Petra

The rose city gets its nickname from the red sandstone it's carved from.

A center of trade and culture


These amazing ruins are in dry desert today. It's incredible to imagine that an ancient city once existed, that you might have stepped through lush gardens here and dipped a cup into one of the many water channels running through for a drink.

The Nabataeans were adept at controlling the region's trade routes and, as it turned out, they were also really good at finding and collecting water from the desert, building a series of dams and cisterns to control flash floods and piping that water through a network of water conduits. Those two things gave prominence to Petra, or Ramqu as it was known in antiquity, the capital of the Nabataeans. The city became a hub for economic activity with incense from Arabia, silks from China, and spices from India passing through to the Mediterranean cities.

Channels along the Siq, an antelope canyon, brought water into the ancient city.

Eventually, the city fell into decline. New sea routes took trade away from Petra and a major earthquake eventually destroyed most of the city's infrastructure, including its water system. For many centuries after, until the early 19th century, it was unknown to the West. Up until its rediscovery, clergy at the Greek Church of Jerusalem at Karak thought that Karak was the site of ancient Petra. They were off by a couple of hundred kilometers.

To give myself ample time to explore the ruins of this once influential center, I buy myself a three day pass. It's enough to let me explore the city's paths and buildings as traders visiting two millennia ago might have.

Through the Siq


The Siq is a mile-long canyon. Traders entering Petra would have had to pass through it, marveling at its imposing walls, carved with niches, shrines, and monuments.

Water channels would have run along its sides like a river flowing into the ancient city from a nearby spring.

An eroded carving depicting a caravan marching towards the city.

I'm filled with anticipation on my first walk through the Siq, especially near its end. There are only a finite number of twists and turns you'd have to go through before you finally see the Treasury, that iconic building known to the world through guide books, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and more recently, Chromecast background images.

Al Khazneh, the Treasury


For a long time I thought the Treasury was where the city kept its riches stored. It's actually a temple. The popular nickname it has comes from a legend that bandits hid their loot in one of the stone urns of this building. Archaeologists did find a stone urn riddled with bullets, presumably unloaded by a Bedouin treasure hunter. There was no treasure however. The urn, like much of the building, is carved straight from the surrounding sandstone.

"Behold, the Treasury."

Camels in front of the Treasury.

Treasury near closing time.

A street full of tombs


The road from the Siq continues past the Treasury, the Street of Facades, a Roman Theater, several tombs, and continues as a colonnaded street built when the Romans took over, passing by shops, churches, baths, and residences.

Source: Petra National Trust

The first attraction is the Street of Facades, a series of tombs. The tomb on the far left is Tomb 67. It's remarkable because of its Hellenistic pediment and because its entryway is mostly underground. Its excavation shows that the valley floor had risen significantly over time from the debris brought in from flash floods.

Tomb 67, left.

Inside Tomb 67.

Street of Facades.

The next structure on this road is the Roman Theater.

The Roman Empire absorbed Petra after 450 years of Nabataean control in 106 AD. Petra flourished for a century more before nearby Palmyra rises to importance and trade shifts there. It's during this time that the Theater and the colonnaded street are built.

The Roman Theater.

Tombs and caves eroded by wind.

A road flanked by tombs.

The road eventually bends west and continues into the colonnaded street. From this bend, one can see the four royal tombs in view. They are, from left to right, the Palace Tomb, the Corinthian Tomb, the Silk Tomb, and the Urn Tomb.

Urn tomb.

The four royal tombs.

The colonnaded street


Adjacent to this street are temples, churches, a huge garden complex, shops, baths, and residences.

Qasr al-Bint, a massive temple measuring 60x60m and standing 23m tall.

Ridge Church, a Byzantine Church.

The Great Temple.

Toppled Columns at the Great Temple.

The garden and pool complex is especially intriguing to me as a feat of engineering. The Nabataeans built an elaborate hydraulic system to transport water here—enough water to keep a lush, green, terrace and to fill a pool measuring 43m long, 23m wide, and 2.5m deep. That's a huge pool.

This was a man made oasis built in dry desert.

Read more about the complex and see a rendering of what it might have looked like here.

Garden and Pool Complex.

From rose to purple


As sunset approaches it gets suddenly quieter around here. Tourists who came to Petra for a day tour will have by now boarded their coach buses, returning to Amman, Aqaba, Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem. Only a small handful of visitors remain along with a few vendors who are closing shop and guides shuffling back and forth along the main road, taking camels and donkeys back to their stables.

And only when they're gone do I get a sense of the quiet that would have pervaded Petra in the centuries before its rediscovery.

Djinn blocks. These are funerary monuments.

Taking the road leaving Petra.