Inside Petra – a Wonder of the World
Petra is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, and there is no doubt it deserves its place on the list. Inside Petra, also known as the “Rose City”, is a labyrinth of archaeological wonders that has been around for over a thousand years. It is a testament to the ingenuity and organisation of the Nabatean civilisation. Within a span of 400 years, from the 3rd Century BC to the 1st Century AD, they designed and built this incredible complex.
What is Inside Petra?
Before visiting Petra, I only knew of it from photographs of the Royal Tombs and The Treasury. From these photographs, it seemed to me that these buildings were palaces. In fact, the buildings and structures are a combination of grand tombs, temples and public spaces. However, it is the tombs and temples that are the best preserved.
The Monastery, for example, was a temple which also featured a great dining room. There is also the Theatre, which, as its name suggests, is a theatre built after the Hellenistic fashion. There are also spaces that have been identified as markets, and an audience hall found in the Great Temple. Most of these buildings inside Petra were built by the Nabateans, although there are structures from Roman and Byzantine times.
On our tour, we encountered some small, exposed rooms in the rock. At first I thought they were where regular people lived, but our guide told us that these small rooms were the tombs of regular people. However, I believe the purpose of these spaces are debatable, and it is possible some of them were used for everyday living.
Today, Bedouins from the Bdoul tribe still live inside Petra, in caves just slightly off the tourist drag. They have livestock, but most of their living is made from selling cool drinks and trinkets to tourists. They also offer camel and donkey rides to help get you around the city faster. Please do consider the well-being of these animals should you decide to hire them. Some of them are very small and appear quite malnourished and overworked. We happily walked everywhere instead.
Who Built Petra?
Petra was built by the Nabateans. These people shared the world they lived in with two other great civilisations, the Romans and the Egyptians. Originally nomadic, they prospered off the trade that flowed from East Asia to Europe through their territories in the Middle East.
They bought scents like frankincense and myrrh from what is now the southern part of Saudi Arabia. These scents they sold to the Romans and the Egyptians, who used them as deodorants, religious incense and for the burning (Romans) or the embalming (Egyptians) of their dead.
The city of Petra was built at the heart of this trade. When you visit the city today, you’ll notice how dry it is – it wasn’t much different a thousand years ago. The Nabateans were already a rich and skilled society by the time they began building it. They had the knowledge and resources to control and manage water, a very precious commodity in this area. You’ll notice this aspect of their ingenuity while walking through the Siq.
Like the pyramids of Egypt, Petra was not built by slaves. Nabatean society was largely egalitarian for its time, and labour was mostly paid for. In an account by a Roman scholar, Strabo, the Nabatean King is also said to be a man of the people and could often be seen serving himself and his guests at parties.
Attractions Inside Petra
During our visit to Petra, we felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things to see. I thought our two days there were simply not enough to take everything in.
Tip: Time needed to see the main attractions of Petra
You really need a full day to truly experience the Siq canyon and the sights in the city’s heart – which includes the Treasury, the Royal Tombs and the Monastery. Sightseeing in Petra is physically exhausting because it is big, it is hot, and there are many stairs. You need to take into account both the time you need, and the energy you will have. An extra day will give you more of each. With 3 days, you can explore sites like the Tomb of Sextius Florentinus, which is a little bit away from the Royal Tombs, and head up the 999 steps to the High Place of Sacrifice. If you have 4 days, and are feeling adventurous, you could also hike up to Aaron’s tomb.
Visiting its many archaeological sites gave me great insight into the lives of its creators, the Nabateans. It is amazing that we can look at these well preserved sites and weave together the history of this cosmopolitan region, once the centre of global trade. A position it maintained since the early days of the Roman Empire, until its collapse during the Byzantine era.
The Siq – Defense and Irrigation in Antiquity
The first attraction we encountered walking into Petra was the Siq. It is an amazing natural landform that cuts through the mountains of Petra. Walking through the Siq is a truly incredible experience. This deep and narrow gorge winds and bends greatly, with something new to be seen after every turn. Sometimes, the gorge would open up, and a magical patch of sunlight would fall on a clearing with a tree or two. Sometimes it would close in, making the visitor feel as if they were on a secret trail to find hidden treasure.
