JORDAN OUT OF DOORS
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The Djinn blocks : These are the first sign that you are approaching something special. They are huge blocks of stone, lightly carved, on the right hand side as you go down the road from the entrance towards Petra. They are also called "god blocks", possibly because their shape reminds us of the principal Nabatean God Dushara whose statue was found in the Qasr el Bint (see the paragraph on Petra Museum lower down). Their exact purpose is unknown, they seem to be associated with water, there are a number of them scattered around the outskirts of Petra, always close to a water course. They are on the way down, perhaps a couple of hundred yards/meters from the entrance. You will see them just before you come to the Obelisk Tomb on the right hand side of the road going down.
The Obelisk Tomb is a little bit further down, and is a foretaste of what is to come. It is not sheltered from the wind and rain in any way and is badly eroded. The top half is a tomb, supposedly for four people (one for each obelisk!), although no remains of any kind have been found.
The lower half is a triclinium, or "dining room" for the family making a formal visit to the tomb. There are stone benches inside.
The Nabateans were masters of water engineering and they completely understood that it was just as bad to have too much water as not to have enough! Petra is right at the bottom of a huge bowl in the hills; when you look up from the gate towards Wadi Mousa you can see that there are hills all around you. Whenever it rains all the water runs down all the little valleys, and ends up down in the site of Petra. This was one reason why the city was built here, but the water has to be controlled.
Following the disastrous flood in 1963 in Petra, the authorities built a dam to divert the water that used to flow freely down the Siq. They were surprised to find that the Nabateans had already done the same thing and had built a tunnel to control the water that comes down when it rains. The dam is just at the entrance to the Siq where the horses stop, and it is crossed by a bridge. You can see the tunnel on your right; it is deceptive and further away and so it is much bigger than it looks. In fact from the floor to the roof it is about 8 meters high. A part of the dam is on the left of the photo. The tunnel directs the water through a number of small valleys before it comes out in Petra not far from the Royal Tombs. Even with its height, it can still be blocked by fallen trees when there are floods.
If you are feeling adventurous, have good walking shoes (and plenty of water) and are in reasonable physical condition, why not go down to Petra through the tunnel? You turn right just before entering the Siq, go through the tunnel and through a narrow ravine. Turn left at the end, squeeze through a very narrow bit and scramble (carefully) down a rocky slope - and there you are in Wadi Mataha, not far from the Royal Tombs! This ravine is called Wadi Muthlim. The walk will probably take you two or three hours. look at a http://nabataea.net/ssiq.html for a detailed topo of this route.
Two warnings : do NOT do this alone unless somebody is expecting you at the other end, and get out of the ravine fast if it comes on to rain! It doesn't have to be a lot of rain, it might be raining harder on the mountains. This path is only used two or three times a week, perhaps not as much, especially out of the high season, so if you sprain your ankle or something when you are alone you might be there for several days before you are found.
And don't do it the first time you go down, or you will miss the magic of the Siq.
At the entrance there are Nabatean "watch points" on both the left and the right hand sides; it is quite easy to climb up, especially the left hand one. In several places steps were cut to help. At the top there is a seat carefully placed in a hollowed out niche where there is always a breeze. You can often see the local men sitting there to cool down. It is even possible to be COLD up there, when it is sweltering on the ground
David Roberts drew this scene in 1839. You can see that at that time there was a triumphal arch over the entrance. The arch disappeared sometime around 1890. You might like to look at the page of early drawings of Petra.
Other early visitors have described how the Siq was choked with bushes and had a permanent stream running down it. Roberts found it fairly easy to penetrate, but he tells us that a caravan of some 40 camels had passed that way the day before on its way to Ma'an. No doubt the passage of the camels had crushed many of the bushes and the undergrowth that blocked the way for the others.
The silt and gravel washed down by the stream over the centuries raised the level of the Siq by more than a meter, closer in fact to two meters. A few years ago the Swiss government paid for the restoration of the Siq; the gravel and earth was dug away and the path resurfaced in concrete. This took something away from the romance of the passage, but it does make it possible to walk without keeping one's eyes fixed on the ground.
The water channels were largely buried before the work on the Siq revealed them. You can see that they were originally lined in terracotta, and there is a place where they were arranged so that both people and animals could drink from them.
The majestic walls of this ravine tower above one all the way down: sometimes looming above one at the narrow parts, sometimes further away; sometimes dark and intimidating, sometimes streaked with the famous Petra colours. Always the Siq is majestic. If by good luck or good management you succeed in passing through it when nobody else is around the atmosphere is wonderful. If a group or a party of students is there, you hear their voices echoing from a hundred meters or more. There are still a couple of places where the original paving stones have been uncovered and left in place. You can see the marks left by the wheels of the heavy carts used by the original inhabitants.
