Things to Do in Petra
Thought to have been built sometime in the first century B.C., the Treasury is one of Jordan’s most intricate temples (or perhaps tombs; no one knows which one it is for sure), with a design influenced by Greek architecture. At the entrance, visitors are greeted by statues of Castor and Pollux, Zeus’ mythological twins, who are believed to have spent half of their time in heaven and the other half in the underworld. Glance up and you’ll spy two enormous eagles symbolizing Dushara, a deity linked to Zeus and worshipped by the Nabateans. There is also an urn at the top, one believed to have once been filled with a Pharaoh’s treasure and covered in bullet marks said to have been from Bedouins wanting the urn for themselves. Peek inside the Treasury to see a chamber with attached rooms and uniquely rounded windows.
Little Petra (Siq al-Barid) was a northern satellite of the main city, and it resembles Petra proper in enough ways to earn its nickname. Like at Petra, visitors approach Siq al-Barid through a canyon-like passage similar to the Siq at Petra. Unlike Petra, many of the structures carved into the cliff walls served as houses, as well as temples and communal gathering areas.
Archeologists believe Siq al-Barid (Cold Canyon in English) once served as a trading post and agricultural hub where camel caravans could resupply on the way to and from Petra. Wander through the narrow passage with rock-cut stairs climbing up on either side, and it’s easy to imagine Little Petra as a busy community humming with activity. One of Little Petra’s most famous sites, the Painted House, houses one of the only surviving Nabatean painted interiors. The frescoes depict scenes related to wine consumption and Dionysus worship.
In 1990 American archeologist Kenneth W. Russell discovered the ruins of a Byzantine-era church. Two years later excavation began on the site of what is today simply called Byzantine Church or Petra Church. Originally constructed by the Nabataeans in the middle of the fifth century AD, the church as expanded and remodeled by the Byzantines in the early sixth century.
Today, the awning-covered ruins are most famous for the 750 square feet (70 square meters) of well-preserved mosaics found within. These floor and wall mosaics, added during the Byzantine remodeling of the church, depict humans, birds and animals within geometric frames. In 1993 archaeologists discovered a series of carbonized papyrus scrolls dating back to the fourth through sixth centuries AD. Collectively known as the Petra Scrolls, these scrolls represent one of the largest collections of ancient written material ever discovered in Jordan.
Tucked in the hills of Petra, the Monastery (Al-Deir) is only matched in magnificence by the Treasury. Built during the first century, the structure carved into the mountain was not a monastery at all, but rather served as either a tomb or a temple for members of the cult of Obodas. While less ornate than the Treasury, the Monastery is significantly larger, measuring 148 feet high and 165 feet across.
An uphill but relatively easy trail leads from the Nabataean Museum to the Monastery, ascending a set of some 800 ancient rock-cut steps along the way. As an alternative to the 40-minute walk, visitors can hire a donkey and guide to carry them to the top. Either way, those who make it to the Monastery are greeted with panoramic views over the surrounding hills and gorges.
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