(left) Tunnel; (right-above) remains of a conduit in the Syk; (right-below) Roman road in the Syk
The only entrance to Petra is through a narrow
ravine cut through the rocks.(..) This ravine, so curious in its conformation, was
produced, doubtless, in the first instance, by some
interior movement, but completed and rendered
regular by the influence of torrents. (..) The natural conformation of the valley
and of this opening to it sufficiently explains the
cause of its having been selected as a suitable place
for a city. In the remote ages, when men were
engaged in perpetual wars, and plunder was the
order of the day, it was no small advantage to a
community to find a position which presented
a considerable surface enriched by an abundant
stream, and hemmed in by a girdle of rocks, to
which there was no ingress, except through a ravine so narrow that a few men, stationed on the top
of the mountain, might prevent any enemy, however numerous, from effecting an entrance into the
Léon de Laborde - Journey through Arabia Petraea (in 1828) - 1836
The Syk calls to mind Al-Fajj, a similar narrow passage at Maaloula in Southern Syria. Burckhardt noticed a stone pavement in this passage which he believed had been built to favour the transit of the Wady Mousa stream. At the time of his journey it was very evident that the stream ran across the Syk, although because of the season (end of August) the passage was dry. Archaeologists have come to the conclusion that water was diverted from the Syk by excavating a side tunnel at its beginning. They also believe that the channels at the sides of the Syk were conduits carrying water to the parts of the town which were no longer supplied by the stream.
The water flowed through Uadi al-Matahah, another gorge, and it eventually reached the plain where the town is situated. The dating of this undertaking is uncertain. It surely coincided with a period of great wealth for Petra such as the Ist century AD, however the engineering skills required to control the flow of water suggest the diversion was made after Emperor Trajan annexed the Nabatean Kingdom in 106 AD. The construction of roads, aqueducts and other facilities was part of a Roman policy aimed at winning the support of their new subjects (see the canal the Romans dug at Seleucia Pieria).
A pistachio tree on the site of a nymphaeum
At the point where Uadi al-Matahah joined the old river bed, immediately before the town, the Romans built a large public fountain, most likely as a monument to the completion of the diversion of the stream.
Upper part of the Treasury: a Roman Baroque façade?
We followed the windings of the ravine,
and came within view of what may be called one
of the wonders of antiquity. (..) The Arab
passes through the scene with perfect indifference,
scarcely deigning to look at works executed with
so much ability, or to meditate, except with contempt, upon the uselessness of so much labour
expended on an object which he in vain seeks to
comprehend. (..) Whenever they pass through the ravine they
stop for a moment, charge their guns, aim at the
urn, and endeavour, by firing at it, to break off
some fragments with a view to demolish it altogether, and get at the treasure which it is supposed
to contain. The urn, however, resists all their
attacks; and when they have discharged their
pieces in vain, they go away murmuring against
the giant king, who had the cunning to place his
treasure at a distance of a hundred and twenty feet
above their heads.
The lack of inscriptions and other historical sources has led archaeologists to suggest a wide range of dates for the Treasury, the most interesting monument of Petra. They cover a period from the Ist century BC to 131 AD when Emperor Hadrian visited Petra and added his name to that of the town. It makes sense to believe that the Treasury was built after the stream had been diverted from the Syk because the building has underground halls. The overall design of the monument would have pleased Francesco Borromini, one of the greatest architects of Baroque Rome: the upper part of the Treasury calls to mind the façade of S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, one of his masterpieces.
Reliefs on the upper part of the Treasury: (left) Isis/Tyche/a Nabatean goddess/Rome; (centre) a winged Victory; (right) a dancing Amazon
Burckhardt had no time to closely study the reliefs of the Treasury which, in the lack of inscriptions, are the only clues to the purpose and dating of the monument. He thought that one of the two reliefs in the lower part of the building portrayed a woman on a camel, but there is now general consensus that they represent Castor and Pollux, two demigods of the Greek pantheon, whom the Romans regarded as protectors of their city.
According to many sources the female figure at the centre of the upper part represents Isis holding a cornucopia with her left hand and a sistrum, a musical instrument, with her right hand. Other sources suggest the female figure to be Tyche, a goddess who protected towns or a Nabatean goddess. The winged helmet however could be associated with Rome. The denarius, a widely used Roman silver coin, often had a head of Rome with a winged helmet on one side and Castor and Pollux on the other one (as you can see in the image used as background for this page). The Treasury could have been a monument to Rome erected at the request of Hadrian. The other reliefs portray Victories and Amazons and are consistent with this theory.
Relief portraying a caravan in the Syk
The exchange of produce, which is the origin
of all commerce, gave birth to, and continued to
be, the basis of that of Arabia. (..) The goods were transported by means of camels, the indispensable medium at all times of
this trade, to different places frequented by the next
adjoining tribes, who made their exchanges in turn
according to their wants, or the suggestions of
their experience, and conveyed still farther the merchandise of which they had thus become possessed.