But the Siq was not just a breath-taking way to welcome visitors into Petra. It was also critical in the defence and irrigation of the city. The Nabatean’s engineering genius enabled them to harness clean water, a critical ability that enabled their civilisation to become a success.
How long is the Siq?
It is a long, narrow fissure about 1.2 km in length. At its narrowest points, it is no more than 3 metres wide. Because of this, the Nabateans utilised it as the entrance to their city, as it was so easy to defend. Small chambers have also been found on either side of the gorge. They are believed to be guard houses, which further highlights the Siq’s importance in the defence of Petra.
How does the Siq bring water into Petra?
The Siq was possibly my favourite part of our tour of Petra. Not only is it a magical place, quite unlike anything I’ve visited before, it was also a marvel of human engineering. Here, I learned that Petra city is located lower than the surrounding land. While most of the area lies at 1400 metres above sea level, Petra is no higher than 900 metres. This meant that springs from Wadi Musa and the adjacent lands could be channeled downwards into the city. Along either side of the gorge, there are aqueducts carved into the rock. Some of them were simple, covered drains, while others used to hold sophisticated pipes made of clay, used for getting drinking water into the city.
I noticed, as I walked along the gorge, that the water channels did not always stay at the same level with respect to the ground. At the start, these channels ran by my feet. Furthur down, as the road descends suddenly, they meandered high above my head. By keeping the descent of the channels into the city constant and gradual, the Nabateans ensured adequate water pressure in Petra.
How was the Siq formed?
The Siq was formed purely by natural geological processes. The Nabateans only repurposed and decorated it to suit their civilisation. The land Petra is built in is old. Scientist dating the sandstone walls of the Siq date it to the Cambrian period (that’s when trilobites roamed the earth). The fissure is a geological fault formed when the land was split by tectonic forces. Over time, water flowing down from Wadi Musa wore down its wall, smoothing them into their present sinuous forms.
How did the Romans exploit the water supply?
The Nabatean empire ended abruptly in just two years, having been conquered by the Romans between 106 AD and 108 AD. A popular theory is that the Romans, knowing the locations of their reservoirs (even the underground ones that had been cleverly hidden) had poisoned their water supply. This led to the surrender of the Nabateans and their annexation into the Roman Empire.
The Treasury of Petra – That Indiana Jones Moment
As you reach the end of the Siq, you’ll see the Treasury through the crack between the cliffs that surround you. The rose red facade will be lit by the sun, a contrast to the cool, dark walls of the Siq. The Treasury, or Al Kazneh, is the tomb of a Nabatean King and the most famous of all the attractions in Petra. I knew of it having watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a child. Seeing this ancient structure reveal itself, so beautifully preserved, was an amazing moment.
The architecture and design of the Treasury is heavily influenced by the Hellenistic (ancient Greece) world. Featured prominently in the centre of the upper floor is a circular pedestal on which is carved a female figure. This figure is the combination of the Egyptian Goddess Isis (one of her duties is to welcome souls into the afterlife) and the Greek Goddess of Good Fortune, Tyche. This tomb stands out from the others because of its many figurative carvings, since Nabatean art and architecture is otherwise mostly non-figurative.
On the tips of the “roof” are two eagles, who represent Nabatean male deities. And on the lower levels are Castor and Pollux, Greek twin gods whose duty was to protect the dead on their travels in the underworld. Towards the side of the temple, you’ll notice vertical footholds in the wall. These were the “stairs” the sculptors used to when they were carving the tomb.
When was the Treasury built?
The tomb is believed to be the burial place of Aretas IV, the most successful Nabatean ruler. He lived and died in the 1st Century AD, which is likely the timeframe when the Treasury was built.
Who built the Treasury?
You might not be familiar with the Nabatean king Aretas IV – but his kingdom was allied with the Roman Empire through the marriage of his daughter, Phasaelis, to Herod Antipas. This is the same King Herod from the Bible who gave to his daughter, at the wish of her mother, the head of John the Baptist. It should be noted that King Herod had divorced the Nabatean princess and remarried, and it was not Phasaelis who asked for the head of the prophet.
Can you enter the Treasury?
