Historically, no mention is made of Petra ever being conquered by Alexander the Great but Nabataea of which Petra is the capital city inevitably became part of his empire after he swept through Greater Syria on his way from Egypt to Gaugamela in 331 BC.
Because of its strategic location on the crossroads of old trading routes, Petra lived off the taxes levied on the caravans that carried frankincense, myrrh, precious stones, silk and spices from Arabia Felix (modern Yemen) to the cities around the Mediterranean and bitumen from the Red Sea to Egypt for the embalmment of their dead. In exchange, they carried clothing coloured with the famous Phoenician purple and other luxury products the other way. Petra was a stronghold where these goods were stored in transit – and rightfully so as even today the only access road runs through a two- kilometres-long canyon that could easily be defended.
Petra is a true Hellenistic heritage although it is mentioned for the first time in 312/311 BC when Antigonus Monophthalmus, one of the successors of Alexander fighting for his share of the empire, attacked the city during what is called the Third War of the Diadochi. He was not successful and neither was his son Demetrios Poliorketes. The Kingdom of the Nabataeans managed to stay out of the hands of the Seleucids in Syria and the Ptolemies in Egypt, who both attacked wealthy Petra on a regular basis. This clearly proves the military capacity as well as the great economic prosperity of the kingdom which during the first century BC stretched all the way from Damascus in the north to the Red Sea in the south. Even the Romans had a hard time there for, in spite of Pompey’s conquest of Syria in 63 BC, the Nabataean Kingdom remained independent. The Pax Romana even worked in their favour and business boomed. Their prosperity reached its peak during the reign of Emperor Augustus when Rome’s demand for luxury goods was insatiable. Most of what we see today in Petra was built during this era, including the unique piece of hydraulic engineering to bring water to the city. Most effectively canals were cut out of the rock over great length, and earthenware pipes, dams and storage cisterns still testify of these complex waterworks. When the Province of Arabia was annexed by Emperor Trajan, an imperial legate was installed in Petra making sure that trade kept on prospering. To stimulate conditions, Trajan improved the road connecting Syria to the Red Sea, now known as the Via Nova Traiana. In 130 the ever travelling Hadrian arrived in Petra, generously renaming it Petra Hadriana. But when Diocletian reformed the provinces in 293 AD Petra, although still the capital of Palaestina Tertia, became isolated and its decline set in. This was emphasized by the earthquake of 363, after which several of the main buildings were never reconstructed. The Byzantines occupied the city centre until the 6th century. Another earthquake hit the city in 551 after which the Arabs conquered what was left, but Petra slowly sank into oblivion and in the desert sands.
It was not until 1812 that a Swiss explorer J.L. Burckhardt, following directions from local Bedouins was able to rediscover Petra. Serious excavation started last century and since the 1990’s the city is on the list of Unesco World Heritage. During the last decennia, Bedouins who still lived in the old temples and grave sites have been relocated to new houses in the area in order to preserve the uniqueness of this ancient site.
The main entrance is generally announced as the Siq but before getting there, the intrepid traveler has to walk about 700 meters over a wide path next to a river bed. Past the first bend lies the first necropolis, the Obelisk Tomb, named after the four obelisks on the upper part of the façade symbolizing the soul of the deceased. The entrance at ground level shows hewn-out Doric columns topped with a ditto frieze – a true combination of Egyptian and Greco-Roman features. A little further down the same road, a rather simple square rock of approximately 3x4 meters catches the eye. It has entirely been hewn out of the solid rock and the hollow interior accommodated the deceased. This bare shape seems to go back all the way to the archaic gods that had no body or face but were rendered as a simple square or round stone.
Although Strabo doesn’t mention the Siq as being the only access to the heart of Petra, he was aware of the many water channels running along the rocky walls testifying to the ingenuity of the Nabataeans. Two main cisterns are known to collect the much-needed water for Petra and I’m not sure if the one I visited is one of them. The inattentive visitor sees nothing more than a huge rock alongside the road, but upon closer scrutiny there is a diagonally carved notch that leads the water from the top of the rock down and inside the concealed cistern. The obscure interior still contains water that is now being used to irrigate the surrounding fields and to water the cattle. I’m told that in its glory days its capacity would easily reach 1.2 million liters!
The Siq is a nearly two kilometers long narrow corridor twisting through pink-reddish cliffs of 80-meters-high. The water channel runs about one meter above the floor of the canyon and once carried the water in a natural gentle slope to the end of the Siq where it was collected in a reservoir. This channel is mainly carved out of the rock wall but also built of stone, clay, plaster and earthenware pipes. At intervals, small collectors help to break the water flow and filter the residue of sand and stones. Here and there the cover lid is still in place. Most people don’t even notice this ingenious system for the spectacle of light and shadow cast by sun and clouds is absolutely breathtaking. At times the passage is only two meters wide; some parts have been paved, a remnant of Roman practicality; and in other parts the ruts left by ancient carts are still visible. I definitely recommend a solitary walk (in winter) through these narrows to truly taste the atmosphere, which is otherwise totally lost by the crowds in high season.
Entirely absorbed by this spectacle, the first glimpse of the most famous monument of Petra, the Al Khazneh, better known as the Treasure House, takes me entirely by surprise. The closer I come to the end of the canyon, the more is being revealed. The Treasure House faces west, so timing is of the essence to have it lit up by the sun, which makes it glow from the inside like pink alabaster. Recently archaeologists have discovered another level below what is now the ground level, which means that the entire evaluation of the building has to be revised. This would imply also that the original bottom at the exit of the Siq lies, at least, four meters lower than now.
