Petra, The First Time
Blackthorn October 28, 2009
Petra is a city literally sculpted out of cliffs in a deep, winding canyon in Jordan. My wife and I visited this incredible city in 2006 on a combination tour of Israel and Jordan. I asked our guide when it was built and he said, “It wasn’t built. It was carved. Out of the cliffs. In the first century before Christ.” Okay then, it was carved by a people known as the Nabateans at a crossroads in the area south of the Dead Sea. Due to the rocky, broken landscape of the area, this canyon was the only passable route for many miles in any direction. The caravans transporting goods anywhere south of the Dead Sea had to pay a toll to the Nabateans or go all the way around to reach their destinations. That would have been something like going from California to Arizona via Colorado, to put it into modern perspective. Since it could only be approached through these narrow canyons, it must have seemed like an impregnable fortress to those who decided to build a city there. As many as 30,000 people lived in this maze that covers more than two square miles.
Before entering through the government-controlled gate we passed by this little shop selling trinkets. My wife couldn’t resist snapping a picture here, for obvious reasons.
From there we headed on foot down a valley known as Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses) toward Petra. We took this picture to show what a desolate moonscape this area of Jordan is:
There was a lot to see on both sides of the road. These enormous blocks are known as the “Djinn blocks,” or Tower Tombs. A Greek inscription indicates that a Nabatean family built these in the first century AD:
A little further down, on the opposite side of the road was this incredible structure known as the Obelisk, or Nefesh, Tomb, also from the first century AD. Five people were buried here...
The road finally comes to a point where it turns sharply left and enters a large crack in the cliffs. This deep cleft is known as the Siq. It runs roughly three quarters of a mile through some of the most beautiful rock in the world. This is the beginning of the Siq:
This is another of those places where words seem small and dull. I took many pictures, but it was hard to do justice to the magnificence of the heights and the colors of the rock:
Water is in scarce supply throughout the Middle East and a canyon city like Petra with no natural streams or rivers had it even worse. They handled the situation ingeniously by carving channels into the cliff faces to catch the scarce rain as it flowed down the rock. The troughs then carried the water down into the city. Since it is downhill all the way through the Siq, this worked perfectly with little labor involved once the carving of the rock was finished:
The epilogue to this idea was that although it would have been difficult to mount a military attack on Petra, once the Romans decided to annex the city, all they had to do was block off the water and wait. It didn’t take long for the city to surrender. So much for the impregnable fortress that nature had given the Nabateans.
Frequently along the Siq there are carvings in the face of the cliffs. Most of these are thought to have religious significance. Here are niches cut into the rock to house idols. At the bottom of the picture you can see the top of stairs that lead up to the niches:
And another up on the wall behind me:
After casually strolling through this photographer’s paradise for an hour, we turned a corner and gasped as we saw this:
…which, in a few more steps became this. …And finally this.
This is the Khasneh, or Treasury as it’s known in English. It got its name from the ornamental ball at the very top of the façade, which was thought to contain gold treasure. The local Arabs spent countless hours shooting at it, trying to shatter it so the gold would come cascading down. That accounts for the many scars on it, although they may be hard to see in this picture:
The façade of the Treasury was used in the making of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” At the end of the movie Indy and the rest of his party come riding horses down the Siq, then get off and walk into the Treasury. In the movie this is just the beginning of a vast cave, but in reality it is only 19 feet deep by 46 feet wide with small side rooms. My best estimate is that the room is about 30 high (it’s roped off, so you can only stand outside and look). The outside façade is 130 feet tall and 92 feet wide. The whole structure was carved completely out of solid rock (as was all of Petra, of course) during which some 60,000 cubic feet of rock was taken out to create the inside rooms. There is much debate over whether the Treasury is a tomb or a temple.
Turning 180 degrees, you can see where we had emerged from the Siq. My wife took this picture, with her back to the Treasury:
The route turns 90 degrees there, so continuing downhill we followed the “Street of Facades,” which are ancient tombs with highly decorated facades. This enterprising man came by calling “Taxi? Taxi? Taxi?” Many camel drivers make a living in Petra giving rides on their camels to the tourists:
After the main part of the street of Facades, on the right side of the canyon we saw this magnificent tomb, called the Tomb of Uneishu. Uneishu was a minister of the Queen Shaquilat, who is thought to have reigned between 70 and 76 AD:
Just beyond the Street of Facades, the canyon turns to the right. At the bend, on the left is the theater of Petra. It has 45 rows of seats and could accommodate more than 6,000 people. It is thought to have been built during the reign of Aretas IV, who was king between 8 BC and 40 AD:
I took a picture of this girl climbing to the top to give perspective to the size of the theater seats:
Just past the theater and on the right side of the canyon is this incredible structure called the Urn Tomb. The actual Urn Tomb is on the left, where the cliff face has been carved flat. Below the flat surface of the rock you can see the front of the tomb with its five columns. Archaeologists have been arguing for decades as to who was or was not buried there. It’s all speculation. They also argue as to whether it was carved out at the same time as the rest of Petra or whether it was done during the Byzantine era in the 5th century. Either way, there is no argument that the Urn Tomb was in fact a Christian church in 447 AD.
At this time my wife began appearing to be suffering from food poisoning and we turned around to head back (we always carry a medicine called Cipro when we travel for just this reason, and she ended up being all right after a couple of scary days). We thought we had been seeing the actual city of Petra all this time, but we found out later that we had only been seeing tombs. The actual city still lay ahead of us, to be explored another day.
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