in the world can match the en­try into Pe­tra and nor can they com­pete with the sheer artistry and labour that was ex­pended in the cre­ation of the site’s mon­u­ments

Like some­thing from an Escher draw­ing, stairs seem to lead up into nowhere. Although weath­ered by wind, rain and time, what re­mains hints at the grandeur that met visi­tors to the site 2000 years ago.

As cliffs soar per­pen­dic­u­larly above you for 150 m, scenes rem­i­nis­cent of me­dieval Ja­panese land­scape paint­ing greet you with ev­ery turn. The spec­tac­u­lar rock for­ma­tions, cling­ing, stunted trees, and, way above, the blue desert sky make for won­der­ful im­agery. As you walk along the Siq you can only imag­ine the mount­ing ex­cite­ment that must have been felt by the Swiss ex­plorer Jo­hann Lud­wig Bur­ck­hardt who was the first out­sider to visit the ru­ins when he made his jour­ney of re-dis­cov­ery in 1812.

Bur­ck­hardt had mas­tered Ara­bic by the time of his visit and, in dis­guise us­ing the name Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Ab­dal­lah, he con­vinced the sus­pi­cious Bedul that he was a pi­ous man who wanted to of­fer sac­ri­fice at the tomb of Haroun (Aaron) which is lo­cated on a peak over­look­ing Pe­tra. Bur­ck­hardt tells us that he was watched like a hawk and could not take too much in­ter­est in the ru­ins he was see­ing in case it con­firmed the Bedul’s sus­pi­cions that he was a trea­sure hunter, but in­wardly he must have been jump­ing out of his skin to be the first west­erner to set eyes on Pe­tra in over a mil­len­nium. Bur­ck­hardt never made it to Jebel (moun­tain) Haroun as he ran out of time and of­fered sac­ri­fice in the lower city be­fore re­treat­ing and telling the out­side world of his dis­cov­ery.

El Khas­neh and be­yond

Like Bur­ck­hardt, your ex­cite­ment rises the fur­ther you go into the Siq, your foot­falls echo­ing off the canyon’s walls. Then there is the Bucket List mo­ment when you fi­nally turn a cor­ner and the full majesty of the el-Khas­neh (the Trea­sury) comes into view. This struc­ture, carved from the cliff face, is the most or­nate and best-pre­served of all the mon­u­ments at Pe­tra, and even if you have done the trip through the Siq a dozen times, it never fails to im­press.

At the foot of the el-Khas­neh the area opens up and is of­ten crowded with tourists, some shops and gaily dressed camels. Take note of re­cent ex­ca­va­tions at the foot of the el-Khas­neh that show us that the ground sur­face on which we walk to­day is sev­eral me­tres higher than in an­tiq­uity. Look­ing down through some grates you see a lower register of build­ings com­pletely cov­ered by the de­bris of nu­mer­ous floods that have car­ried grav­els down the Siq to be de­posited at the foot of the el-Khas­neh.

From the el-Khas­neh, I rec­om­mend that you fol­low the flow of visi­tors to­wards the rock cut theatre but then turn to your left and be­gin the as­cent to the High Place of Sac­ri­fice. The climb is worth it, you not only leave the mad­den­ing crowds and Bedul touts be­hind but, on reach­ing the rock cut plat­form, you have a stun­ning view over the en­tire city.

At the top you’ll no­tice the so-called ‘God-Blocks’ that are un­adorned pil­lars of stone rep­re­sent­ing the Na­bataean deities, as well as nu­mer­ous al­tars and basins to col­lect the blood of sac­ri­fi­cial of­fer­ings. The con­cept of holy moun­tains is a very Near Eastern thing. The Sume­ri­ans in flat Me­sopotamia had to build ar­ti­fi­cial moun­tains that we call zig­gu­rats on which to pray while at other sites such as Baal­bek in north­ern Le­banon, al­tars con­sist of tow­ers of stone on which the priests would have of­fi­ci­ated. With moun­tains read­ily avail­able, the Na­bataeans could pray to Dushara from the top of ac­tual moun­tains and one can only imag­ine the cer­e­monies tak­ing place with the rich trad­ing city laid out panoram­i­cally be­low them.

From the High Place of Sac­ri­fice keep head­ing west as you de­scend past sev­eral lovely tombs to­wards one of the few free­stand­ing build­ings seen to­day: the Qasr elBint (lit­er­ally the Fort of the Girl) that takes its name from a lo­cal leg­end. This build­ing was a Na­bataean tem­ple with stairs giv­ing ac­cess to a flat roof on which the cer­e­monies would have taken place, in keep­ing with the ho­li­ness of moun­tains but for those not want­ing to walk up ac­tual moun­tains!