It is impossible to exaggerate the impression created by a solitary passage down the Siq. I have done it so very many times, and still I find new things to see. On a recent visit I was struck by the effect of the sun on the narrow part. I have never before noticed the "cave" effect. It was utterly beautiful!
The walls of the Siq hold many small niches where votive images were placed. The niches are still there, as are the various places where guards, ceremonial or not, could climb the walls and survey the passers by. There are also today several spots where dams have been erected to channel any rainwater; most of them are reconstructions of the original versions.
At one point where the ravine widens, a shrine has been placed. A little lower down, on the left hand side of the Siq you can see the carving of a large camel and part of a couple of camel drivers. The camel is not easily seen, but more so since the Siq restoration revealed the feet of the camel drivers which had been buried in the gravel. Nabatean drawing or carvings of camels always indicated where water can be found : the camel's head is looking towards an ancient waterfall.
The Khazneh, or Treasury
The Khazneh, called the Treasury, is probably one of the best known monuments in the Middle East, and most certainly the most famous in Jordan! It is in a most remarkable state of preservation, being cut deep into the rock face and tucked away in a valley where wind and rain, not to mention flying sand, has little chance of penetrating. Try to arrange to see it in the morning, between about 9 and 11am, when the sun is shining on it.
The view on the left is reproduced on thousands of post cards, and a good guide will manage to steer you so that it is your first sight of the Treasury. People who have seen the film of Indiana Jones will be disappointed to discover that the interior is in reality small and not really very interesting. The photo on the right shows the narrow entrance to the Siq immediately opposite. The archaeologists are excavating the area in front of the Khazneh called "The Plaza". They have already found the remains of a couple of fountains, or possibly just basins of water.
Continuing the visit after the Khazneh, you proceed down the "Outer Siq". Again a great deal of gravel and silt has been deposited on the original surface. In 1998 a exploratory hole was dug here and it went down more than 10 meters before finding the original surface of the road!
By the time you get here, you are already starting to get used to the many tombs to be seen, but have a look inside this one! it appears largely unremarkable, but the colours of the rock in the interior are beautiful. Few people notice it.
You come out of the Lower Siq into the great bowl that contains the centre of the ancient town of Petra. We are still in the "ceremonial" part, but you can see the tombs on every side.
You are in "The Street of Façades" and the great wall of tombs on your right hand side leads up to the famous "Urn Tomb" (shown on the right above) named from the urn decorating the top. it is also known as "The Court" since in Roman times it was used as a courthouse.
Opposite the wall of tombs is a small collection of less impressive ones and also the stair leading to the High Place of Sacrifice. You cannot visit Petra without climbing stairs: those leading to the principal sights have been restored, but all too many remain which are difficult and even treacherous to climb. The Nabateans obviously had not only a remarkable freedom from vertigo but also very small feet!
If you want to detour away from the direct road down through the site (stairs are always alluring!) you will find that this particular climb is fairly straightforward, and you can marvel at the engineering abilities of the Nabateans who cut out the solid rock in several places to give easier access. It is unlikely that actual animal sacrifices were performed here - one can see the practical difficulty involved in bringing an animal up to it! It has been suggested that human sacrifice was involved, but no evidence has ever been found of this practice in Petra.
From the High Place if you take the back way down a long series of steps you will come out in Wadi Farasa, passing on the way the Garden Tomb and the Lion Fountain, and the Roman Soldier's tomb with its triclinium.
The Garden Tomb is small and tucked away; it is close to the Lion Fountain and immediately alongside the large cistern mentioned below. It takes its name from the greenery surrounding it in the spring: there is a large tree and a carpet of grass in front of it. The Lion Fountain, incidentally was almost certainly a drinking fountain - a good place for it!
The Roman Soldier's Tomb is most impressive; it originally had a courtyard in front of it, and you will see the Triclinium directly opposite. We have no idea who was buried there, the name comes from one of the statues inside the tomb which is shown wearing a Roman cuirass. On the cliff above recent excavations have shown an imposing villa and a large cistern - you can see the retaining wall of this on your left when you are looking at the tomb. This villa, controlling a large part of the ancient city's water supply, must have belonged to an important dignitary, possibly the High Priest. The Triclinium, unusually, is carved and decorated inside, with fluted columns, which originally were painted. Again we do not why this should be.
Wadi Farasa with its hundreds of small and unremarkable tombs will bring you back to the main valley below the theatre and opposite the imposing Royal Tombs on the other side of the valley.
