Petra, Jordan: A Popular Extension of Egyptian Tours

Petra, Jordan

A Popular Extension of Egyptian Tours

by Jimmy Dunn

Petra, Jordan is a popular extension for many tours to Egypt, particularly when visiting the Sinai. This is a unique, pink and salmon colored 2,000 year old rock-carved city that served as the capital of the Nabataean Arabs and flourished for many hundreds of years. At its peak, Petra, which means 'stone' in Greek, may have had a population of between twenty and thirty thousand people. It is most famous for 'The Treasury', otherwise known as Khasneh (Khazne Faraoun).

However, Petra is not only about the Nabataeans. The greater Petra region, though not necessarily Petra itself,was inhabited by people throughout the full sweep of human civilization. At Beidha, 15 minutes to the north, are the excavated remains of an entire Stone Age village dating to about 6,500 BC, when humankind was first making the transition from small bands of hunter-gatherers to settled villagers who cultivated cereals and domesticated sheep and goat. The Edomite village on Umm Al Biyara dates from 600-700 BC. Twenty minutes by car to the east is the Roman legion fortress at Udruh, which continued to be used in the Byzantine and early Islamic eras.

There are even two 12th Century AD Crusader castles at Petra itself.

For seven centuries, Petra fell into the mists of legend, its existence a guarded secret known only to the local Bedouins and Arab tradesmen. Finally, in 1812, a young Swiss explorer and convert to Islam named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt heard locals speaking of a 'lost city' hidden in the mountains of Wadi Mousa. In order to find the site without arousing local suspicions, Burckhardt disguised himself as a pilgrim seeking to make a sacrifice at the tomb of Aaron, a mission which would provide him a glimpse of the legendary city. He managed to bluff his way through successfully, and the secret of Petra was revealed to the modern Western world.

The History

Much of what we know about the Nabatean culture we learn from a well known source on ancient Egyptian history, the Roman scholar Strabo. Of course there has been considerable modern archaeological study in the area that adds to our knowledge.

Sometime during the 6th century BC, the nomadic tribe known as the Nabateans migrated from western Arabia and settled in the area. It appears as though the Nabatean migration was gradual and there were few hostilities between them and the Edomites, who then occupied this part of Jordan. As the Nabateans forsook their nomadic lifestyle and settled in Petra, they grew rich by levying taxes on travelers to ensure safe passage through their lands. The easily defensible valley city of Petra allowed the Nabateans to grow strong.

From its origins as a fortress city, Petra became a wealthy commercial crossroads between the Arabian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures. Control of this crucial trade route between the upland areas of Jordan, the Red Sea, Damascus and southern Arabia was the lifeblood of the Nabatean Empire and brought Petra its fortune. The riches the Nabateans accrued allowed them to carve the monumental temples, tombs and administrative that we see today.

Apparently, they had very little problems defending the city, with no real contention until the Greek period. At the same time that the Ptolemies came to power after the death of Alexander the Great when his kingdom was divided, the Seleucid King, Antigonus, took control of Babylonia. Though the Ptolemies easily controlled Egypt, Antigonus rode against the Nabateans in 312 BC, but was eventually repelled. In fact, the Nabateans were able to expand their zone even further north to control more trade routes.

The Seleucids needed the use of these trade routes, and because of the Seleucid influence in the region, the Nabateans needed to deal with them. So while Antigonus could not conquer the Nabateans, the Greek culture did in fact take hold in the region of Petra, influencing art and architecture.

However, with the rise of the Romans, by 63 BC the growing economic and political power of the Nabateans began to worrisome. Pompey dispatched a force to attack Petra, which was then ruled by the Nabatean King Aretas III. However, this plan also apparently failed, though to what extent we are unsure. Either the Nabateans outright repelled the attack, or they agreed to pay tribute to the Romans. Regardless, during the Parthian-Roman war, the Nabateans made the mistake of siding with the Parthians.

After the Parthians defeat, we do know that Petra had to pay tribute to Rome. and when they fell behind in paying this tribute, they were invaded. King Herod the Great attacked the Nabateans twice, with some success in the second invasion in 31 BC. He took control of a large area of Nabatean territory, including the lucrative northern trading routes into Syria.

