Petra is often called the Rose City, a name it gets from the rose-red sandstone rock from which many of the city’s structures were carved. The Nabataeans buried their dead in intricate tombs that were cut out of the mountain sides. The city also had temples, a theater, and following the Roman annexation and later the Byzantine influence, a colonnaded street and churches. In 1985, Petra was designated a World Heritage Site and chosen as one of the top places to visit. Most certainly, Petra was on our bucket list as it was for many in our group.
Prior to our visit, we had always envisioned Petra as consisting of a temple carved out of a long rock cliff with nothing but a vast flat desert in front of it. We were completely surprised to find that Petra actually sits in the bottom of a deep narrow canyon called The Siq. To enter the city requires walking steadily downhill about a mile through The Siq with vertical rock walls on either side. The many caves and other openings carved out of the rock walls served as homes, tombs and temples. On the walk in, our guide pointed out numerous carvings on the walls honoring ancient idols and gods. At the end of the narrow gorge, we emerged into a somewhat wider canyon, and there in front of us lay Petra’s most recognizable feature, an elaborate façade called the Treasury or Al Khazn. Surely the Treasury was placed deliberately at the end of the Siq to cause the visitor to take a gasp and marvel at its magnificence! The sight was simply overwhelming! The Treasury is almost 120 feet high and intricately decorated with Corinthian capitals, friezes, and figures. The function of the Treasury is a mystery. Some archaeologists believed it to be a temple, while others thought it was a place to store documents and treasure. However, the most recent excavation here has unearthed a graveyard beneath the Treasury.
To the right, the canyon opened wider to reveal an ancient city that was far bigger than we had expected with many more caves, some naturally occurring and others carved into the rock by hand. Sheep and goats climbed on the steep rock slopes above us. Farther down the canyon we saw a very large amphitheater carved out of the canyon walls. The builders of this ancient city were very clever engineers. They built a system of aqueducts and water pipes carved into the rock walls to bring water to the city from nearby springs, and these structures are still clearly visible today. It really looked like a set from one of those old Hollywood epics…we half expected Charlton Heston to step out from behind a rock at any moment. Pictures simply do not do it justice – seeing Petra in person is unbelievable and an experience never to be forgotten!