Tuesday, November 28, 2023


The Al Khazna, or Treasury reveals itself at the end of the Siq

The planet we live on is an extraordinary place.  There are so many beautiful landscapes to behold around the world, and sometimes humanity finds a way to interact with nature that culminates in a masterpiece.  Petra, in the south of the small Middle Eastern nation of Jordan is one of the finest examples of this interface that I have ever experienced.  

Saddled camels on the Street of Facades

The forces of nature in this region, called the Wadi Musa (Moses Valley), have sculpted the geology of sandstone deposits made some 500 million years ago during the Cambrian era.  Later, deposits of Cretaceous limestone and phosphorite layered on top of the red Ram sandstone.  The sea bed was pushed up along fault lines and then eroded back down by countless centuries of rain and wind to make the fantastical landscapes around the region where the place we call Petra is today.  Disolved iron in the water that eroded the formations caused a phenomenon called Leisegang Rings, which form brilliant stripes of red, cream, purple and yellow in the rock.  Its not entirely understood how this occurs but the results are spectacular.

Leisegang rings found in various mineral deposits at in a carved tomb interior at Petra

These dramatic formations, soaring cliffs, deep canyons, crevices and rounded hoodoos are remeniscent of dramatic landscapes found in places like southern Utah in the United States.   The region that connects Petra to the Dead Sea in Jordan is called the Moab, a name that was given to the famed Canyonlands community in Utah.

The dramatic, rugged landscape of Petra

The earliest known evidence of habitation by humans at Petra date back to 9,000 BC.  The majority of the architectural remnants we see today were built by a culture of nomadic Bedouin Arabs called the Nabataeans, who began to settle in the area around 2,000 BC.  The rugged terrain, and a natural spring that provided a reliable source of water made it possible to establish a defensible community here.  A number of ingenious water capturing systems and a sophisticated distribution network made it possible for the population to grow at this important crossroads.

The Roman Road, Hadrian's Gate, and the Great Temple date from Roman times

The location along the ancient trade route called 'the King's Highway' established a trading center for goods passing from Egypt in Africa, Gaza on the Mediterranean Sea, and Damascus in Syria as well as Mesopotamia to the north and the Arabian Peninsula and Asia to the east.  The wealth accumulated from Nabataean trade financed the construction of a lavish kingdom in this rugged landscape.  It is said that Moses passed through on his way to Mt. Nebo, and that his brother, the Prophet Aaron, was buried here.  The Ain Musa, 3 kilometers east of Petra is the spring that was popularized as the place where Moses struck water from a rock.  Petra's many historical names include Ram or Raqēmō, Al-Batrã, and a Greek name I can't type on my keyboard that means Petra, or stone.

Wadi Musa

The aromatic resins of Frankincense and Myrrh were major commodities harvested in the Arabian Peninsula.  These were widely used in religious rituals and funeral rites and as perfumes and medicines.  Silks from China and cotton cloth, spices, and gems from India and Afghanistan were traded as well.  The Nabataeans have a certain mystery about them as a people.  While they had writing, little remains to be studied.  As a nomadic culture, they are said to have set up camps on the edges of towns where they traded, keeping to themselves, perhaps as a way to avoid tariffs and political manipulation.  They were very successful in trade and used the wealth they accumulated to build a magnificent capital.

A painting of a camel caravan camp in Morocco.

The Garden Hall, built around 200 BC is a tomb that once had water channeled from a spring to 6 cisterns supplying water to bath and plantings in this narrow canyon

What makes Petra a wonder of the world are the results of this civilization carving itself into the swirling sandstones of such an astoundingly beautiful landscape.  The architecture is sometimes monumental, displaying an amalgam of styles borrowed from the cultures with whom the Nabataeans traded.  There are elements of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Assyrian, Byzantine, and Islamic architecture cut in to the faces of the cliffs, or built structures using quarried blocks and columns.  Pigments were ground from the colored stones to paint over a layer of plaster on the architecture, most of which has eroded away.  The scarce remnants show a pallet derived from the surrounding geology.

False doors painted in a tomb I found in the Wadi as-Siyagh

A beautiful ceiling painting of grape vines, birds, and a flute playing cherub

The vivid pigments can be found in veins in the rock formations, connecting the art work of the Nabataeans with the natural landscape.

                         Veins of ocher yellow and red brown running through a sandstone wall

While archaeologists bemoan the wrath of time on these monuments as they weather away, it is undeniable that there is great beauty in the transition from architecture as it melts back into natural forms.

A donkey waits before the beautifully eroded facade of a once grand tomb

Only an estimated 15% of the ruins of Petra have been excavated so far, leaving 85% buried beneath the surface, and yet in 4 days of hiking I only covered the main sites and some side canyons of this vast ruin.  Petra is a hugely popular destination and there were plenty of tourists around, but they usually only visit once for a limited amount of time and the expanse of the area makes it possible to stray from the crowds and find solitude. 