The so called Nabatean Empire was considerably reduced by the Romans, yet they managed to retain their smaller kingdom for almost another century and a half. The last Nabatean monarch, Rabbel II, struck a deal with the Romans that as long as they did not attack during his lifetime, they would be allowed to move in after he died. Upon his death in 106 AD, the Romans claimed the Nabatean Kingdom and set about transforming it with the usual plan of a colonnaded street, baths, and the common trappings of modern Roman life. The city continued to flourish as long as the ancient trade routes were in use, and afterwards, only seems to have suffered a gradual decline.

However in about 363 AD, when a violent earthquake destroyed most of its free standing structures, Petra lost much of its population and continued to decline with the Muslim invasion of the 7th century and when, in 747 AD, it was again struck my a major earthquake, if fell almost completely into obscurity. Though it housed a small Crusader community during the 12th and 13th centuries, afterwards it was completely forgotten about by the outside world.

Nabatean Political and Theological Relations with Egypt

Egypt was perhaps the most important trading partner of the Nabataeans. Myrrh and other spices from Arabia Felix and the Dead Sea bitumen, used for embalming purposes, were exported to Egypt, along with many other goods.

In fact, there was a Nabataean settlement in the Wadi Tumilat east of the Delta, and Nabataean ships crossed the Read Sea to discharge their goods in Egyptian harbors. Numerous Nabataean inscriptions have been found in the desert valleys between the Read Sea and the Nile valley. Enno littmann has published a map showing six probable Nabataean tracks to the Nile. Therefore, it is quite understandable that Egyptian theological elements can be found in the Nabataean culture.

A recent evaluation by Susan Gelb of the University of Texas at Austin suggests that the Treasure in Petra may in fact be a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, built to honor the Roman emperor, Hadrian. He traveled to the ancient city in 131 AD and the city was renamed at that time as a tribute to his visit. It was customary to build monuments to rulers on such a trip, yet none have been discovered in this city. A study of recently discovered papyrus fragments of this period, and other ancient shrines at Petra, support Isis, otherwise known as Allat, who was also the protectress of Petra, as the patron deity of the temple. However, other archaeologists tell us that Allat was not Isis herself, but an adoption of attributes from this well known Egyptian goddess.

Petra Today

Petras excellent state of preservation can be attributed to the fact that almost all of its hundreds of 'buildings' have been hewn out of solid rock: there are only a few free-standing buildings in the city. Petra is located just outside the town of Wadi Mousa in southern Jordan. It is 260 kilometers from Amman via the Desert Highway and 280 kilometers via the Kings Highway.

The Sig

Much of Petras fascination comes from its setting on the edge of Wadi Musa. The rugged sandstone hills form a deep canyon easily protected from all directions, along which is found a few small, Nabataean tombs carved into the rock.The easiest access to Petra is through the Siq, a trail that leads gently downwards along the Wadi Musa (The Valley of Moses). The Sig becomes a narrow channel sometimes little more than five meters wide, while the walls tower hundreds of meters to either side. The floor of this wadi was originally paved, but is now covered with soft sand. Along the path the walls are lined with channels that were originally fitted with clay pipes to carry drinking water to the city.

As the Sig twists and turns, it finally opens just a crack to abruptly reveal the first signs of Petra itself; specifically the Khazneh, Petra's best known monument.

The Khazneh (The Treasury)

The name, Khazneh leterally means 'Treasury', and is applied to this monument because of legends that it was used as a hiding place for treasures. The Treasury, is really a complex consisting of a center of worship, residential quarters and workshops, a combination completely alien to the Nabataean religious centers. The workshops included facilities for painters, metalworkers, an oil workshop, a marble workshop and even, well yes, a souvenir workshop!

The facade of the Khazneh is carved from the sandstone cliff wall and stands some 40 meters high. This is a very well preserved monument, probably because of the protected space that it occupies. Behind the monumental facade we find a large square room carved into the cliff. This singleroom, while neatly carved with well formed corners, is as plain as the outside is ornate.

This building fronts an open space, that, while dominated by the Khazneh, also contains other tombs and halls that are little more than made made caves.

The Amphitheater

To the right of the Khazneh, a path leads penetrate deeper and deeper into the 2,000 year old city, surrounded everywhere by hundreds of Petra's monuments. The path leads past a number of smaller tombs that appear to be little more than black holes in the rock face, but a little further on is the giant semicircle of the amphitheater. It had seating for as many as eight thousand people, and behind it, one may see more tombs cut into the rock.

From the Amphitheater, one may ascend a flight of steps to the High Place of Sacrifice, or continue towards the right where the wadi widens into the city center. Another route further to the right leads to the Royal Tombs of Petra.