If you have continued down the main track without succumbing to the temptation to see where "those stairs" led to, you will have passed the Roman theatre and several inviting small outdoor coffee shops, (there are toilets just here as well if you are interested!) The theatre dates from before the Roman occupation of Petra, and could hold 8500 people - which is more than the theatre in Amman. It was cut into another wall of tombs, many of which remain as niches in the corridors behind the tiers of seats. It has been considerably restored in the last few years.
On your right you will have seen the stairs leading up to the Urn Tomb and the Royal Tombs. By all means go up there if you wish, but if I were you I would leave it for the return trip - there's a lot of walking still in front of you!
The Royal Tombs look out over the commercial part of Petra and also over the two great temples there. Above, from left to right you see : the Palace Tomb (round the corner), the Corinthian tomb, the Silk Tomb and the Urn Tomb.
If you walk further around the corner of the cliffs, you will come to the tomb of Sextus Florentinus, who was Governor of the Roman province of Arabia and who died about 130AD. He must have asked to be buried in Petra, and might have been popular to have been accorded a tomb in this area close to the important tombs already there. This is a lovely quiet area, where few tourists go. The Carmine Tomb, another one remarkable for its colours, is close by.
From the Royal Tombs you have an imposing view of the Colonnaded Road and of the Petra mountains behind. This was the heart of the trading city of Petra. Valleys running left and right from the end of this road led onto the trading routes; to the left towards Wadi Araba (the direct route from the coast to Jerusalem) and to the right towards Beidha and the north. Many caravans took these routes. The camels were not allowed to come into Petra, but the merchants travelling with them did, and no doubt the citizens of Petra welcomed them cheerfully - and charged whatever they could for a decent bed and hot bath!
The flat topped mountain you see here is Um el Biyara (the "Mother of Cisterns") and while it can be climbed by a rather precarious stairway, you should know that it is very exposed to an imposing drop in many places. There is a magnificent view from the top, which is pretty well sheer! Do NOT try it alone, you must have a guide. Very possibly one of the Bedouin in Petra would be happy to oblige for 10 or 15JD. They run all over it with the goats when they are young!
As I have said this was the commercial quarter. Shops lined the street in between the colonnades, and Swiss archaeologists have discovered many artisans' workshops in the valley running down to the stream, which must have been a permanent feature at that time.
There are two great temples here, both in the course of excavation. The "Great Temple" where the heads of elephants decorate the columns (and which apparently might in reality have been the seat of local government), is to the left, and on the hill opposite you can see "The Temple of the Winged Lions".
A number of archaeological projects are being carried out in this area, usually for a few months only each year. The Americans are working on the two temples, and the French on the Qasr el Bint. I wish I had room here to talk more about all this - perhaps I will do a separate page sometime! What was originally named by the early archaeologists "the Lower Market" has been excavated and turned out to be a large pool, surrounded by a colonnade with benches and plants. There was an island in the middle of this pool, with a building on it. It might have been a sort of public park, a quiet spot near to the markets, or it might have been an annexe of the Great Temple and perhaps reserved for the priests. This reconstruction was drawn by Chrysanthos Kanellopoulos who has done a great deal of work with ACOR and with archaeologists in Petra. (See http://www.homestead.com/petragarden/kanellopoulos.html)
You can see a shelter on the hill on the right : this protects the Byzantine Church which was found in 1992. A number of half burned scrolls were found at the same time, the American Centre for Oriental Research in Amman is examining them. Most of them were the church accounts which make fascinating reading! A large marble urn was found here and can now be seen in the Petra Museum down in the Basin (see below). The mosaics on the church floor are beautiful: those who have visited Madaba will notice the resemblance to the style of mosaics there. Presumably they were done by some of those expert mosaicists from Madaba or perhaps by somebody trained there - an interesting speculation! There were also many mosaics decorating the walls, gilded tesserae were found in quantity. A couple of other churches have been found nearby - it was a surprise to many people to see how busy the site of Petra was in Byzantine times. A large monastery from the same period has also been discovered on the slopes of Jebel Haroun, and was excavated recently by a Finnish mission.
The Qasr el Bint al-Faraoun ("The House of the Daughter of Pharaoh") was a Nabatean temple, and has the distinction of being the only temple that remains that was actually built at Petra, rather than being carved into the rock. A French team has been working here for several years, and very recently discovered a huge marble statue of Marcus Aurelius. It is here that the head of another statue, that of Zeus, was found which can now be seen in the Petra Museum. It is believed that there was a hallway lined with statues, but since most of the minor ones were carved out of sandstone they have disintegrated over the years. The Qasr el Bint was one of the most important temples in Petra, and was almost certainly dedicated to Dushara.