No, the Treasury cannot be entered. There are metal fences a few feet from the monumental doorways to prevent visitors from desecrating the place. Most of the other buildings in Petra can be entered, but not this one. I think the legend saying that there is loot hidden in a stone urn on the second level has something to do with the place being out of bounds. Nevertheless, you can poke your nose in to take a look. If you do, you’ll see a simple, empty square hall with rooms around it.
Why are the statues of the Treasury partially destroyed?
Some of the earliest depictions of the Treasury were by David Roberts, a Scottish painter who made beautiful drawings of Petra in the early 1800s. The Treasury, then, was unblemished, except by the passage of time and the elements. All throughout the years since it was abandoned during the Byzantine era, its statues stood. Yet since Roberts had drawn it, to this day (scarcely two centuries) the statues of Castor and Pollux are all but gone, and the faces of the Amazons on the upper level have been chipped off in their entirety. Why? Some say it was due to the Bedouin looking for treasure. Our guide told us it could also have been the work of religious Muslims who wanted to take off the faces of these idols.
The Outer Siq
As you continue on your way from the Treasury, deeper into the city of Petra, you’ll reach the Outer Siq. Here, the narrow walls open up into a magnificent plain. The plain is often filled with camels with their colourful saddles and Bedouins in traditional dresses selling trinkets.
You’ll even notice a snack bar or two where you can have a meal and get a cool drink. The effect of all this activity made me realise that although we were surrounded by ruins, Petra remains, today, a living city. From here, your journey will now continue down the Street of Facades.
The Street of Facades
Along the way towards the Theatre, you will see some of Petra’s oldest tombs. These tombs come in varying grandeur. Some of these are set high up into the cliff face, with no way to access them.
To enter these tombs, without causing harm to the facades, archeologists hired a mountain climber, who scaled up the rock face in order to enter through their sky doors.
It is here, along this street, that you will discover more about the lives of ordinary Nabateans. The rock faces on either side are filled with simpler tombs. These tombs are unadorned, save for a simple plaster pediment above their doorways and a few decorative ledges. We also saw squarish rooms carved into the caves here. Bedouins live in some of them nowadays, and you can see their everyday things inside.
Not all of the rooms are tombs, however. Many were the dwellings of regular citizens. The Nabateans did not separate their funerary spaces from their living areas, which existed side by side. Today, they are fronted by temporary looking shops made from wooden frames. With these shops in front, doing bustling trade in souvenirs, one can almost imagine what this busy market street might have been like.
A turning to the left takes you to the Theatre. It was built in 1 AD, and is Roman in design. The engineering is excellent, and if you speak in the centre of the stage, you’ll hear your voice ring out through the space. Interestingly, the theatre is carved into the mountain, over the facades of existing tombs.
The Theatre gives us an interesting insight into how the Nabateans viewed life and death, that they choose to live, and conduct grand occasions, in the presence of their dead. The Theatre stands today mostly as the Nabateans made it, with only the outer wall being repaired and reinforced by the Romans after they annexed Petra.
Tip: Getting to the High Place of Sacrifice
If you wish to go to the High Place of Sacrifice, you can do so from here. To the left of the Theatre, you will find signposts for the stairway that will take you there.
The Royal Tombs
One of the grandest sight you’ll see, as you continue along the Street of Facades, will be the Royal Tombs. They stand, side by side, high up on the rock face of Al-Khubtha, the mountain they were carved into. Their monumental stature and elaborate facades suggest that they were the tombs of Petra royalty. As you get closer, you’ll notice that they are naturally patterned by the striations found in the sandstone.
The climb up to these tombs is not too difficult, although the steps do deter many visitors, who prefer to admire them from below. I think the walk up is certainly worth it, as you get a great view of the plain from above. Also, they are one of the less frequented monuments, so you will get to admire them in relative solitude.
The Urn Tomb – Clues into Petra’s Geological History
The first of these tombs is the Urn Tomb. If you look closely, you will see an urn crowning its “roof”. Underneath the terrace of this tomb are two levels of arched corridors. The Bedouins used to believe that the Urn Tomb was a court and that the corridors led into dungeons.
The tomb was repurposed into a church in 447 AD. You’ll notice inside that two of the rooms were combined into an arched vault where the alter was placed.
