Petra was in ancient times the capital of the Nabataean Empire. Because of its monumental tomb temples, whose facades were carved directly from the rock, it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985. It was always a dream for The Significant Other and myself to visit Petra and see the magic of Al Khazneh with our own eyes. Now we finally had the opportunity to put a big checkmark on our bucket list.
Halfway between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Dead Sea, Petra lies at an altitude between 800 and 1350 m in a wide basin in the mountains of Edom. Thanks to its strategic location at the crossroads of several caravan routes linking Egypt with Syria and southern Arabia with the Mediterranean, the city was an important trading centre from the 5th century BC to the 3rd century AD. In particular Petra controlled an important junction of the incense road.
Petra lies hidden and well protected between rugged rock faces. It can only be reached from the north-west via a narrow mountain path or from the east via a 1.5 km long and 70 m deep gorge known as Siq, which is only 2 m wide at its narrowest point. This seclusion is the reason that the ancient city was rediscovered only in 1812 by Swiss adventurer Johann-Ludwig Burckhardt.
Up to this day the passage through the narrow Siq is the only way for visitors to make it to the ancient capital carved out of the rocks. The more we walked into the gorge (reminding me very much of the Arizona Slot Canyons), the narrower it got. In the Siq we could also see the remnants of the highly complex water supply system which included more than 200 cisterns, fed from all known water sources within a radius of more than 25 km around the city. The water was brought into the city through aqueducts carved into the rock and through terracotta tubes, which were also embedded in the rock walls and sealed with gypsum.
It was a memorable experience walking through the narrow gorge, knowing it hadn’t looked any different when the inhabitants walked through the same canyon more than two thousand years ago. While the principal access is by foot, there is also a limited number of horse drawn carriages available to take visitors through the Siq down to the Treasury.
Tracking the passed distance on my Apple watch, anticipation grew to finally see the first glimpses of the magic facade of Al Khazneh (The Treasury) appear through the high walls of the canyon.
Where the Siq opens into the basin stands the most famous building of Petra, the Al Khazneh, almost 40m high and 25m wide, built in the Hellenistic style. The “Pharaoh’s treasure house”, as it was called by the Bedouins, was actually one of many rock tombs. It was probably built for the Nabataean king Aretas IV, who ruled in the 1st century B.C.
Above a portico of six Corinthian columns rises a small Tholos, a round temple flanked by two half gables. Between the columns there are weathered remains of relief figures. The urn at the top of the round temple shows bullet holes. They can be traced back to shotguns fired by Bedouins who once tried to break open the supposed treasure container. However, the urn, like the entire building and the other royal tombs of Petra, consists mainly of solid rock.
The Treasury was also prominently featured in the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”.
Petra is believed to have been settled as early as 9,000 BC, but the ancient city we see today was established in the 4th century BC as the capital city of the Nabatean Kingdom. The Nabateans were nomadic Arabs who controlled the old trade routes in the region. The Nabataean Empire experienced its greatest power during the reign of King Aretas III (87-62 BC). He conquered Damascus and besieged Jerusalem. The latter, however, called Rome to the scene who ended the siege of Jerusalem and defeated Aretas III.
Even after Aretas’ death, the empire came into vassal relations with Rome, but remained autonomous internally and was able to maintain its independence for almost 200 years. The prosperity of the city continued to grow and the buildings took on ever more monumental forms from the 1st century BC onwards. At the time of Aretas IV. (9 B.C. to 40 A.D.) the main temple was built as a representative building in the centre of the city. It is estimated that Petra had about 30,000 to 40,000 inhabitants at that time. Eventually the Nabateans lost their influence, and Petra is believed to have been deserted after various earthquakes by the middle of the first millennium A.D.
After taking in the splendor of the Treasury, we continued into the widening valley, along the many beautiful facades carved out of the rocks.
To the north east of a theatre carved out of the rocks rises the so called Kings Wall. Halfway up there are thirteen monumental tomb temples which, due to their size and decoration, are interpreted as royal tombs. The architectural styles of the tombs reveal Nabataean, Greek and Roman influences.
Amazing are the colors of the rocks, out of which the many living structures have been carved out.
The streets of the columns, the former main traffic axis of Petra, runs perpendicular to the tombs in the Kings Wall in western direction. While the tomb temples carved into the rock have survived for thousands of years, the houses of the Nabataeans have long decayed. To the left and right of wide street, however, remains of the market, the “Temenos Gate”, a Byzantine basilica and several temples have survived. The largest of these, Qasr al-Bint Fara’un from the 1st century BC, was probably dedicated to the Nabataean main gods Dushara and Al-Uzza.
As we went as part of an organized tour to Petra, we had only about 5 hours to visit the antique city, by far not enough to see all there is to see. Another principal sight, Al-Deir (The Cathedral), we couldn’t reach as it would have required a 90 minute hike up a steep hill, for which we didn’t have time. You can easily spend two full days at Petra.
The photographs were mainly taken with my Olympus OM-D E-M1X with the 12-100mm F/4 Pro Zoom. There are also a couple iPhone pictures in this post. Can you guess which?
Despite the time constraints, seeing Petra was a dream come true for The Significant Other and myself. And we already decided we want to come back, so it got a checkmark on our bucket list but was not crossed off.
In fact, we came back the first time that very evening, when we navigated the Siq illuminated by six thousand candles down to a candle lit Tresury. But this is for another post.
I hope you enjoyed that trip to ancient Petra.
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Wish you a great Sunday!