A Byzantine carving of a man with flowing long hair surrounded by a garden of flowers.

Monumental tombs are believed to have been carved from the top down, made evident by an unfinished tomb where only the pediment and the top of tall doorways had been carved from the slope.  Eventually debris removed from cliff faces would  be piled deep enough to climb to reach the areas being carved.  

An artist's rendering of workers cutting blocks from the face of a cliff and sculpting monumental reliefs.

Remnants of wood and metal tools found in excavations at Petra

A belief system, no doubt influenced by the ancient Egyptians and adopted by the Nabataeans was that life itself was short, but that life after death was eternal.  So great amounts of energy were expended to create a suitable resting place for departed souls.  They are everywhere to be found here, from the monumental facades of Royal Tombs to small caves quarried by the hundreds in every nook and cranny of the many rock formations.  The Royal Tombs were carved in the Hellenistic style of Greece from a dramatic sandstone mountain.  They are believed to be the resting place for Kings and the highest ranking members of Nabatean society.

The Royal Tombs cover the most prominent sandstone cliff looking out over the valley.  

As a modern day tourist, I came to Petra by bus from the port city of Aqaba on the Gulf of Aqaba, which connects to the northern end of the Red Sea.  Once the ancient maritime trade center of Alia, this was my point of entry in to Jordan after taking a large passenger vehicle ferry from the small town of Nuweiba on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.  Aqaba is Jordan's only sea port.  I spent a few days taking in beach life there before heading in to the desert.

A day at the beach in Aqaba

The bus to Petra climbs steadily upward in to desert mountains before coming to a grand overlook taking in the expanse of the Wadi Rum.  There is a very large tourist gift shop hoping to extract your tourist dollars before you get to the shops at Petra.  The road drops steeply down in to the canyon lands and winds its way to the town of Wadi Musa.  

The grand view at the pass leading down to Wadi Musa

Petra is popular and the adjacent town of Wadi Musa has an odd assortment of hotels.  My reservation at the Hotel Sunset turned out to be a couple of twin beds in the below grade back of the building, with a window well below a parking lot.  The dining room and breakfast buffet was utterly surreal but friendly and I was able to socialize with other guests and the staff in its echoey sterile expanse.  Petra is special, and people who come here with time to explore are in for substancial rewards.  I was there in February and there were sometimes clouds and even raindrops, and the tempuratures were generally quite comfortable.  The Bedouin head scarf is a handsome accessory protecting you from the sun and transforms the ordinary tourist in to a character from a historical tableau when riding a donkey or caprisoned camel.

Camels entering the Street of Facades

A new visitors center, the Petra Museum is under construction that will replace the more humble facility that has illuminated panels and a few artifacts.  It should be completed by the time I finish writing this.  https://www.petramuseum.jo. 

The New Petra Museum under construction

There is a souvenir marketplace around a courtyard I tried to avoid each time I passed through to avoid aggressive touts and the souvenirs are mostly junk.  I did buy a few of the tassled head scarves though, and find them to be beautiful accessories. 

Watch out for this guy....

Once through the gate the landscape is instantly beautiful, with wonderful geologic formations studded with architectural detail.  The path winds through a what is called the Bab as-Siq.

The beautiful landscapes of Wadi Musa

There are views of tantalizingly beautiful rock formations, some of them carved with temple facades, and there are small side canyons worth exploring if you have the time.  The Obelisk Tomb is the most dramatic of those carved in to the cliffs in this area.

The Obelisk Tomb's name is misleading as the shapes are not obelisks, but rather Nabataean pyramids representing the people buried in the tombs.

A Djinn Block, one of the oldest tombs at Petra possibly dating from the 3rd century BC.

Bedouins try to get you to ride horses along this section but they can't enter the Siq so the ride is fairly short.  Horse carriages transport people who don't want to walk but end up being crippled from the jarring ride as the driver runs his horse at full gallop over the stone path.  Bedouins are characters, very clever and usually genuinely friendly.  Being nomadic is very different from living in apartments and houses.  The Petra Bedouin have lived in the cave tombs for centuries, but were forcibly relocated from the main areas when Petra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The principal entrance to the site is through the magical Siq, a long twisting slot canyon with a paved floor to handle the large number of tourists.

A sign at the entrance to the Siq

Men costumed as Roman guards wait for photo ops with passing tourists.  

The Siq was not the primary entrance to the city historically but is the main route for tourists.  It is a wonderful slot canyon 1.2 kilometers long and in some places only 2 meters wide, so you can almost touch both sides in places.  There were gutters carved along the sides of the walls to collect and channel rain water that runs down the cliffs during storms.

