Inscription in Nabatean (above) and Greek (below) near the Djinni tombs
We perceived two tombs on the left, which are
distinguishable from the others by a peculiar style,
as well as by a Greek inscription, engraved in
large characters on the architrave. An interpretation of this inscription would be the more valuable, inasmuch as all those which were originally
traced on the funereal monuments of Petra are
effaced by time; but I have hitherto failed in my
endeavours to decipher these characters.
Léon de Laborde - Journey through Arabia Petraea (in 1828) - 1836
Petra retains an enormous number of monumental tombs which were meant to celebrate the achievements of the dead and yet we do not know for whom they were built, because very few inscriptions have been found. Archaeologists believe that the façades (or part of them) were plastered and inscriptions were painted, because where inscriptions were carved, erosion has not completely cancelled them. The Nabateans used an alphabet derived from the Phoenician one which was similar to the Aramaic/Palmyrene one.
(left) Tomb of Sextius Florentinus; (right) detail of the dedicatory inscription
The ancient inhabitants of Petra have availed
themselves of a sort of rocky promontory, which
stands between the plain and a small ravine, in
order to form in it one of those tombs with which
they have encircled their city. Its position is not
its only merit, as the style in which it is constructed
exhibits some graceful details. (..) The monument
is sustained by the mountain, and presents, as a
landing place, a terrace which is bordered by
two flights of stairs, and which is reached by
several steps. We found here a Latin inscription in three lines, carved on a tablet, the only
inscription we discovered at Petra. It is of importance, as it gives the name of the officer, who died in this capital
while he was governor of this part of Arabia. (..) The sepulchral chamber does not
contain, like the others, any kind of ornament,
having been apparently intended not for a single
individual, but for a whole family. Laborde
Romans made carved inscriptions a form of art and the son of Sextius Florentinus, governor of the province of Arabia Petraea in ca 126-129, had a Latin inscription carved on the tomb he dedicated to his father. Notwithstanding the impact erosion had on the architectural elements of the tomb, the inscription is still readable. It indicates that monumental tombs continued to be built at Petra during the IInd century AD.
David Roberts' drawing of "The Eastern End of the Valley"
Four tombs on the eastern cliff have been named "Royal Tombs" because of their size and decoration. Archaeologists have found inscriptions on papyruses at other locations and they have been able to establish the chronology of Nabatean kings, but the "Royal Tombs" cannot be linked to any of them in particular.
Royal Tombs: (left) Palace Tomb; (right) Corinthian Tomb
A little farther on we observed a tomb with three tiers of
columns, offering a singular series of ornaments,
which constantly increase in height, dimensions,
and boldness of style. (..) Being exposed to the
inclemency of the weather, the rock must have
been a good deal injured by it; in fact, the waters
have found their way through this tomb, and
brambles have grown about it almost as high as its
upper range of columns. Parasitical plants, lichens,
and briars are at work to conceal from the eye these
remains of human industry, forming, as it were, a
winding sheet which nature spreads over our frail
creations. (..) One grand line connects these
three tiers of columns, bestowing on them an aspect of combined grandeur, which compensates,
perhaps, for the want of proportions, and for the
irregularity of its different parts. Laborde
Carved rocks in the shape of temples and used as tombs are not unique to Petra: the Achaemenid Emperors of Persia were buried in rock-cut tombs and Kale Kapi in Turkey is a spectacular tomb carved in a hard rock. Many towns of Lycia in South-Western Turkey, e.g. Kaunos and Myra, have high cliffs housing temple tombs, yet the "Royal Tombs" of Petra have an enhanced theatrical element which makes them more impressive. The Palace Tomb, the largest one, recalls the proscenium, the wall behind the stage of Roman theatres (e.g. that of Sabratha).
