The Rock City of Petra

The convoluted sandstone mountains that surround Petra are the setting for some of the most impressive works of man, created 2000 years ago by the Nabataeans. Using simple picks and chisels, Nabataean masons created mountain-top high places for worshipping their gods, cut stairways to reach them and grooved channels into the rock to bring water from springs in the eastern hills into the city. They constructed fine temples, palaces, public buildings and houses to live in. But the chief glory of Petra are the hauntingly beautiful tomb facades that they carved into the sandstone cliffs that surround the city.

What we see today is not what the Nabataeans would have seen. The buildings inside the city have collapsed in the recurrent earthquakes, making the tombs more visible than they were then; and all the monuments whether carved or built, were then coated with plaster (still visible in places), and painted inside and out in colors of the Nabataeans’ own choosing. From areas of paint that still survive, it seems they rejected the rich palette that nature had provided, favoring instead a range of greens, yellows, blues and reds. To our eyes, Nabataean Petra would doubtless have looked wonderfully gaudy.


The Siq

Any Nabataean must have been moved as he walked between the towering cliffs of the Siq, past increasing numbers of niches, carved in honor of one or more of their gods. This was no mere thoroughfare, but a sacred way, and the grandest entrance to their capital. It had also been the main watercourse, with occasional life-threatening flash floods in winter. From the early 1st century BC the Nabataeans set about transforming it into both an impressive processional way and also a means of transferring water safely into the city. A large dam was built across the entrance to the Siq, and a tunnel cut through the rock beside it to connect with a natural gully-thus diverting dangerous flood waters around the massif of Jabal al-Khubtha to the northern side of the city.


Al-Khazneh (The Treasury)

At the end of the Siq, quite suddenly, we come face-to-face with the most inspiring monument of all, Al-Khazneh, or Khaznet Firoun (Pharaoh’s Treasury). Its carved facade is alive with elaborate floral and foliate motifs, urns, eagles and lions, and a cast of Nabataean and Greek idols and mythological figures. Almost all are funerary symbols, affirming that the Treasury was connected with the Nabataean cult of the dead. Its grandeur suggests a royal connection, but its precise function remains obscure. The decoration of the Treasury, especially its floral capitals, is strongly influenced by the Hellenistic style.


The Great Temple

The grandest and most enigmatic of Petra’s built monuments is the ‘Great Temple, so named in the early 20h century from its size and its many fallen columns. However, excavations in 1993-2009 found no conclusive proof that it was a temple. Alternatively,it may have been a royal or civic building or the meeting place for the ‘popular assembly’ where, Strabo wrote, the king often renders an account of his kingship The first building, from the late 1st century BC, was remodeled in the next century when a 600 seat theater was built inside it, rising in curved tiers all the way to the back. It could have been used for sacred rites and dramas, or for musical performances; or it could have housed the boule, or city council. At the same time, a spacious lower terrace was created, with a triple colonnade on each side-every column crowned with a highly unusual capital with a carved elephant head at the four corners.


Turkmaniyyah Tomb and Inscription

Carved into the western side of Wadi Turkmaniyyah is a tomb crowned by a monumental crow-step design, but missing its lower half. Immediately above the vacant space is what makes this tomb unique-a long Nabataean inscription that is still almost as crisp as when it was new. It details the real estate of the tomb (two rock- cut chambers with grave holes, courtyard, benches, triclinium, water cisterns, rock walls and retaining walls) and affirms these are, ‘sacred to Dushara, God and our Lord, his throne Harisa and all the gods… and no one will be buried in this tomb except him who is authorized. according to the acts of consecration which are eternalľ’. No king is named to help date it, but the style of the script is characteristic of Malichus II’s time.


Ad-Dayr (The Monastery)

At the top of one of the mountains of Petra stands one of the most enormous of all the facades Ad-Dayr, the Monastery. Its name relates to its later Christian use, when crosses were incised on the back wall and on the Doric frieze. The design is based on that of the Treasury, with two levels and a circular tholos between a broken pediment. But it is much larger and lacks human or animal imagery; and instead of floral and foliate motifs, there is a simple Doric frieze and plain Nabataean capitals. In the imposing court in front, once enclosed in colonnades, large congregations could take part. The grand ascent and the scale of the facade suggest a place of special sacredness-it was a biclinium (a feasting hall with two benches cut into the stone), used for ritual banquets. The identity of the person or deity honored here can only be guessed at, but an inscription nearby refers to, the symposium of Obodas the god-King Obodas I, who was deified after his death in 87 BC.


