You’ve just passed through the magical chasm of the Siq and laid eyes upon Al Khazneh. Your breath was stolen from you, and you felt weak at the knees; but it’s all over now, you’ve recovered your equanimity, and it’s time to head home, right? Wrong. Al Khazneh might be the most widely recognised tomb in Petra, but it represents just the barest fraction of the site, just one tomb out of the thousands that lie in Wadi Musa. It’s time to proceed along the Outer Siq, towards the Royal Tombs, and the heart of the Nabataean City of Petra.
The Street of Facades
As you wander down the Outer Siq, which gets wider and more open as you go, you pass the so-called Street of Facades, a collection of forty or so tombs that line the cliff wall.
Here you will spot the crow-step architectural element (step-like projections used as an architectural feature), which feature prominently throughout Petra, and are Assyrian in origin.
These tombs are thought to be those of well-to-do city officials. The rough, rudimentary caves mixed amongst the tombs are believed to have been used as temporary accommodation by visiting – and perhaps still grieving – family members.
The Roman Theatre
The Roman Theatre is able to seat 8,500 audience members and was built in the Hellenistic style in the 1st Century CE. This was prior to the Roman occupation of Petra, and thus it is not really a Roman Theatre at all.
The only thing the Romans can be credited with is having given the theatre a thorough refurbishment when they took control of the city in 106 CE.
The Royal Tombs
This collection of tombs was given the title the Royal Tombs as it was thought, judging by the grandness of the structures, that they must have been intended for monarchs. No one knows for sure whether any kings were ever entombed in the Royal Tombs though, and there are some who say they might not have been tombs at all.
The Urn Tomb
The Urn Tomb is named for the large urn that graces the top of the façade. The steps and vaulted walkway that lead to the tomb are a new addition (new is a relative term here); they were built in the 5th Century CE during the Byzantine period.
A Greek inscription inside the tomb attests that, in 447 CE, the Urn Tomb was converted into a Byzantine cathedral.
The Corinthian Tomb
Similar in design to Ad Dayr (the Monastery), the Corinthian Tomb was named so by Johann Ludwig Buckhardt, who discovered Petra in 1812 (he was the first modern European to see Petra). Buckhardt thought the pilasters (false columns) were embellished with Corinthian capitals. It turned out he was wrong, but the name stuck.
The Palace Tomb
The design of the Palace Tomb, seen on the left side of the photo below, is thought to have been influenced by the Domus Aurea, the Golden House of Nero (although if you google the Domus Aurea you’ll struggle to find any similarity between the two).
There are some who believe the Palace Tomb isn’t a tomb at all, but rather a stage – or to be more precise, a scaenae frons (the elaborate architectural backdrop that sits behind the stage).
Spare a thought for the Royal Tombs, for they are some of the most elaborately decorated of all the structures in Wadi Musa, and if not for the heavy weathering that has prematurely blunted their splendour, these, rather than Al Khazneh, might have been the stars of Petra.
The heart of Petra
The Royal Tombs were positioned above the commercial centre of Petra. They looked down upon the bustling marketplace, which, in its heyday, would have been filled with shop stalls and ateliers.
The Colonnaded Road, the name for the main street of Petra, was built by the Nabataeans, and just like the theatre, it was upgraded by the Romans in 106 CE.
Follow the Colonnaded Road in one direction and you ended up in Jerusalem, follow it in the other direction and you ended up in Beidha, an archaeological site that dates back to 10,000 BCE.
The Byzantine Church
The Byzantine Church was built in 450 CE, a time when Petra’s eminence was fading. The mosaics that decorate the floors were a later addition, installed sometime between 500 and 550 CE.
In 1993 an archaeological investigation discovered 152 papyrus scrolls in the Byzantine Church site that date from the 6th Century CE. The scrolls are slowly being deciphered, and are providing valuable input into the lives of the citizens of Petra during the time of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.
Practical information and how to reach the Royal Tombs:
The Nabataean city of Petra is accessed from the new city of Wadi Musa, a 4 hour drive (250 km) from Amman, the capital of Jordan. More transport info here.
Read more on Petra in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.