These water channels carried water from a spring through the Siq to the city.

A gutter carved in to both sides of the cliffs of the Siq channeled water along its course and collected water running down the rock during rare times of rain

The Siq

Its an amazing walk.  I walked through it 8 times coming and going.  Niches and disappearing reliefs of caravans decorate the canyon walls.  The walls soar to a narrow strip of light the further in you go.  Carts come clamoring by and there are lots of people but I often found myself alone in stretches, making it all the more dramatic.

Only the feet remain of this man guiding a camel.

Niches contained Baetyls, sacred stones that provide a link to a diety.  They were sometimes meteorites.

Thousands of years of humanity and commerce have passed through this route, which ends at the Al-Kazneh, the Arabic word for Treasury, Petra's most reknowned monument.  This is because if you are making a quick visit it will be the main thing you see.  I think Petra demands 4 days to fully explore.  You can buy the 3 day pass, which is not cheap, and they will allow you to return one more time, unless this policy changes. 

Al-Khazneh, The Treasury

There is a legend that the urn at the top of the central kiosk contained treasure, although the urn is actually solid stone.  It has many pock marks from being shot by Bedouins in an attempt to release the treasure inside.  The structure is believed to be the tomb for one of Petra's greatest kings, Aretas IV.  There are four eagles carved at the top symbolizing the transporters of souls.  One either side of the entrance are statues of Castor and Pollux, twin half brothers from different fathers in Greek and Roman mythology.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castor_and_Pollux.  Inside is a main chamber and three anti chambers devoid of ornament that are no longer accessible.  There is another tomb that is now subterranean beneath the facade that was buried my millennia.

Stairs accessing the tomb beneath the Treasury.

It is possible to pay for a night visit to the Treasury when they light hundreds of candles in this area.  I was always too exhausted from walking all day to return in the evening.  The event happens 3 times a week and apparently doesn't last long.  They serve tea while musicians perform.  It gets mixed reviews as it can be crowded but I bet it's pretty magical to behold.

A photo I downloaded from the internet of the Treasury at night.

There is a cacophony of activity in this area.  Bedouins will offer guide services and camel and donkey transport, and there are tables selling cheap trinkets.  I enjoyed the banter as they often have a sense of humor and cleverness that would crack me up.  But I always carried on by foot as I am an independent traveler who likes to see where fate will lead me.  I was here pre-covid.  I know the period during lockdowns was hard on tourism in Jordan but you are outside the whole time so it seems like a pretty safe place to be.  

Camels wait to transport tourists through the ruins in front of the Treasury

The Treasury gained greater fame when it was featured as the entrance to the hiding place of the Holy Grail in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

A Nabataean interpretation of a Corinthian Capital on the Treasury

The canyon where Al-Kazneh turns to the left leading to the ruins of the city of Petra.

The canyon goes around a bend with organic looking tomb facades melting from erosion in an area called the Street of Facades.  The interiors of the caves tend to be simple, rectangular rooms, sometimes with niches carved in the walls for the internment of bodies.  Most have lost their stuccoed painted ornamented walls from the passage of time.

What's in there?

Camels look perfect here.

The Street of Facades is believed to be the oldest part of the city of Petra.  There are many carved facades here and the entrances to the tombs, which had chambers used for a number of functions to honor the people buried in them.

The Street of Facades opens up to the city, with many of the oldest tombs at Petra.

The coloring in the stone and the soft eroded details can be very trippy.

Melted architecture

Waiting for customers.

Its so interesting to read the decomposition of a facade.  Obviously the softer sandstones erode the most and there are so many layers deposited over eons.  While the artistry of the Nabaeatans sadly washes away, the beauty of what is created is extraordinary.  It is a sculpted and stained landscape in the realm of the surreal.

Waiting for riders.

There is so much to see everywhere.  Further along the canyon opens up to an area highlighted by a Nabataean Amphitheater that is in very good condition.  The semicircular seats were carved from the rock slope to accommodate audiences of approximately 8,500 people under the rule of King Aretas IV around the time of Christ.  It was positioned so that the backdrop is the Royal Tombs across the Wadi.  

The Amphitheater
The amphitheater underwent some modifications under Roman rule, using quarried blocks rather than the monumental cutting directly in to the natural formations.

Roman alterations to the Amphitheater, walls, a stage with a basement and columns

Across the Wadi from the Amphitheater, carved in to the cliff face of Jabal Al-Khubtha, the Royal Tombs have some of the grandest and elaborate facades to be found at Petra.  They were cut from a dramatic wall of sandstone at the center of the city.  Although there is little archaeological evidence to support the theory that these tombs were royal, it is quite plausible.   