Royal Tombs: Palace Tomb: (left) detail of its upper right end which was not cut into the rock; (right) view from the interior towards the town
When the Fellahs descend into the valley,
these tombs, which are easily closed, serve as a stable
for their herds. Such are the uses to which these
costly monuments of human vanity have been
As a matter of fact there are doubts whether the Palace Tomb was actually a mausoleum. The tomb façades were very large to make them visible from the town which was situated at some distance. When the cliff was not high enough the size of the façade was increased by masonry. The Royal Tombs are best seen in the afternoon, when direct sunlight enhances the pink colour of their stone.
Royal Tombs: (left) Corinthian Tomb; (right) detail of a capital
Burckhardt noted a tomb with fine Corinthian capitals in his account and he most likely had in mind a tomb similar to the Treasury. On closer examination however the capitals show a design based on a local pattern, rather than on the Corinthian one.
Royal Tombs: Silk Tomb, thus named because of the erosion effect on the rock near the entrance which resembles silk
The exterior also shows in many places that the monument had been originally painted a white colour,
though now it is yellow. This mode of embellishment is explained by the circumstance that the
rock from which the monument is excavated,
though in itself one unbroken mass, is far from
possessing the same uniform colour. The oxyde
of iron, in filtrating through the freestone, forms
large violet and bluish coloured veins, which run
horizontally through the columns, interrupting their
right line, and diverting the attention of the observer from their architectural arrangement. Laborde
The Assyrian-style step motif of the upper part of this tomb recurs in many others, especially in the smallest ones. It is likely that the earliest tombs were decorated with this simple pattern, before more elaborate motifs came into fashion.
Royal Tombs: Urn Tomb: (left) overall view showing the steps built in the Byzantine period; (right) side portico; (inset) bust
An enormous amount of rock had to be pulled away to obtain a vertical plane upon which to carve the decorative elements of the façade of this tomb. A much worn out bust of a man wearing a toga, a typical Roman garment, can be seen in the central niche, but it might have been added to the original building at a later period. The tomb is named after the urn at its top.
Royal Tombs: Urn Tomb - Interior
The monuments in general, however rich
externally, present nothing in the interior except
coarsely chiselled walls. Laborde
The interior of the Urn Tomb was turned into a church by excavating three apses in 447. It is one of few examples of tombs which were reused in Christian times.
The tombs on the eastern cliff and in the Outer Syk are characterized by a distinctly reddish colour of the rock which here and there shows white, black and yellow veins. Similar veins were utilized as pigments for paintings by the first inhabitants of today's desert of El Auis in Libya near the border with Algeria.
En route to Ad-Dayr
Burckhardt adopted a plan characterized by originality
and adventure. Dressed like an Arab of the lowest class, he drove a donkey before him; and, under different pretexts, joined the little caravans which have formed pathways in the desert from
tribe to tribe. But he was well versed in the Arabian language and manners, and was thus enabled
to pass himself off as one of the natives. (..) Our guides conducted us
at first to the north, by a ravine which at the opening was wide, and planted with magnificent laurels;
it soon, however, became narrow, and was incumbered by rocks of enormous size. We should have
found it impossible to go on, had it not been for
the footways we discovered at every step, wrought
by the indefatigable industry of the ancient inhabitants. (..) No traveller had yet approached this monument.
Burckhardt appears to have known nothing of it.
Burckhardt had many constraints during his visit to Petra. He had to be cautious in asking questions about ancient monuments because the locals feared he was trying to steal hidden treasures by magic. He could not deviate from the route followed by his guide without arousing suspicions. Europeans who visited Petra after him had more freedom of movement and were told that a large monastery (Ad-Dayr) stood at the top of a mountain north of Petra. They had to climb a steep path through a narrow valley in order to reach it.
Ad-Dayr and an enlargement of one of its capitals
El Deir, "the convent", is a
word often applied by Arabs to
any ruined building in which
they suppose that the priests of
the infidels once resided.
J. L. Burckhardt - Travels in Syria and the Holy Land (in 1812) - 1822
Roads sufficiently wide were cut in the rocks, cascades were divested of their ruggedness, and a superb staircase extended over a space of more than fifteen hundred feet, in order to lead to the great tomb, which the Arabs call El Deir, or the Convent. Laborde
A drawing by David Roberts (which you may see in the image used as background for this page) made Ad-Dayr popular with the public at large. It is one of the three "must see" of Petra with the Royal Tombs and the Treasury. It appears to have been built before the latter, because some details such as the capitals are less influenced by classic architecture.