After the Qasr el Bint you are in "the Basin", where a lot of things are happening. From here you do several things : visit the Petra Museum, pause at the restaurants and the toilets, or turn off in various directions. To the left is Wadi Thugra, which among other places leads you to Jebel Haroun and eventually to Wadi Araba passing a number of other small tombs. It is not on the whole a good idea to go this way without a guide, this is the way to the wild and generally unsignposted places. Turn to the right on a made up road and eventually you will come to the "back" entrance to Petra, which is the way used by official cars and very occasionally by tourist buses with special permission. The gate at the top is guarded by police, and they do not allow unauthorized people to pass - in either direction! If you go straight on, down the valley of Wadi Siyyagha you will reach the spring, where pools of water can usually be seen and which are still used by local people as a source of water. There's no way out of this valley, you will have to return by the same way. I
A warning about these restaurants: they look very attractive, and in fact they are, but they are also extremely expensive! The prices don't seem to be posted, so beware of an unpleasant surprise! (I was charged 7.50JD for fish and rice only when I sat at one of the tables under the trees - no dessert, and no drinks. To be fair it was a buffet and I could probably have eaten more for the same price). They are largely used by groups, and if you are travelling alone I strongly advise you to supply yourselves with picnic food before heading down into the site. The photo in the middle is of the Crowne Plaza restaurant in the Basin - no need to mention the prices charged by a 5 star hotel. However the toilets are decent, and nobody checks to see that you are actually eating in the restaurant!!
The Museum is worth a short visit: many objects of interest have been found in Petra. From left to right above : the head of Zeus found in the Qasr el Bint, the "statue" of Dushara, the marble urn decorated with the heads of panthers which was found in the Petra church, and an example of the elephant heads which decorated the columns of the Great Temple.
The Monastery or "El Deir"
But don't be distracted by all these possibilities, turn to the right, past the Resthouse complex and the new museum; go over the bridge and follow the path to Wadi el Deir. Innumerable children will offer donkey rides to climb the steps - you will certainly be told there are 400 of them, or even 800. I did count them once and decided that there were in fact about 300 of them, counting fairly and not including the tiny ones! That's plenty, and the Monastery which you are making for is some 200 meters up from the Qasr el Bint - you might well appreciate the donkey service. Be sure to climb these steps in the morning: they are in shade then, which makes a tremendous difference, and by all means take advantage of the offers of refreshment on the way!
It is possible to turn off these steps, perhaps two thirds of the way up, where a narrow track leads off to the right, while the main path turns sharply left. This narrow track brings you onto a wide ledge looking out over the valley below. Here you find Petra's dripping well in the Wadi Qattar.
This place is cool even in the height of summer. If you have brought a picnic with you, and if you have avoided the tempting detours along the way here, this is a perfect place and time to have your lunch with cold water running nearby! On the way back perhaps, so that you don't have to push yourselves to finish the climb after eating. If you have have something in which to catch it, the water that drips down is pure and you can drink it with no fears of unfortunate effects - don't try this with the water on the ground though.
It is fairly easy path on the left to climb up to the Urn on the top - this urn is ten meters high and is an irresistible lure for the adventurous and for the fit. But this walk is now considered too dangerous, and is forbidden. This is understandable; as you see the parapet is not high and somebody unwary (or foolhardy) can easily fall from here.
The temple is tucked into a corner of the cliffs with the great panorama of Wadi Araba below. You need to walk just a little bit further to see the view - but believe me it is well worth the extra steps!
The wide space in front of it was carved out of the mountain side to make an impressive courtyard surrounded by a colonnade and with a round platform just outside, probably for making speeches. I have found a photo of a wonderful reconstruction of its probable appearance in the time of the Nabateans.
This followed in fact the invariable pattern of the great tombs in Petra: the Khazneh and the Roman Soldier's tomb both conformed to this general layout originally.
If you look carefully you will be able to find the remains of many of these columns on the right hand side when you are facing the Deir. They are clearly shown on the drawing made by David Roberts in 1839.
You have walked from one end of Petra to the other - call it about 10 kilometers with the return to the entrance. Congratulations! But there are all those places that you have passed by, and all the many enticing side valleys that I have not even mentioned. It is also possible to walk from the Deir to Beidha - but you should take a guide for this, and if possible arrange for transport back to Wadi Mousa from there. You can explore Petra for a week and not see all of it.
Enjoy yourselves - and come back again, there is certainly something else that you have missed!
Advice and Acknowledgement