I was back in Petra…
My first visit to Petra, while impressive and inspiring, lacked something that is somewhat expected (or at least often represented in pictures and movies)…
Seeing Petra under the rain wasn’t bad, though. The water flowing down the Siq’s canyon walls and the sandstone colors contrasting further the scenery and buildings, showed me a Petra I had never imagined.
But this time, the sun presented a completely different experience of Petra.
As I walked again through the Siq, I could see how this space was made to be experienced with the sharp contrast of light and shadows created by the sun. The Siq comes to life, dancing with the sunlight and flirting with the shadows on its curves. Each minute that passes, the Siq looks different.
During this visit I wanted to go deeper into Petra. I wanted to understand it better, architecturally.
I reached The Treasury again, with a similar, if not more “breath-taking first look” between the jagged Siq’s entrance.
The light hits the un-carved gorge’s wall, contrasting the receded Nabataean façade. The façade’s Nabataean details stand out.
The design of this magnificent 30 meters wide by 43 meters tall façade follows the Hellenistic style found in many Greco-Roman buildings – this is clearly seen in the pediment, frieze, and the Corinthian columns, among others. It also expresses the architectural conventions of the time of depicting gods and mythological figures.
I probably stayed in front of The Treasury for about an hour, looking at every detail, looking at the environment, and taking countless pictures. Then it was time to continue further towards the other tombs in Petra.
Again, I was awed by the huge contrast from what I saw the day before. The buildings were bathed in light and expressed their delicate details with a gradient of shadows.
Here is where the architecture shows you the importance of Petra in the trading routes. You can see the influence from other cultures like Babylonian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, and Roman in the tombs’ design.
I found interesting how the social status and the cultural beliefs are expressed in their tombs. In general, the closer the tomb is to The Treasury, the wealthier or more important the person was. In addition, wealth and importance was expressed in the elevation where the tomb was carved. The higher the tomb, the more important the person, the closer they were to the heavens. Archeologists say that many of the lower tombs are still buried in 3 to 5 meters of sediment – brought by thousands of years of rainwater flowing through the Siq and valley.
Also of great interest to me was the Babylonian influence of the zig-zag details that crowns the façade. This is a representation of a “stair” that helps the diseased climb towards the heavens.
You can also see a clear evolution in their design approach and building skills, especially in the Nabataean style tombs. The Nabataean type starts from the simple pylon-tomb with a door set in a tower crowned by a parapet ornament, in imitation of the front of a dwelling-house. Then, after passing through various stages, the full Nabataean type is reached, retaining all the native features, but showing Egyptian and Greek influences.
Then there’s the evolution of the tomb-fronts that terminate in a semicircular arch, a detailed derived from north Syria. And finally, there are the buildings that copied the style of Roman temples; no longer showing any trace of the Nabataean style.
At the point where the valley opens out into a plane, and standing out from the row of facades, is the 3000 spectators amphitheater known as en-Neir. The amphitheatre was cut into the hillside and into several of the tombs. You can see rectangular gaps in the seating that could have once been the entrance or chamber of a tomb.
As I walked further from the theater, I could see huge mounds of rocks. Almost like gravel that has been undisturbed for centuries. This is what’s left of the residential area. Little is known of Nabataean domestic architecture, but excavations have revealed these were houses built out of limestone blocks with roofs made of stone slabs supported by arches. These were built for the common people but were destroyed by earthquakes, leaving nothing but crumbled materials and a few foundation traces.
While Nabataeans used both construction techniques, carving on the sandstone and limestone masonry, they were originally much better at building through carving. Building was an art they learnt relatively late in the development of their civilization.
After seeing the most I could of Petra, I could understand why The Treasury is the “face” of Petra. It is well preserved, thanks to its surroundings, and it is the tomb of an important Nabataean king, Al Harth the 3rd. But, many other Nabataean temples deserve as much recognition architecturally, even if their details and glory have faded over the pass of time. Among these are: Qaser Al Bent (temple for the great god), the Monastery Temple for Obdaa, the winged lion temple (of Babylonian influence), and the South Temple.
Petra is truly a playground for anyone interested in history and the hodgepodge of architectural styles carved in the mountains and built over the valley.