The Treasure House does justice to its name. To start with there is the entire colour range from ochre to reddish pinks which becomes translucent under the right light. Even the inside rooms undergo the mood of the outside sunlight with their larded walls of white and all ranges of reds. On the other hand, there is this unique architecture, pure Hellenistic of columns crowned with Corinthian capitals holding the pediment above which rises a lovely tholos with cone-shaped roof flanked on either side by two half-pediments supported by other Corinthian columns. Reliefs with figures like Castor and Pollux with their horses, Victories, dancing Amazons and Isis-Tyche have been identified. Behind the columns of the portico (still the entrance pending further excavations) particularly well-preserved doorways and round windows are framed with elegant leaf decorations. The desert climate has kept the rock as clear as on the day this Treasure House was made, i.e. in the first century BC.
From here onwards the valleys is filled on both sides with necropolis also called the Kings’ Tombs, simply because they are so majestic and not because any king was ever buried here. The rock-tombs are spread over several levels and each has its own style, shape and size. Their decoration is rather identical in the sense that they all show one or two carved staircases joining in the middle of the entrance or steps simply running upwards. It is said that the Nabataeans spent their whole life building these tombs for themselves and their family. These constructions were more important than their modest stone houses since life was evanescent while their soul should be safeguarded for eternity. Higher up on the right-hand side lays the striking Basilica, once a tomb which early Christians used as a church and still is in very good condition. The inside is wider than deep and the three vaulted entrances frame the unique view over Petra below.
In the bend of what turns out to be the Decumanus, you can’t miss the Roman Theatre which, like all other buildings has been cut out from the solid rock bed and was probably built during the reign of Emperor Augustus. After another bend to the right, we reach the clearly Roman part of old Petra, with its carefully paved Decumanus leading to the central Forum. Official buildings and temples, among which the well-preserved Temple of Zeus, line up on the left up to the monumental Temenos Gates at the end of the Decumanus.
The people of Petra lived on the opposite side of the street where the houses and stores were unearthed - now a labyrinth of low walls and foundations. Both sides of the Decumanus are delimited by a colonnade with a parallel running dry riverbed of the Wadi Mataha that brought water to the city and that was distributed at the fountain, the Roman Nymphaeum.
High up the hill behind the Nymphaeum are the remains of a Byzantine church, i.e. the outlines with low remaining wall but with full pavement: a marble floor in the central nave and mosaic floors in both aisles. The mosaics of the right aisle depict animals and people (saints?) and those of the left birds and floral motives. In the half circular apses, there are traces of the original marble slabs. Back at the entrance, you’ll notice a kind of atrium with the remains of a well surrounded by columns.
Across the Decumanus at this point lies the famous Temple of Zeus that has recently been cleared of all its rubble. This complex is much larger than I imagined with majestic steps leading to the entrance as if the god in person once sat there to welcome you. After all, this may have been the idea, who knows. Over the years the temple has repeatedly been rebuilt and enlarged, including a small theatre in the back with a real spindle to turn the stage around. All the way in the back there are still traces of coloured frescos and stucco on the walls, a unique inside view of how lavishly decorated these temples could be and were.
The Qasr el Bint Sanctuary with its yellow walls is to be found at the end of the valley just beyond the Temenos Gates. This was the only free standing building of the ancient city and it was probably dedicated to Dushara, the supreme god of the Nabataeans who was venerated as an imageless stone block. The walls are at least two stories high and the square holes halfway up indicate where the wooden beams for the upper floor were inserted. In front of this temple ran a colonnaded vestibule with Corinthian capitals topped with a frieze and metopes crowned with the standard pediment. The sacred area was covered with extremely rich plasterwork of which some coloured remnants have survived. It shows a combination of eastern architecture with Greco-Roman tradition and was built in the second half of the first century BC. It is thought to have been used till the 3rd century AD and it was finally destroyed by the earthquakes of the fourth and sixth century.
There are very many rock-tombs and so-called temples spread over the entire valley but it is simply impossible to visit them all, at least not in one day. A few examples are the Bab-es-Siq Tomb, the Triclinium of the Lions, the Silk Tomb, the Palace Tomb and the Sextius Florentinus Tomb (he was governor of Arabia under Hadrian in 127 AD), the Renaissance Tomb, the Garden Temple, the Roman Soldier Tomb, the Urn Tomb, etc. Most of them have suffered from wind and weather eroding the sandstone on these generally shallow carved facades.
The picture is, however, not complete without mentioning (and seeing) the El Deir Temple (the “Monastery”) which takes an extra worthwhile effort to reach. Travel brochures mention that you reach this necropolis after climbing a flight of stairs. This is a strong underestimate of the effort require to climb the 800 uneven stairs and inclined surfaces that have been polished by thousands of steps on grinding sand. But the intermittent stops to catch one’s breath are compensated by the grand views over gorgeous Petra in the depth. At the top of this hills awaits the El Deir that resembles the Treasure House at the Siq but without the elegant trimmings. The deeply cut façade counts two levels, each one supported by plain columns in a rather austere presentation. It is clearly Hellenistic with a central tholos surmounted by an urn and framed by two half-pediments. The deep niches on both levels must have held statues. Inside we find a rather plain rectangular room with benches on both opposite sides of the raised central platform. Some have suggested that rather than a tomb, this was a place of worship but no proof to this theory has been found. The Byzantines used the room for religious functions and until recently it housed a monastery – hence it surname.
At the other end of this plateau lies the Wadi Araba, an extensive desert plain that reaches all the way to Israel. The Bedouin selling his trinkets under the nearby tent confirms that this is the most beautiful place on earth – nobody will contradict him.
In a way, I regret that Alexander has not stopped here for he would have valued the strategic location of Petra and its ingenious water household (which might have inspired him). Unfortunately, he never witnessed the Hellenization he set in motion. He would have loved it!