The High Place of Sacrifice

The stairway to the High Place of Sacrifice ascends sharply at first, but shortly becomes a more gentle climb. This path first arrives at a level open space on top of a small massif overlooking the wadi. Just to the right are rock outcrops, on which the remains of a free standing building that once housed priests and an obelisk may be seen. The High Place of Sacrifice is actually a little further on down the path.

The High Place of Sacrifice occupies a carved, flat space with drainage channels to allow the blood of sacrificial animals to be drained away. At the very highest point there is an obelisk. From this observation post, one may look down upon the king's Wall and the Royal Tombs and there is an impressive view of the whole Petra site. From here, the path descends past the obelisk, sometimes dramatically, passing smaller monuments including the Lion Fountain and a number of smaller tombs. Notable here is the Garden Tomb and the tomb of the Roman Soldier.

The path, descending past rock dwellings, some of which are still inhabited by local Bedouins, finally reaches level ground in an area known as Wadi Farasa. From here, a path leads back to the north towards the city center.

The Royal Tombs

The path that leads to the far right out of the open space of the Khazneh leads to the massif of Jebel Khubtha. There, three large structures carved from the rock face, entwined with smaller tombs, are known as the Royal Tombs. The Rock face itself is known as the King's Wall.

The first of the tombs, a finely preserved monument known as the Urn Tomb that faces out over an open terrace, is fronted by a double row of vaults. There is a colonnaded cloister that runs along the northern side of the terrace, and this elaborate facade fronts a single, undecorated and unadorned room. The walls of the room are smooth with exact corners and walls that measure nearly 20 meters each. While the room is not decorated by mankind, beautiful whorls of different colored sandstone do adorn the walls, ceiling and floor of the chamber.

Past the Urn Tomb is the less well preserved Corinthian Tomb, which looks very much like a smaller version of the Khazneh. It, in turn, is followed by the Palace Tomb, so named because it was built to imitate a Roman palace. Regrettably, the facade of this tomb is also badly weathered, and the rooms within are small and undecorated.

There is yet another tomb further north that was built in 130 AD for the Roman governor of the city during the reign of Hadrian. His name was Sextius Florentinus and his tomb is much more modest than the Royal tombs. The facade stands only six meters high and fronts a small room in which the governor is presumed to have been buried. Again, the facade is not so very well preserved, but the patterns exposed in the sandstone are striking.

North of this are to be found the rock walls of the Jebel Khubtha abut the floor of Wadi al-Mataha. Here, defensive walls were build during the Byzantine period of the city but little of these may be seen. To the south east is lies Petra's city center.

The City Center, the Heart of Petra

A wide track from the Khazneh leads to the main street of Roman Petra occupying a space in the open ground of Wadi Musa. This street is paved with cut stone and lined with columns. It is bordered on one end by an open marketplace near the amphitheater and a public fountain (nymphaeum), and on the other by the Temenos Gateway, which stood as an entrance to the Temple of Dushara.

Qasr al-Bint Firaun (The Castle of Pharaoh's Daughter, The Great Temple)

Dushara was a principle god of the Nabataeans, and this temple, one of the remaining large, free standing structures and popularly known as Qasr al-Bint Firaun, was originally dedicated to him. It was built of monumental yellow sandstone blocks and has been extensively restored.

We believe that Qasr al-Bint Firaun was built by order of King Aretas IV, due to an inscription in one of the nearby Byzantine Churches.

However, little in the way of cult activity has been found. Some archaeologists, in fact, believe that the building might have served as a governmental or administrative center.

The Propylaeum, Gateway to the Temple

The monumental gateway to the temple is called the Propylaeum, and consists of a flight of steps that lead to the lower Temenos of the temple, with its hexagonal shaped paving blocks. The gateway is not the original entrance to the temple complex, though their dating has not been firmly established. However, the original access point predates the current east-west oriented retaining wall that faces the colonnaded street. The current gateway was probably built at, or somewhat later than the street which dates to about 76 AD.

Lower Temenos

East Colonnade

East Exedra

West Colonnade

West Exedra

Upper Temenos

TheGreat Temple


The Temple of the Winged Lions

Across from the temple of Dushara on a low rise is found the Temple of the Winged Lions, where Dushara's consort, the fertility goddess Atagartis was worshipped.

Both the Qasr al-Bint Firaun and the Temple of the Winged Lions were probably put to other uses over time. As the city became Romanized, Apollo and Artemis were likely worshipped here, and in the Christian era, the temples were most likely used as churches.