The Renaissance Tomb has an elegant facade with urns and was named for details that allude to a structure from the Renaissance period.

The more elaborate tombs had porticoes, and triclinia, which was a Roman style dining hall were ceremonies could be held, and cisterns to store water for rituals and irrigating gardens that may have been planted outside the temple facades.  There are burial chambers cut as niches which would have been sealed and plastered to hold burial remains and the treasures that accompanied them.  These tombs were owned by royalty and the wealthiest members of Nabataean society.  

The interiors of the many tombs are ornamented by the colorful geology rather than the original wall paintings.  

Tombs everywhere.

The Uneishu Tomb sits high on a cliff

Simply amazing striation.

The Silk Tomb is named for the brilliantly colored rock that looks like it is draped in silk.  

The Silk Tomb

The Urn Tomb is carved high in the face of the East Ridge of the al-Kubta, above the Wadi Musa.  There are a lot of steps to get up to the terrace above the two levels of arched vaults but well worth the hike.  I spent a fair amount of time once I was up there. 

The Urn Tomb

The Palace Tomb was modeled after the Al-Khazneh, or Treasury, with a split pediment and a round urn in the center.  Some of the rock formations are respondent with color.  The interiors of the Urn tomb are marbled with red and cream and black.

These arched niches were cut when part of the tomb was converted in to a Byzantine Church.

The coloration on this ceiling is extraordinary.

One of the vaults of the Urn Tomb

I'm amazed I didn't bring one of these home.  Too heavy to cart around for a month.

The main terrace of the Urn Tomb has a row of columns on either side, and may have contained a garden.  The view takes in all of the main part of the city.  

Columned Portico of the Urn Tomb 

The simplest of all businesses here is selling tea.  Attempting to earn some income from the stream of tourists by the Bedouins is a basic enterprise requiring charm and creative salesmanship.

Modern day Bedouin

The view from the Urn Tomb, which is one of the Royal Tombs.  

When you climb the steps in the above photo you come to these totally psychedelic rock formations with eroded tomb entries that blend in with the natural form of the rock faces.  The colors and shapes are quite magical.

These remind me of camel's hooves.

There is a trail that climbs the mountain above to tombs called the Jabal al-Kubtha that I saved for my last day here.

The Urn Tomb from Wadi Musa 

The Corinthian Tomb was modeled after the Al-Khazneh, or Treasury, with a split pediment framing a Tholos, a round columned tower with a tent like roof supporting an urn.  The tomb was named after the Nabataean version of its Corinthian columns.  The structure, nearly 100 feet tall is heavily weathered by erosion suspending it halfway between architecture and geology.  

The Palace Tomb (left) and the Corinthian Tomb (left side)

The Palace Tomb is one of the largest facades found at Petra.  It measures about 160 feet across and 150 feet tall, and has 5 stories of ornamentation.  The base has 4 entrances with rounded pediments on the sides and triangular ones between them.  The second level has 18 half columns.  The top three levels are heavily eroded.  There is evidence of a sophisticated channel and cistern system that enters from the top that would have provided water for pools, gardens and ritual purposes.  Complex water systems are found throughout Petra, collecting, distributing and storing lavishly what is a relatively scarce resource in this desert region.

The melting facade of the Palace Tomb

I would revisit these tombs again for their ambience and magnificent views of the city.  This reconstructed view of what the city might have looked like at its peak shows a compact mud brick city with grand civic and religious structures.

The view across the Wadi Musa from the Royal Tombs

Spreading out across the valley from the Royal Tombs was the main part of the City of Petra.  There was a long arcaded market street flanked by a canal, with dramatic temples at its center.  The entrances to the market were stone gates.

A reconstructed illustration of what the City of Petra looked like.

This area was largely built from cut blocks of sandstone rather than cut directly from the rock.  First we come to the Nymphaeum, the remains of a once grand public fountain built at the junction of the watercourses of Wadi Musa and Wadi al-Mataha.  This may have been the terminus of the clay pipes that ran through both sides of the Siq.  All that remains today is the foundation.  An old Pistachia atlantica tree, a plant which has many medicinal properties has been growing from a corner of the Nymphaeum for nearly 400 years. A Nymphaeum in Greek and Roman mythology is traditionally a grotto where a spring emerges, and is the home of Nymphs, female spirits that inhabit sacred springs.

The Nymphaeum

The Nymphaeum at ancient Roman city of Gerash north of Jordan's capital of Amman gives a sense of what the dramatic fountains at Petra may have looked like.