In this manner it passed on from hand to hand,
until at length it reached the Idumeans and the Nabateans. Laborde
The wealth of Petra was based on trade and two camel caravans (incoming and outgoing) were depicted in real size reliefs in the Syk. In the last period of the Nabatean kingdom the importance of trade probably diminished because the last king moved his residence to Bosra, in today's Southern Syria, at the centre of a rich farming region.
Wady Arabah seen from Jebel Haroun
This valley of the Jordan, Wady Araba, which
was for a long time unknown, though discovered
again by Burckhardt, who traversed it to some
extent, has never been fully explored by any European traveller. I have described its direction
and appearance to a distance of about twenty-two
leagues, and no doubt can now remain, I imagine,
that at a remote period the Jordan flowed through
it to the sea. Laborde
The Syk was the entrance to Petra from the south-east. Caravans exited the town at its north-western end and after a few miles they left the mountainous region surrounding Petra to descend towards Wady Arabah, a valley which stretches from Aqaba on the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. Today it looks a very desolate area with a landscape marked only by the different colours of the rocks. In ancient times however the site was not as barren as it is today. Caravans crossed Wady Arabah to reach Oboda and Mamfis, Nabatean towns in today's Israel, and eventually the ports of the Mediterranean Sea.
Pliny states that "The
Nabataei inhabit a city called Petra, in a hollow
somewhat less than two miles in circumference,
surrounded by inaccessible mountains, with a
stream running through it. (..) Strabo says, "The capital of the Nabataei is called Petra; it lies in a spot
which is in itself level and plain, but fortified all
round with a barrier of rocks and precipices;
within, it is furnished with springs of excellent quality, for the supply of water, and the irrigation of
gardens: without the precincts, the country is in a
great measure desert." Laborde
The extent of the monumental area of the town is rather small when compared to that over which the tombs are spread. When Burckhardt visited the site he could only establish by the number of broken stones that a town was there. Today archaeologists have been able to identify cardo maximus, the main north-south street of the town and to re-erect some of the columns which flanked it.
Archaeologists from Brown University, Rhode Island, USA have worked at the reconstruction of a temple built on terraces on the western side of cardo. It covers a large area and it was eventually utilized as a church.
Great Temple: (left) a small theatre or a "synthronon", a Byzantine addition at the centre of the temple after it was turned into a church; (centre) capital decorated with elephant heads; (right) Corinthian capital
The deities to whom the temple was dedicated have not been identified yet and the dating of the monument is a matter for discussion. Brown University archaeologists set its enlargement in the Ist century AD.
Gate and details of its reliefs
The Colonnaded Street ended with a monumental gate which has been partially reconstructed and associated with Emperor Hadrian, although evidence is very limited. The association is mainly based on the fact that many towns visited by the Emperor erected celebratory arches (e.g. Antalya and Jerash).
Kasr Bent Faraoun or Palace of Pharaoh's Daughter: details
Kasr Bent Faraoun was the only standing building Burckhardt saw. It is believed to have been a temple dedicated to Dushara, a local god who was eventually associated with Zeus. A cubical stone was worshipped inside the large cella.
The part of the town to the east of the Colonnaded Street (and of Wady Mousa) is still to be fully investigated by archaeologists. A temple named after some reliefs found on the site was probably dedicated to Atargatis, a Nabatean and Syrian goddess.
Church: (left) courtyard; (right) baptistery, similar to one at Mamfis, another Nabatean town
In the accounts
of the pilgrimages and sufferings of pious anchorites who visited the peninsula of Sinai, the Nabatheans are represented to us
sometimes under the most gloomy colours, sometimes under a pacific aspect. These variances may
be explained by the errant character of their existence, as well as by the uncertainty of their religious ideas, which fluctuated between ancient modes of belief and the impressions of a religion of simplicity and resignation. It is about this
period that we read especially of numerous conversions to Christianity, and of whole tribes having
placed themselves under the protection of the
cross. It was in this situation that Islamism found
them. There is nothing to indicate that when in
the course of its fanatical flight it (..) was much
thought of the Nabatheans, who, having
for a long period represented a rich and powerful
people, had become already confounded with the
nomade races. From that period the name of
Arab alone has been used to designate the inhabitants of these deserts. Laborde
Archaeologists have found a church built in the Vth century and subsequently enlarged at a short distance from the Temple of the Winged Lion. The overall complex was made up of the church, a square courtyard with porticoes and a small building housing a full-immersion baptismal font.
Church mosaics: (left) Oceanus; (right) a camel
The main nave had a marble floor, whereas the side naves were decorated with mosaics. They do not depict many Christian symbols and following a traditional pattern they portray Oceanus, a pagan personification of the river which encircled the world. Similar mosaics can be seen in churches at Madaba and at Umm ar-Rasas.
Church: (left and right-above) mosaics; (right-below) a pluteus
Archaeologists have found and reconstructed a pluteus or transennae, a marble parapet which (with others) indicated the area of the church reserved to priests. It was made in Constantinople and it is similar to those which embellish S. Clemente in Rome and identical to one in the Museum of Israel.
Return to notes - page one 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)