The Crusader fortress

Just behind the Qasr al-Bint Firaun a large rock, known as Al-Habis, rises to the remains of a small fort built by the Christian Crusaders.


However, to the north west of the city center, a pathway leads towards El-Deir. This path first crosses open ground leading north from the city center. It begins to climb onto the massif and is then flanked by sandstone outcrops. Along the way on the left side, a small gully leads to a little monument known as the Lions Tomb. The path finally becomes very narrow beforeemerges between sheer, yellow sandstone walls into an open area of white sand. Here, another massive triclinium notunlike the Khazneh has been carved out. This structure, known as El-Deir, or simply the 'Monastery', though larger than the Khazneh, is also much cruder.

El-Deir was, in fact, probably used as a monastery during the Christian era, but the structure predates this, as evidenced by the Nabataean steps leading to the structure. The rock carved building has a massive, eight meter tall doorway, while the facade itself is some 45 meters tall and approximately 50 meters wide.

On the left of the structure is a gap that provides access to a rough staircase that in turn leads to the emerges above El-Deir. This provides a unique view of the urn that surmounts El-Deir, as well as the surrounding area.

These including soaring temples, elaborate royal tombs, a carved Roman-style theatre, large and small houses, burial chambers and funeraryhalls, water channels and reservoirs, baths, monumental staircases, cultic installations, markets, arched gates, public buildings, paved streets, and many other structures whose mystery is matched by their compelling and enduring beauty.

The ancient city boasts some 800 individual monuments, including the structure best known as the 'Treasury', a baroque Greek temple long thought to actually be a tomb. It is possibly the same temple mentioned in letters found in the Dead Sea caves referred to as the 'Temple of Aphrodite at Petra'.

However, there is much more to see in Petra besides the famous 'Treasury'. Other monuments include, but are certainly not limited to the following:

The monumental Ad Deir (The Monastery), an unfinished tomb for a Nabataean, carved from a mountain-top high above the Petra basin. Ad Deir overlooks cliffsthat plunge nearly 1,500 meters to the west into the Wadi 'Araba, the southern extension of the Dead Sea and the Jordan Rift Valley.

The High Place of Sacrifice, perhaps the most complete and best preserved cultic altar and sacrificial complex to be handed down to us from the biblical period.

The processional way to the High Place and back is embellished by a series of stately monuments and cultic complexes, including temples, tombs, giant obelisks, altars, fountains and forts.

Sabra, the southern Nabataeanof Petra, with a small theatre and numerous collapsed temples and other buildings.

Siq Al Barid, the capital's northern suburb that is a miniature of Petra itself, complete with its own little siq, temples, tombs and cultic installations, and which served

as a meeting place for the camel caravans that came to trade at Petra from the four corners of the ancient world. It preserves a rare painted fresco from the

Nabataean/ Classical period.

Umm Al Biyara, the massive mountain dominating the centre of Petra, whose summit housed a small village of the Edomite people mentioned in the bible, before the

Nabataeans moved in and built a temple on this natural perch overlooking the whole of central Petra.

There is also a small museum within Petra, displaying artifacts excavated in the region, is the perfect place to appreciate the advanced technical and artistic skills of theNabataeans and the other ancient peoples who inhabited the Petra basin.

Traveling to Petra

There are numerous and varied accommodations available in Wadi Mousa, as well as a few hotels on the panoramic drive between Wadi Mousa and the nearby (15 kilometers) village of Taybet. Camping is now illegal inside Petra.

From the ancient city center, one may set out on dramatic walks and climbs along winding mountain trails to some of Petra's more remote treasures.

Whether you stay at the four-star Petra Forum hotel or the more modest resthouse at Petra, or take advantage of year-round camping facilities, you can make easyone-day trips to other ancient sites throughout South Jordan. Travelling north along the King's Highway (mentioned in the Genesis accounts) you can visit the twomassive Crusader fortresses at Shobak and Kerak, or Nabataean temple complexes at Khirbet ed-Dharieh or Khirbet Tannur. From Kerak, the modern roadsweeps down into the Dead Sea plain -- at 400 meters below sea level, the lowest spot on earth--where you can visit half a dozen walled towns from the biblicalperiod, sugar mills from the Medieval Islamic era, and a string of Nabataean/ Roman caravanseri.

Tourists relax in a beautiful caves that can be found at the foot of the mountains that gave rise to petra.'

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