Beyond the Nymphaeum was the main thoroughfare of the city, the Decumanus Maximus, or Colonnaded Street.  Believed to have been built during the reign of King Aretas IV, who's tomb is thought to be the Al-Kaznah, or Treasury.  It was paved with cut stones, many of which were washed away by flash floods that ravaged the city leaving only a trace of what once was.  Shops lined the arcade and important civic complexes flanked the busy road.  At the far end of the street is Hadrian's Gate, named after the well traveled Roman Emperor, although it is not known if Hadrian ever visited the Petra.

A tourist riding a donkey being guided by a Bedouin could be a scene spanning thousands of years.

The Great Temple is an expansive construction from the 1st Century reached by a flight of steps that climb 26 feet up from the Colonnaded Street.  A large Temenos, or terrace is paved in hexagonal limestone slabs and surrounded by rows of columns which supported a roof.  Beyond this there is an amphitheater so it is believed that it probably wasn't a temple but rather a royal reception hall and gathering space.  There is no certainty as to what the space's were actually used for. 

The Great Temple, with the Qasr al-Bint Temple beyond.

Excavations unearthed column capitals with finely rendered Elephant heads, suggesting trade links with India.  Hydrological studies show that under the cut stone terrace lie a system of water and drainage channels.  Every form of water collection was capitalized on at Petra.

Another view of the Great Temple

Vaulted chambers under the Great Temple.

The Qasr al-Bint Temple is one of the best preserved ancient structures at Petra, with substantial remnants of towering walls.  In Arabic the name means 'The Palace of the Pharaoh's Daughter', in reference to a folk tale.  The temple faces north and may have been dedicated to the principal deity of Nabatean society, Dushara, who like Zeus in Greek mythology was the leader of the Pantheon of the Gods.  

The Qasr al-Bint Temple

Another view of the Qasr al-Bint Temple

Across the Colonnaded Street stands the remains of the Temple of the Winged Lions.  Built during the reign of Aretas IV around the time of the life of Christ, this temple is thought to be a place of worship to the popular Nabatean goddess Al'Uzza, a deity associated with water.  Rectangular in shape, the simple classic structure had a pedimented facade supported by two 13 meter tall columns.  The interior had 12 prominent columns with winged lions carved in to the capitals, giving the temple its name.  A raised altar accessed by steps is centered in the room.  Curtains may have been draped from the columns to conceal the altar.  Traces of plaster and pigments indicate that the temple was elaborately decorated.  A portico would have allowed ritual circumambulation of the altar.  A second story had large openings allowing generous natural light into the space.

Interior of the Temple of the Winged Lions

13 meter tall columns made from stacked stone drums flanked the entrance to the Temple of the Winged Lions

The temple collapsed in the earthquake of 363 CE.  The substantial drums stacked to make the columns have weathered revealing the rich coloration of the carved stones that would have been concealed beneath plaster but painted with pigments made from the same minerals.

Dissolving stone drums of a collapsed column become a work of art
13 meter tall columns made from stacked stone drums flanked the entrance to the Temple of the Winged Lions

The two columns had Corinthian capitals

A view looking through a plexiglass panel showing what the Temple of the Winged Lions would have looked like.

Adjacent to the temple is a structure with many rooms that may have housed priests, and craftsmen who carved and cast statuary and votive offerings, ground pigments for painting, and the production of oils and fragrances used in rituals.  Revenue generated by the workshops would help finance the temples operations.

Under Roman rule, Petra prospered as a trading center for a century with the construction of the Roman Road, but eventually trade moved north to Palmyra in current day Syria and Petra began a period of economic decline.  However it's importance as a religious center continued.  In 130 AD the Roman Emperor Hadrian visited Petra and a commemorative gate was built.  The city didn't really prosper from the visit as the city of Gerash north of Amman became the benefactor of regional trade.  In 363 AD a powerful earthquake damaged much of the old city and its water systems and the city continued in to decline.  

The Baptistry in the Petra Church

In the 4th Century, the Holy Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and moved his capital to Constantinople, which is present day Istanbul.  During that time Greek replaced Latin as the primary language of the Eastern Roman Empire.  In 1993 a cache of 140 charred papyrus scrolls were discovered in a room near the main Petra Church, most of them being inventories, property transaction, marriages, dowries, and inheritances.  The Byzantine churches built in Petra are characterized by their distinctive mosaic floors, which were the primary ornament of the church as a means of depicting scenes from the Nature, Bible and Society.  The main Petra Church was a Basilica with elaborate ornamentation built in the second half of the 5th Century.  The aisles on either side are carpeted in elaborate mosaics.  Petra was a crossroads, so many beliefs mixed together so Christianity was slow to take hold, but some tombs were converted in to places of worship.  

The main Byzantine Church of Petra

The Ridge Church was the oldest in Petra, built in the 4th Century on a prominent hill with a 360 degree view.  The buildings were built using materials pilfered from older structures.  Earthquakes eventually destroyed them and once again materials were pilfered for the next generation of building.  