Sextius Florentinus Tomb

This is one of the few monuments in Petra whose date is certain. So, too, is the name of its occupant who was, unusually, a Roman. A weathered Latin inscription above the doorway dedicates the tomb to, “T. [A]ninius Sextius Florentinus… Legate of Augustus, Propraetor of Arabia, most dutiful father, in accordance with his own will. Titus Aninius Sextius Florentinus, governor of the Province of Arabia in 127 AD, had been replaced by 130 AD by Haterius Nepos; it is assumed that he died in office in Petra in 128-9 AD.


The Theater

A curiosity of Petra is the theater, carved in the middle of one of the main burial areas with no apparent sense of incongruity. Though Roman in design, this is a Nabataean monument, carved out of the solid rock in the reign of Aretas IV in the early 1 century AD. To make space for the new theater several tombs had to be sacrificed and their empty chambers still gape from the back of the auditorium. After the Roman annexation of the Nabataean kingdom in 106 AD, some rebuilding was done in the theater, probably to repair damage from an earthquake in 112-113 AD.


Soldier Tomb & Garden Hall in Wadi Farasa

The major site in Wadi Farasa, the Soldier Tomb is named for the headless and legless statue of a soldier wearing a cuirass in the central of the three niches on the facade. It is believed to date to the early 1st century AD. The tomb alone is impressive, but a handsome colonnaded courtyard once linked it with the triclinium opposite, which has one of the most elaborately carved interiors of any monument in Petra. The complex was clearly made for a man of considerable distinction. At the top of a flight of steps that runs up from the courtyard of the Soldier Tomb, stands a rock-cut monument whose function is still not clear, though it seems likely it was associated with the Soldier Tomb. Today, called the Garden Hall, it commands a fine view through its columns of the southern end of Wadi Farasa. Beside it is a large reservoir.


Qasr al-Bint

The only built monument that survived the recurrent earthquakes largely intact is Qasr al-Bint (in full, Qasr al- Bint Fir’oun, or palace of Pharaoh’s Daughter). This was no palace, but the main temple of Petra, built in the 1 century BC on the foundations of an earlier version. Between it and the Arched Gate at the end of the Colonnaded Street lay the temenos, or sacred precinct, in which worshipers congregated, and a large stepped altar stood in front of it. Which Nabataean gods were worshiped here is unclear, for no inscription was found that predates Roman rule; but two Greek dedications were found-to Aphrodite and to Zeus suggesting that their Nabataean forerunners may have beern al-Uzza and Dushara. Excavations in the area immediately west of the temenos, conducted by a French team since 1999, have uncovered houses that date to the early 4th century BC-it is unclear if they are Nabataean.


Siq al-Barid

Bayda was long regarded as a commercial suburb of Nabataean Petra-a place for trading caravans to stay. But its function has been re-interpreted since 2005, when a rocky outcrop nearby was excavated, revealing the remains of a richly decorated hall. Its grandeur suggests a royal connection, and the wealth of carvings of Dionysus (Greek god of the vine, identified with Dushara) indicates that the grape harvest had a special place in the ceremonies in this festival hall. It is now suggested that the Siq al-Barid (the cold gorge) was a sanctuary site, for sacred rituals relating to the vine harvest. Near the entrance to Siq al-Barid is a facade of luminous simplicity, reached by a few steps. After it, a short and narrow cleft in the rock leads into the first of three natural courtyards, dominated by the elegant facade of what may have been a temple. The second courtyard was a major place for feasting here-carved into the rock faces-are more triclinia than in any other area of Petra. Unlike triclinia associated with tombs, these have no funerary function, but would have been halls in which the sacred feasts were held. One small feasting hall here is unique for the paintings it contains, with part of the ceiling painted with a delicate tracery of vines with bunches of grapes. Inhabiting this abundant world are a variety of birds, several cherub-like figures of Eros, some with bow and arrow, and a pipe-playing Pan.

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