The most fascinating thing about the Urn Tomb is its ceiling. It is richly marbled with swirls of red and black. Here, you can see the raw qualities of Petra’s limestone. The red comes from iron oxide and the black from manganese. This beautiful pattern gives us an insight into the geological history of Petra. Since manganese is formed in shallow marine environments, we know that the land on which Petra stands was once completely submerged.
The Palace Tomb
The largest tomb is the Palace tomb. Presently it is three levels high, but during its time, it was five levels. These extra levels were created with huge slabs that have sadly since collapsed and disintegrated. Archaeologists believe that this tomb was modeled after the Domus Aurea, the palace of the Roman Emperor Nero, built in the same century, although I honestly can’t say I see any similarities between them. The design of the Palace Tomb, in my opinion, leans towards the classical Nabatean style, with its “stacked” look, something you’ll notice in the number of worn ledges between the floors of the tomb. I also thought another distinctive feature of this tomb were the many columns on the second level.
The Corinthian Tomb
The Corinthian Tomb is stands out for its asymmetric design. Although the overall structure is symmetrical, the doorways on the lower level are of different heights and widths. If you look closely, you’ll also notice that the first story is in the Nabatean style, while the upper floor has a Hellenistic design. The doorways on the ground floor are flat, not gabled, while the upper floor has a circular pedestal similar to the one found on the Treasury.
The Colonnaded Street
As you walk farther into the city, you’ll soon start to see a marked change in architecture. The confines of the Outer Siq, with its magnificent tombs, give way to an open, colonnaded street. Here, the road is partially paved with stones. Interestingly, in Jerash, which was a Roman city, the stones are placed diagonally on the street. This was so chariots and carts would not get their wheels trapped in between the stones. This is not the case here, where the stones are placed parallel to the sidewalk. Archeologist think the columns of the Roman Cardo were added in 106 AD, after Rome annexed Petra, however, the paved street is probably older.
The Great Temple
One of the first buildings we visited on this street was the Great Temple. Although its name suggests a religious place of worship, archaeologists believe it was more likely that the Great Temple was a parliamentary building. After climbing up some steps, we arrived at the heart of the temple. This was a theatre, with seating for up to 600 people. The design of this space is the primary reason why this building was more likely a building meant for official functions than a temple. Usually, Hellenistic and Nabatean temples have rectangular cellas at their heart.
What I found special were the columns which were made up of separate discs. Before the Colonnaded Street, almost all the columns were of decorative quality, carved into the rock face as ornamentation. Here, these were free standing. However, some pillars had fallen down quite dramatically. I mused to myself how the discs, leaning on each other diagonally, resembled an open pack of Oreos with the cookies spilling out.
During our visit to one of the sites on the Colonnaded Street, we noticed a covered site some distance north. All we could see of it was a white tarp stretched over the desert. This immediately fascinated us, since it it the only site in Petra we had seen that was covered to protected it from the elements. It was a bit of a meandering hike to get to it, but definitely worth the while.
Underneath the tarp were beautiful mosaic tiles from the 6th Century. These tiles depicted a variety of animals, objects and of course, humans. They were originally likely brightly coloured in the fashion of the mosaic tiles nowadays. However centuries of sun had bleached them of their hues. Nevertheless, I though they were still very beautiful in monochrome as well.
Qasr el-Bint (The Temple of Dushares)
Qasr el-Bint is definitely one of the most impressive temples inside Petra. It is the largest freestanding structure in all of Petra. The first thing that struck us was how high the walls were. If you were to look carefully, you’ll notice courses that run a third of the way down the temple walls. These courses once held wooden beams. Our guide explained that flexible wooden beams were used in the walls to dissipate shocks during earthquakes.
No one can come to a conclusions as to which god or goddess this temple is actually dedicated to. Some say it is dedicated to one of the pre-Islamic Arabian gods – Dushares, the Nabatean equivalent of the Roman’s Jupiter, or Zeus, from the Greek Pantheon. Some say it was dedicated to Al-Uzza, the Nabatean equivalent of Aphrodite. Whichever the case, it made me think religion was certainly a lot more interesting then than now!
It was here, at the Qsar el-Bint that our Jordanian guide parted ways with us, for this impressive temple marked the end of our walk down the Colonnaded Street. The day was coming to a close and we decided to leave the climb to the Monastery for tomorrow.