The Blue Chapel is distinguished by four blue Turkish granite columns with horned Nabatean capitals.  The floors and walls were also covered in blue granite which was most likely salvaged from a older temple.  The columns toppled in an earthquake and were restored over a 12 year period ending in 2002.  

Four blue Egyptian granite columns reconstructed in the Blue Chapel

Work began on the Petra Church in the mid 5th Century.  During that time Greek replaced Latin as the primary language of the Eastern Roman Empire.  The mosaics are similar to those found in the Gaza region of Palestine, which was the primary regional trading port on the Mediterranean for centuries.  The style of mosaic popular to the time is called Opus Sectile, where cut pieces of colored stone, marble, glass, and gold leaf are used to illustrate elaborate scenes.  Round and oval medallions framed by vines enclose depictions of the four seasons, animals, plants, people, ceramic vessels, baskets of produce and flowers, arranged in rows like a kind of story book.  These churches went in to disrepair in the 6th century, and rather than being renovated, the mosaics have been preserved as a rare example of original works.  

An elaborate floor mosaic in the Petra Church

A donkey searching for something edible on the North Ridge
A woman holding a fish

In 1993 a cache of 140 charred papyrus scrolls were discovered in a room near the main Petra Church, most of them being inventories, property transaction, marriages, dowries, and inheritances.  

A donkey grazing amongst poisonous Sea Squill bulbs, Drimia maritima on the North Ridge

Not for eating but you can buy Drimia bulbs for your garden

Directly ahead is a dramatic Al-Habis escarpment, pocked with numerous cave niches called the Columbarium. 

The Al-Habis 

The Al-Habis

Emerging at the Al-Habis, the Wadi As-Siyagh is a winding stream bed with towering cliffs and many caves that are still inhabited by Bedouin families and herds of goats.  I didn't see any tourists in this canyon and I felt like I was getting a glimpse of what life was like before Petra was made a World Heritage Site tourist destination.

Wadi As-Siyagh

An inhabited cave perched high on a ledge

Aloes have naturalized in a ravine that provides a scarce source of water in the Wadi Siyagh

Petra gets a lot of tourists but I had this canyon all to myself apart from the families that live high up in the cliffs.  There is for me a timeless quality to the life here.  Perhaps a romantic notion for an American looking at Bedouin life, but I find this culture to be very beautiful.

Herding goats

It was here that I climbed up to a cave that contained a rare remnant of the original plastered and painted walls and ceilings that was typical of ancient Petra's dwellings and tombs.    These structures where built by the Nabateans in the 1st Century BC.

A rare example of plastered and painted walls

Turning back, I continued on the main tourist trail leading to one of Petra's most dramatic monuments.  The trail to Ad-Dier, also known as The Monastery is a spectacular one.  

The trail to The Monastery

The old man on his way up to the Top of the World

A color coordinated kitty along the way

The route climbs about 800 steps, passing the beautifully carved Lion Triclinium, set in a small side pocket canyon with a pair of sculpted lions on either side of the entrance.  Erosion has created a keyhole shape to the doorway.  Tricliniums were ceremonial halls where funerary banquets were held. 

The Lion Triclinium

Continuing up stairs winding through narrow chasms, the trail opens up to a high terrace graced by the monumental Ad-Dier, which was carved from a prominent rock formation in the 1st Century AD.  The open area was leveled and paved, possibly for ceremonial purposes.  There is a road that accesses the area coming from the opposite direction of the path that I came up.

The facade is a classic example of a Nabatean blending of Greek and Mesopotamian architecture, with a split pediment framing an urn capped tower.  The columns have horned capitals that are purely ornamental since the facade was carved directly from the rock formation.  It isn't likely that this structure was a tomb because the simple, nearly square interior lacks burial spaces.  It was once plastered and painted but there are no traces of ornamentation remaining.  The back wall has an arched altar space accessed by a wide flight of steps.  Two low raised platforms run along the sides.

The area in front of the Monastery is paved with large blocks of stone partially surrounded by a semicircular terrace.  

Tall rock outcrops here have lookout shelters built on them by Bedouins to provide tea and sell trinkets to tourists.  The views are breathtaking and are touted as such.

The Best View in the World!

The ambience from this vantage point was sublime, and fun as well! 

                                                    A video from "The Top of the World"

I feel so blessed on days like this, where the beauty of the world is so remarkable.  Truly a gift to be here.

A spectacular view of the Ad-Deir, the Monastery

While I was up there I noticed a man had climbed the structure and was standing on top of the sphere on the urn, which seemed completely insane to me.  He then climbed to the edge of the urn and sat down with his legs dangling over the side.