In the heart of the city

Now you are in the heart of the city and back amongst the crowds. There are cafes and a res­tau­rant here where you can re­vive some­what be­fore your next ex­plo­ration. Although Pe­tra was en­tered on to the World Her­itage List ad­min­is­tered by UNESCO in 1985 there re­main is­sues.

While not on the List of World Her­itage in Dan­ger, there are con­cerns about Pe­tra both in terms of how to pre­serve the fri­able sand­stone mon­u­ments and how to rec­on­cile the needs of the lo­cal Bedul, the wider Jor­da­nian com­mu­nity and in­creas­ing tourist num­bers.

The Jor­da­ni­ans know what a jewel they have in Pe­tra and the gov­ern­ment has in­creased staff num­bers which has en­abled cam­paigns of in­spec­tion and con­trol, as well as strate­gies to man­age tourist ac­cess and lo­cal com­mu­nity in­volve­ment, in­clud­ing the lo­ca­tion and de­sign of com­mu­nity-man­aged shop/kiosks. While the aim is there, it is hard to rec­on­cile this with the needs of the lo­cal Bedul who rightly see Pe­tra as ‘theirs’ and as a ma­jor source of in­come. This has re­sulted in a some­times chaotic scene in the cen­tral city where chil­dren pester you to buy du­bi­ous

As you walk along the Siq you can only imag­ine the mount­ing ex­cite­ment that must have been felt by the Swiss ex­plorer Jo­hann Lud­wig Bur­ck­hardt who was the first out­sider to visit the ru­ins

sou­venirs, or to ride their don­key/horse/ camel, and ram­shackle shops seem to sprout up in any avail­able niche. It is a fine line that needs to be walked in these cir­cum­stances. An­cient sites ben­e­fit by hav­ing a bit of ac­tion and lo­cal colour. How­ever, there is a limit and some­times the tu­mult can get a bit much at Pe­tra.


Our next des­ti­na­tion should be the alDeir or the monastery. The path to this mag­nif­i­cent mon­u­ment starts be­hind the gov­ern­ment res­tau­rant and winds its way up into the hills to the west. The site re­ceived its name from a cave that is known as the Her­mit's Cell and when you get there you can well imag­ine what a great lo­ca­tion it would have been for a me­dieval monk to se­crete him­self away from so­ci­ety.

Al-Deir is one of the largest mon­u­ments at Pe­tra and dis­plays the typ­i­cal clas­si­cal façade. While at first glance the style seems very Ro­man with col­umns (note the unique Na­bataean, horned, cap­i­tals in use at the al-Deir in con­trast to the fine Corinthian cap­i­tals at the el-Khas­neh), ped­i­ments and other ac­cou­trements, in fact, scholars tell us, the ar­chi­tec­tural style is clas­si­cal but in­flu­enced from the Alexan­drian school in north Africa rather than from Rome it­self.

At the al-Deir you can clearly see the ubiq­ui­tous bro­ken pediment that char­ac­terises many mon­u­ments at Pe­tra and the mas­sive­ness of the con­struc­tion leaves you gob-smacked; and not least you are con­founded about how the Na­bataeans chose the right lo­ca­tion where the stone would al­low the carv­ing of such an ed­i­fice and the tech­ni­cal skill (akin to a sculp­tor) of vi­su­al­is­ing the fin­ished façade be­fore con­struc­tion be­gan.

While at the al-Deir, be­fore you re­trace your foot­steps back to the cen­tral city, take some time to walk fur­ther to the west. Here, a short dis­tance away, you will reach the edge of the es­carp­ment where sev­eral small al­tars have been carved from the moun­tains with, weather depend­ing, breath­tak­ing views over the south­ern por­tion of the Jor­dan Val­ley, the Wadi Araba.

Once back in the cen­tral city, if you have fol­lowed this itin­er­ary, you will be tired and ready to head back to your ho­tel in Wadi Musa. Re­mem­ber that the en­trance is a good 4 km from Qasr el-Bint and it is mostly up­hill, although at a gen­tle gra­di­ent. As you head back to the en­trance you walk along the Colon­nade Street or Cardo of the an­cient city which has por­tions of paving pre­served in places and the foun­da­tions of a civic arch. You may well suc­cumb to the con­stant pes­ter­ing to take some form of an­i­mal trans­port from Qasr el-Bint to el-Khas­neh but make sure you agree on a price and stick to it

(a com­mon ploy at the end is for your chap­er­one to say: “yes, that price was for me, but what about some­thing for my don­key/horse/camel!”).

