Let's learn more about the beautiful and vibrant architecture of of this ancient city.
Petra at Night
Petra (meaning “rock”), a Jordanian UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been inhabited since prehistoric times. The Nabataeans, a desert people, carved by hand thousands of rose-colored temples, dwellings, and tombs into the red sandstone landscape.
At the height of Nabataean influence in A.D. 50, the population of this city, their capital, swelled to more than 20,000. It had become an international epicenter of the spice, silk, and incense trade.
The Siq is a narrow natural tunnel that’s 1.2 kilometers long and is the main entrance into Petra. This once-paved passageway was an important element of the town’s defense in ancient times.
Though its name means “the Treasury,” the purpose of this building—one of Petra’s most elaborate structures—is largely unknown, though it may have been built on this large scale in tribute to the Nabataeans kings or gods.
Built to a grand scale during the reign of Nabataean King Aretas IV (9 B.C.–A.D. 40), the massive rock-carved Al Khazneh (“The Treasury”) stands about 23 meters wide and 30 meters high. Scholars believe the structure served as a temple and may also have been intended to intimidate traders from other nations as they peddled their wares in Petra’s market.
Many of its architectural elements show the influence of Greek design on Nabataean architecture.
Small hand-size holes climb up both sides of the building, like scaffolding. Experts believe a master builder led a team of stonemasons that started from a rock-cut platform at the top of the mountain, then chiseled their way down.
What’s In A Name?
The small holes at the base of the central tower are bullet holes, shot from the guns of local Bedouins who believed that this structure held the hidden treasure of an ancient king, leading to its nickname: The Treasury.
Several statues depicting Nabataean gods and goddesses decorate the temple. There were two main gods worshipped by the Nabataeans. The all-knowing god of the mountains was named Dushara. Al-'Uzza was the goddess of wealth and fruitfulness.
Inside the Temple
Scholars believe these small rooms were made to entomb the Nabataean king, Aretas IV. About 300 years after his death Petra was on a downhill slide due to outside changes to trade routes.
Historical references to the city and its people all but disappear after Muslim Arabs arrived in the early 600s. It was only in 1812, when Swiss adventurer Johann Burckhardt traveled to Petra, that modern-day eyes were drawn back to it.
Cracks in the Walls
You can’t help but notice the large cracks dividing the colorful sandstone walls. The damage was likely incurred when a large earthquake struck Petra on May 19, A.D. 363. Ancient accounts state that half the city was destroyed.
The Working Class
Look past the Petra’s grand temples and tombs and you’ll find 100s of smaller dwellings that line the main street of Petra and once housed Petra’s many citizens. The international marketplace created a great need for everyday essentials, such as housing, baths, and meeting halls.
Here, on the natural curved landscape of Façade Street, those needs could be met. The gold jewelry, artistic tiles, and fancy pottery that have been found in the palaces, temples, and tombs, are absent here.
Carved into the mountainside, this huge, open-air arena, features 3 levels of approximately 8,500 seats—including VIP seating. The Nabataeans built it for religious rituals, but the Romans enlarged and redesigned it in order to entertain the masses.
Living on Façade Street
Clusters of homes likely encircled water sources. The simple homes are 1- or 2-stories high and mostly windowless. Scholars believe cooking was done in a separate building to avoid accidents with fire.
The Upper Class
Ancient records state that displaying one’s wealth was an important part of Nabataean culture. The proof of this statement can be found in the more than 600 monumental tombs and over 100 ritual banquet halls of Petra’s well-to-do families.
The Colonnaded Street
The Romans occupied Petra in A.D. 106, and Roman architectural design favored columns, straight lines, and grid systems. This major shopping street’s design was an attempt to impose this style on the city.
Standing as tall as The Treasury, this multi-story structure once housed the tombs of the elite. In A.D. 446, Byzantine Christians remodeled the tomb into a cathedral.
Up the Stairs
You will have to hike 822 rock-carved steps up a narrow gorge in the mountain, to arrive at your next destination. (Or you can hire a donkey!) At the top of the gorge, you will be rewarded by spectacular views of the surrounding valley.
You also will have arrived at the largest building in Petra, called Ad Deir or “The Monastery.” Like the other impressive structures in Petra, this building is finely carved into the mountainside.
Al Deir, The Monastery
Though its original purpose is uncertain, when Christians took control of Petra by A.D. 350, they turned this building into a church. When Arabs later saw the large painted crosses on its back wall, they dubbed it “the Monastery.”
Royal Tomb Complex
Thought to be the final resting place of several Nabatean kings, the Royal Tomb Complex consists of the Urn Tomb and 3 more magnificent tombs. Like many of Petra’s grand structures, these are delicately carved with symbols and motifs.
Masons took inspiration from nature as well as from their neighbors and chiseled fanciful creatures like those found in Greek mythology.
The Silk Tomb is the smallest of the tombs and is noteworthy for its mix of yellow, red, and grey sandstone, which some say looks like a beautiful silk blanket.
Thanks to its many classical columns, this multi-story tomb with a huge facade looks like a Roman palace. It dates to the time of King Rabbel II (A.D. 70–106).
Looking like a crumbling version of the Al Khazneh, this tomb combines aspects of Nabatean and classical architecture. Though once grand, time and earthquakes have severely damaged it.