A climber sitting on top of the urn of the Monastery

A side angle shows the depth of the carved facade

I hiked around this area for a while and then made my way down as it was getting late.  Bedouins were closing up their little stalls and cleverly offering end of the day half price sales, which made me smile and laugh.  While people here are often very poor, they maintain a great sense of humor and happiness.

Ancient steps leading back down to Petra

The walk back through the ruins was long but magical.  And this was only day two!

Heading back in to the Siq and the trek back to town.

The next day I made my way back through the Siq with my map, to find the trail to the High Place of Sacrifice.  The route passes through the ruins of the Great Temple and then climbs a slope before entering the narrow canyon of the Wadi Farasah.

Looking down on the Great Temple from the trail to Wadi Farasah

The trail crosses a slope that has the scarce remnants of what was once a residential area called Zantur. 

Good signage can be helpful

This is another breathtaking hike through magnificent rock formations covered in tomb facades.  

Tombs everywhere

The most prominent of theses is the Renaissance Tomb, built sometime in the 2nd Century AD.  It is unusual for the carved arch over the entrance on which sit 3 urns.  This is framed by massive decorative columns supporting a frieze and pediment.  

The Renaissance Tomb

I love goats, although I have wrestled with a few Rams in my travels.  I've learned a convincing Bahhhh so I can attempt to communicate with them.  

The next major rock cut facade en route up the Wadi is called the Tomb of the Roman Soldier.  It is badly weathered but is distinctive for its 3 niches containing busts of men.  It was built in the latter half of the 1st Century AD around a courtyard.

It has a large rectangular chamber lined with burial niches, and a Triclinium for ritual banquets.  There are cisterns carved in to the rock above the tomb and it is believed that this complex was used for bathing.  There is scarce evidence of bathing facilities in the Petra region until after Roman annexation.  It would be amazing to have a glimpse of what the baths at Petra looked like.  

Burial niches in the chamber in the Tomb of the Roman Soldier

The trail gets really cool here.  Time worn steps bypass the stream bed in a narrow gap leading to the Garden Triclinium.  

This is one of the more magical places I saw because it's enclosed, surrounded by cliffs.  Two tall slender columns divide the entrance in to 3 archways.  Built around the same time as the Tomb of the Roman Soldier, there are remains of one of the largest cisterns in the area.  This structure was neither a tomb or a temple, but may have housed attendants for more bathing facilities.  

The word garden was originally penned into the title by the German theologian Gustaf Dalman when he was exploring the area before WWI.  Petra means rock, and vegetation is scarce in these rugged mountains, but places where water can flow during rains and nutrients can collect will provide enough for sustenance for plants to take hold.  Oleanders in bloom would be a glimpse of Paradise here. 

The Garden Triclinium

This image from 'Art Destination Jordan' shows the location of the 6 cisterns in this complex.

While I was there, a pair of goat kids came scampering down the cistern wall bleating for Mom.  Another touch of magic to an amazing day.

                                                 Adorable Goat Kids descending a steep cliff

Nearby, the Lion Monument has the remains of a pipe diverting water from a spring that would have spouted water from a lion's mouth carved in the face of the cliff.  A basin at the base provided water to people climbing the path up to the High Place of Sacrifice.  The lion is a representation of the water goddess Al-Uzza in Nabatean beliefs.

The Lion Monument

Nearing the High Place of Sacrifice, there are hewn cliff faces and the remnants of a tower made of cut stone blocks.  This may have been a lookout tower but its purpose is unknown.  The Crusaders are said to have built fortifications here in the 12th Century, by which time the city of Petra had been mostly abandoned.

The mountain top of Jebel Madbah is a rectangular platform that was once used for ceremonies.  The cliffs drop 170 meters to the Wadi Musa, and the views are dramatic.

A spectacular view looking down on the Tombs of the Royal Tombs

Looking back down the Wadi Farasah.

The High Place of Sacrifice is a flat rectangular terrace carved from the top of the mountain.  It has two altar platforms and channels to drain what may have been the blood of animal sacrifices to the God Dushara and Goddess Al-Uzza.  Who knows what actually happened here, but the setting has great power.

A trusting Bedouin left his trinkets lined up for sale but was nowhere to be seen.

I had the place to myself for a while and it was a beautiful sunny day after two cold ones with clouds and some sprinkles.  

Rock cut cisterns would provide sources of water for rituals.  

The trail I took down follows the narrow Wadi al-Mahfur.  The Nabateans cut ledges and steps in to the cliff faces in several places in order to make it accessible.  

There is a broad terrace with two monumental obelisks carved from the solid rock that are said to represent the two principal Nabatean Gods Dushara and Al-Uzza.  They were most likely plastered and painted.