A sec­ond day’s visit

As you move along the Cardo there are sev­eral other im­por­tant mon­u­ments that could ei­ther be vis­ited now or, as I would rec­om­mend, on a sec­ond trip into Pe­tra (your ticket al­lows two days’ of vis­it­ing that most peo­ple feel is a min­i­mum to fully ap­pre­ci­ate Pe­tra). First, on your right, are the foun­da­tions of the Great Tem­ple, painstak­ingly ex­ca­vated by Brown Univer­sity pro­fes­sor emerita Martha Sharp Joukowsky over many years. Although much ru­ined, this 7560 m squared precinct is com­prised of a propy­laeum (mon­u­men­tal en­try­way), a lower te­menos, and mon­u­men­tal east and west stair­ways which in turn lead to the up­per te­menos, the sa­cred en­clo­sure for the tem­ple proper. This build­ing is a blend of dif­fer­ent cul­tures and uses ele­phant head cap­i­tals, fres­cos, and el­e­gantly carved pi­lasters and cap­i­tals to great ef­fect.

Con­tin­u­ing fur­ther on, you may no­tice a struc­ture with a mod­ern roof off to your left. In 1990 Ken­neth W. Rus­sell dis­cov­ered the re­mains of a Byzan­tine era church on the north slope of the Colon­nade Street, the ex­ca­va­tion of which was roofed to pro­tect the finds. The church con­tains beau­ti­ful mo­saic floors, mar­ble screens, side rooms, a bap­tismal tank, and a room

where 152 burnt scrolls, now known as the Pe­tra Scrolls, were found. This archive be­longed to one Theodore who was born in 514 CE and most of the doc­u­ments date from a sixty-year pe­riod, roughly 528 to 588 CE, and com­prise of prop­erty con­tracts, out-of­court set­tle­ments and tax re­ceipts that pro­vide a wealth of de­tail about ev­ery­day life dur­ing the Chris­tian pe­riod at Pe­tra.

The other group of mon­u­ments that you can­not fail to no­tice are the so-called Royal Tombs carved into the cliff-face off to your left. They re­quire a climb of some steps to be reached but the Urn Tomb is be­lieved by scholars to be the tomb of Na­bataean King Malchus II who died in 70 CE or per­haps the tomb of Are­tas IV (ca. 9 BCE to 40 CE) giv­ing this group of mon­u­ments their name. Be­side the Urn Tomb is the Silk Tomb, one of the pret­ti­est of the Pe­tra tombs due to the highly coloured sand­stone into which it was carved, and the Palace Tomb, the mas­sive façade of which is re­garded as be­ing in­flu­enced by the Ro­man Em­peror Nero’s Golden House in Rome.

Other vis­its

Nat­u­rally we have only cov­ered the high­lights of Pe­tra and the site is vast and would be re­ward­ing for an en­thu­si­ast to spend days pok­ing up this ravine and that to come across other rock-cut tombs and signs of Na­bataean oc­cu­pa­tion. If your visit has the time, a trip to Lit­tle Pe­tra or al-Bei­dha which is lo­cated a few kilo­me­tres from Pe­tra and is easily ac­ces­si­ble by taxi or rented car is rec­om­mended. This satel­lite sub­urb has its own mini-Siq and some finely pre­served tomb façades. Most im­por­tant is the aptly named Painted Tomb where frag­ments of the orig­i­nal cov­er­ing layer of fres­coed plas­ter re­main to be seen. At al-Bei­dha you are likely to have the place to your­self and its small size makes for a more re­flec­tive visit fol­low­ing the vast­ness and grandeur of Pe­tra it­self.

A visit to Pe­tra should be at least two days although a slightly ex­haust­ing visit, with­out many stops, could be com­pleted in a day. What­ever you do, make sure that your visit is not one where you are just taken down the Siq to the el-Khas­neh and then turned around again as hap­pens with many visi­tors com­ing from cruise boats that bus peo­ple up from Jor­dan’s port, Aqaba. While this gives visi­tors their ‘wow’ mo­ment, it does not do jus­tice to the site.

Give your­self a cou­ple of days to re­ally soak in Pe­tra and while the walk in and out of the Siq each day will test your en­durance, think of how fit you will be as you fully ex­plore one of the world’s great ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites!

What­ever you do, make sure that your visit is not one where you are just taken down the Siq to the el-Khas­neh and then turned around again


The ‘rose red’ stone of Pe­tra

Glimpses of el-Khas­neh as it ap­pears from the Siq

View of Pe­tra with theatre (left)

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