The Monastery(Ad-Deir) – 850 Steps Up
The hike up to the Monastery was definitely one of the most memorable moments for me. Our guide had told us it is 850 steps up. This did not seem daunting, until we started our ascent. The Ad-Dier trail begins where the Colonnaded Street ends, and winds upwards for 1.6 km to the Monastery.
Tip: Best time in the day to hike to the Monastery
We recommend you do the hike to the Monastery in the morning, with the sun on your back as you climb. As always, the earlier you go, the better, as you’ll get to avoid crowds. Another reason to go early is to reduce the encounters with tourist riding donkeys returning from the top. These appear out of nowhere and jostle for space on the same road. I was almost knocked over a ledge by a harried donkey blundering down a curve!
The Trail to The Monastery
The route up was absolutely stunning. I would turn back every so often to wonder at the valley of Petra unfolding behind me, as we ascended. Seen through the frame of the cliff faces along the gorge, I could really appreciate its grand scale.
Eventually the path winded such that the city was hidden behind the mountain. Here the trail became more adventurous, sometimes cutting under boulders, sometimes turning into steps that were boulders. When our guide said there were 850 steps, he didn’t tell us some of them were almost three feet high! Always, the road ahead would eventually disappear around a bend, making us wonder what would come next.
It took us over an hour to get to the Monastery. If you don’t stop to take photos and marvel at what’s around you, you can do it in 45 minutes, but that would be no fun.
Our Visit to The Monastery
At the top, I sat down in what little shade there was in the shadow of the Monastery (it was about high-noon when we arrived) to sketch, attracting the attention of two Bedouin sisters that were selling little polished rocks they had chipped off throughout the complex. They started a conversation with me to practice their English and asked to look through my moleskin. I let them have it and they went through it all, page by page, eventually coming on to a nude figure I’d done a while back. I panicked – these were Bedouin Muslim girls, would they be offended? I was surprised, but on retrospect they reacted in a way I suppose young girls all over the world would have, by giggling and nudging each other.
What is The Monastery
The Monastery is a temple dedicated to the Nabatean king Obodas I, the successor of Aretas VI. Some people think it is a tomb, but this is not possible since Obodas I was buried in the Negev desert.
This temple, standing high up in the Ad-Dier mountain has an architecture similar to the Treasury. Like the Treasury, it has the circular pedestal splitting the triangular “roof”. However, it it simpler and almost unadorned by comparison. One thing you’ll notice is the lack of figurines on the facade. It also has some strongly Nabatean designs, like the simple rectangular doorways and “windows”.
I initially thought the Monastery was given its name because of its remote location and its simple design. However, it is more likely it got its name from the crosses found carved in its interior. Like the Urn Tomb, the Monastery had been repurposed into a Byzantine church much later in its lifetime.
FAQs for The Lost City of Petra
Petra is a stunning collection of tombs, temples and ancient living spaces of the Nabatean civilisation. These are carved into the very rock the city is built on. Some main archeological sites inside the city are the Treasury – the tomb of a Nabatean king, the Monastery – an isolated mountain temple, a theatre, government buildings and dwelling for regular people. Read more…
Petra is a city that has been carved into sandstone deposited in the area over millions of years. This sandstone is rich in iron and manganese, a mineral formed on the sea floor. One of the reasons the Nabateans chose the site was the structure of the rock – soft enough to carve, yet strong enough that it was not easily eroded. The sandstone here has been dated to the Paleozoic period, when Arabia was part of the supercontinent, Gondwanaland. See photo…
We bought the 2 day ticket, but felt it was not enough. You really need a full day to explore the main attractions, including the Treasury and the hike to the Monastery. But it is not enough to only have time, you also need some rest, as exploring Petra will be physically exhausting. For this reason, we recommend 3 days or more. Read more…
Petra covers an area of 263 square kilometres, roughly 50,000 footballs fields. The walk through the Siq alone, to get inside Petra, will take 30 minutes to an hour. The farthest attractions in Petra are Little Petra and the Tomb of Prophet Aaron. Little Petra is 10 km from the visitors’ centre, while Aaron’s Tomb is 5 km away.
You can get passes for 1 day for 50 Jordanian Dinars, roughly €65, 2 days for €70 or 3 days for €75.