Other views of Ad Dayr
Sculptured in relief on the rock, it exhibits a
compact mass, a monolithe monument, in fact, of
enormous dimensions, by way of ornament in
front of the mountain. Its preservation is perfect;
it would be difficult to say as much for its style.
The vastness of its dimensions, however, compensate in some degree for its defects. Laborde
The building, which is preceded by a large terrace, was most likely a temple. There is evidence that it was used as a church. The central circular building in its upper part is a feature it shares with the Treasury and the Corinthian Tomb.
The ravine, cut out into a staircase by the ancient
inhabitants, was the only way by which we could
return to the town: on all other sides, the rocks are either precipitous, or rendered impassable by
the waters which run over them. Laborde
A side track leads to a hidden group of tombs, one of which retains interesting and elaborate reliefs. Heads of Gorgons were meant to chase away evil spirits and guardian lions at the sides of the entrance had the same purpose. The lintel was partitioned into triglyphs and metopes in line with classic architecture.
Hill of the High Place of Sacrifice
however, that most excited our attention was a
vast theatre in the bosom of the mountain, surmounted and in some degree sheltered by the
rocks. To scoop out a theatre in the side of a
mountain seems to be an enterprise of infinite labour; but to form it thus from a rocky substance is an enterprise still more astonishing. (..) But what surprised us most was the selection of such a spot for
a place of amusement, considering the prospect
it afforded on all sides of death and its mansions, which touch the very sides of the theatre.
What a strange habit of mind the people of Petra
must have possessed, thus to familiarise themselves
so constantly to the idea of death! Laborde
The Outer Syk separates the Royal Tombs from a hill made up of the same reddish stone. The façades of many tombs were cut when the theatre was enlarged, but some tombs remain on the other side. The hill is named after a terrace placed at its top where sacrifices were offered on a baetylus, a sacred stone of Phoenician origin.
Al-Habis (the Prison)
Al Habis, the hill nearest to the town, houses only some small tombs which explain its Arabic name. Perhaps the rock which appears cut by horizontal lines was not suited for large façades. Remains of medieval fortifications have been identified at its top.
I pass over the difficulties we experienced during
our sojourn in the valley, which we protracted
in spite of warnings from some of the Fellahs, and
menaces from others, who, besides the sinister
intentions they openly avowed, threatened us with
the contagion. Our Arabs, terrified by the idea
of the plague, and moreover not finding amongst
these ruins any thing of that interest which they
had for us, seemed to be of opinion that they had
amply fulfilled their engagements by having enabled
us to make a stay of eight days in the valley. They
then declared that it was time to go away; and we
consented, on reflecting that we had accurately surveyed this great labyrinth of ruins, and that to
make any further delay would only endanger our
acquisitions, and injure, by abusing it, the authority
which we still preserved over our guides. Laborde
This necropolis is located to the north-east of the town and it houses many very similar tombs, including some with Christian symbols.
Tombs used as houses three miles from Petra
When Jordan authorities established the archaeological area of Petra they had to evict some Bedouins who lived at Al-Habis. Burckhardt did not see a living soul on his journey to Jebel Haroun, where he sacrificed a goat to Haroun (Aaron, Moses' brother), but today some Bedouins live inside some tombs on the road to Jebel Haroun.
Go to notes - part two or to Burckhardt's account or move to:
Ajlun Castle and Pella (May 3rd, 1812)
Amman and its environs (July 7th, 1812)
"Castles" in the Desert (incl. Qasr el-Azraq)
Jerash (May 2nd, 1812)
Madaba (July 13th, 1812)
Mt. Nebo and the Dead Sea (July 14th, 1812)
On the Road to Petra (incl. Kerak and Showbak) (July 14th - August 19th, 1812)
Umm Qays (May 5th, 1812)