Two monumental obelisks

One of the two obelisks, showing beautiful striping in the stone

A beautiful cliff wall in Wadi al-Mahfur

Time worn steps 

The coloration in the cliff walls can be extraordinary

The steep trail unveils spectacular views of the Wadi Musa.

Descending to the Wadi Musa

The first European to travel to Petra after centuries lost to obscurity was the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.  He spent many years studying Arabic and was eventually assigned by the British government to make a journey from Cairo to Timbuktu.  He immersed himself in Arab culture while in

Syria and took the name of Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah in order to hide his European identity.  He dressed in Arab attire and began his journey south.  While in Malta he heard stories of a fabled city in the desert that was once part of the Roman Empire.  In 1812 in the south of Jordan he hired a guide to take him to the tomb of the prophet Aaron, the brother of Moses in order to sacrifice a goat.  They passed through the Siq and in to the Wadi Musa with it's resplendent monuments.  He would later make his way to Cairo and up the Nile where he was the first European to visit the ruins at Abu Simbel.

A favorite photo of donkeys at Wadi Musa

There is a wonderful time warp feel to Petra with tourists riding on decorative Mahawi camel saddles and donning Bedouin headscarves.  

I made my way back through the Siq and had traditional Jordanian dinner in an ornately decorated tourist restaurant, and went home to bed.  The next day after breakfast I again hiked through the Siq and and around the Royal tombs to another ascent to the tops of cliffs on the Al-Khubtha

The Corinthian Tomb

There is so much to see here and I was grateful to have the time to fully explore so many of the incredible monuments here.  The colors are often quite psychedelic and surreal.

Some of the extraordinary coloration in the sandstone inside one of the Royal Tombs

Marvelous rock formations and tomb caves


The obligatory adorable puppy photo.

The trail rises steeply at a point where a passageway was cut from the cliff in a way that it could be guarded.  Everything is so sculptural here, with carved surfaces and the erosion of time softening everything to a wonderful juxtaposition between geology and architecture.

The elevation gain opens up to grandiose views of the Wadi Musa below.  

A birds eye view of the Amphitheater 

Many caves are used as stables for animals and places to sleep 

The trail eventually comes to a vantage point high above the Treasury, where the sounds of activity below echo off the cliff walls.  Its quite breathtaking and I sat for a long time absorbing the magnificence of this spectacular place.

My legs were ready for a day off from climbing stairways to Heaven, even though my heart wanted to go on exploring.  

Last chance shopping in the Street of Facades

Souvenirs of Petra

I bought a couple of necklaces made of colorful beads and brass to add to my dowry, passed the Treasury, and back in to the sinuous Siq.

Its taken me four years to write this because there are so many places to write about, and thousands of years of history to research and interpret in regards to Petra.  

High above the Amphitheater

I took the bus to Amman, the capital of Jordan for a week and made a day trip to the ruins of incredible Roman city of Jerash.  Then I crossed the border by the Dead Sea in to Israel, where a spent a week in Jerusalem and another in Tel Aviv.  It was a great winter adventure.

A colonade at Jerash

I've modeled my life around being able to visit first hand the places of my dreams.  Ever since I was a small child I had great wanderlust and I fantasized a life of adventure.  So when I was 24, I got on a plane to Mexico.  40 years later and I am getting on another plane to Mexico City for the winter.  There is so much to see and do there, beautiful landscapes, ancient cities, spectacular ruins, lovely beaches.  Winter away is my favorite part of the year.  

After a week in Agra, seeing the Taj Mahal every day, I  stood at the magnificent doorways leading out and tried to absorb the beauty of what stood before me, so that it would stay with me for the rest of my life.  I spent 3 weeks at Angkor Wat over two visits when it was first opening up and was relatively quiet.  Turning away from what I believe is the greatest architectural achievement in the history of mankind was very difficult.  My work was profoundly influenced by the cosmic alignments of the story telling bas reliefs.  Anuradhapura, Polonaruwa, Sigiriya, and Mihintale on the island of Sri Lanka made me want to learn to carve stone.  Borobudur on the island of Java in Indonesia influenced the Labyrinth I built 40 years later.  Hampi, Khajuraho, Varanasi, Orissa, the forts and marble Jain temples of Rajasthan, Gopurams in Tamil Nadu, and rock cut Ellora and Ajanta Caves in India were all pilgrimages to see first hand.  Egypt, my oh my.  Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu, Patagonia, Colombia, Spain, Morocco, Italy, Greece, Turkey, New Zealand, Australia.  Its a box of treasure I like to revisit from time to time in my photo files.  I have 100,000 slides I need to go through and digitize from my pre digital travels.  

Petra filled my soul.  Go if you have the chance.  Even in times of turmoil in Palestine, it is safe and accessible.  Thanks for reading, Jeffrey