Siq al-Barid – ‘Little Petra’
Siq al-Barid, also called ‘Little Petra’ is a Nabataean site in the Ma’an Governorate of Jordan that features rock cut tombs, stone-built architecture, and a complex system of hydrological engineering.
Siq al-Barid was founded by the Nabataeans (also called Nabateans), a nomadic Bedouin tribe from the Arabian Desert who moved their herds across the desert in search of pastures and water.
The Nabataeans emerged as a distinct civilisation and political entity between the 4th and 2nd century BC, centred on the city of Petra which developed into a major trading hub reaching as far as China, Egypt, Greece, and India.
The kingdom became a client state of the Roman Republic in the first century BC and was annexed into the province of Arabia Petraea by the Roman Empire in AD 106.
Archaeologists propose that Siq al-Barid was founded in the 1st century BC, serving as a suburb of the nearby Petra city complex 6km to the south.
Located in a 450-metre wadi, Siq al-Barid was accessed via a narrow rock cut passageway on the eastern entrance, whilst a staircase on the western side led to a secluded mountain pass.
Within the wadi is a series of tombs, temples, cisterns, and banqueting halls (tricliniums) cut into the natural sandstone walls, suggesting that the site served as a resort for entertaining merchants and traders on their stopover in Petra.
Siq al-Barid has some of the only surviving Nabataean paintings, such as the Painted rock-cut Biclinium which depicts faux architectural elements reminiscent of some Pompeian wall paintings, and scenes of intertwining vines, flowers, figures, birds, and insects.
Several erotes (winged gods associated with love and the cultivation of wine) are also depicted that participate in viticulture management, using ladders and pruning hooks, carrying baskets of gathered grapes that lends weight to the attribution of the space as a centre of Dionysiac worship.
With the decline of the Nabataeans, Petra and Siq al-Barid were largely abandoned around the 8 th century AD.
Header Image Credit : Carole Raddato – CC BY-SA 2.0
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Petra: rock-cut façades
The rock-cut façades are the iconic monuments of Petra. Of these, the most famous is the so-called Treasury (or Khazneh), which appeared in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as the final resting place of the Holy Grail.
The so-called Treasury (Khazneh), of Petra (Jordan), 2nd century C.E. (photo: Richard White, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The prominence of the tombs in the landscape led many early explorers and scholars to see Petra as a large necropolis (cemetery) however, archaeology has shown that Petra was a well-developed metropolis with all of the trappings of a Hellenistic city.
Tombs at Petra (Jordan) (photo: Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0)
The tomb facades draw upon a rich array of Hellenistic and Near Eastern architecture and, in this sense, their architecture reflects the diverse and different cultures with which the Nabataeans traded, interacted, and even intermarried (King Aretas IV’s daughter was married to Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, whose mother was also Nabataean). Many of the tombs contain niches or small chambers for burials, cut into the stone walls. No human remains have ever been found in any of the tombs, and the exact funerary practices of the Nabataeans remain unknown.
The dating of the tombs has proved difficult as there are almost no finds, such as coins and pottery, that enable archaeologists to date these tombs a few inscriptions allow us to date some of the tombs at Petra, although at Egra, another Nabataean site (in modern Saudi Arabia), there are thirty-one dated tombs. Today scholars believe that the tombs were probably constructed when the Nabataeans were wealthiest between the second century B.C.E. and the early second century C.E. Archaeologists and art historians have identified a number styles for the tomb facades, but they all co-existed and cannot be used date the tombs. The few surviving inscriptions in Nabataean, Greek, and Latin tell us about the people who were buried in the tombs.
Hellenistic in style
The Treasury (Khazneh), Petra (Jordan), 2nd century C.E. (photo: Packwood / Shand, CC BY 2.0)
The Treasury’s façade (24.9 meters wide x 38.77 meters high) most clearly embodies the Hellenistic style and reflects the influence of Alexandria, the greatest city in the Eastern Mediterranean at this time. Its architecture features a broken pediment and central tholos (a circular building) on the upper level this architectural composition originated in Alexandria. Ornate Corinthian columns are used throughout. Above the broken pediments, the bases of two obelisks appear and stretch upwards into the rock.
The sculptural decoration also underscores a connection to the Hellenistic world. On the upper level, Amazons (bare-breasted) and Victories stand, flanking a central female figure (on the tholos), who is probably Isis-Tyche, a combination of the Egyptian Goddess, Isis, and Tyche, the Greek Goddess of good fortune. The lower level features the Greek twin gods, Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri, who protected travelers and the dead on their journeys. There are other details from the artistic traditions of the Hellenistic world, including eagles, the symbols of royal Ptolemies, vines, vegetation, kantharoi (vase with large handles), and acroteria (architectural ornaments on a pediment). However, the tomb also features rosettes, a design originally associated with the ancient Near East.
Relief sculpture and acroteria (detail), The Treasury (Khazneh), Petra (present-day Jordan), 2nd century C.E. (photo: Richard White, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
There are no inscriptions or ceramic evidence associated with the tomb that allows us to date it. Considering that it was located at the most important entrance to Petra through the Siq, it was probably a tomb for one of the Nabataean Kings. Aretas IV (reigned, 9 B.C.E. – 40 C.E.) is the most likely candidate, because he was the Nabataeans’ most successful ruler, and many buildings were erected in Petra during his reign.
The treasury was exceptional for its figurative detail and ornate Hellenistic architectural orders most tombs did not have figurative sculpture—a legacy of the Nabataean artistic tradition that was largely aniconic, or non-figurative. Many of the smaller tombs were less complex and also drew far less upon the artistic conventions of the Hellenistic world, suggesting that the Nabataeans combined the artistic traditions of the East and West in many different and unique ways.
It is a popular misconception that all of the rock-cut monuments, which number over 3,000, were all tombs. In fact, many of the other rock-cut monuments were living quarters or monumental dining rooms with interior benches. Of these, the Monastery (also known as ed-Deir) is most the famous. Even the large theater, constructed in the first century B.C.E., was cut into the rock of Petra.
So-called Monastery, or ed-Deir, Petra (Jordan) (photo: April Rinne, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Much like the Treasury (discussed above), ed-Deir was not a monastery, but rather behind its façade was a monumental cella (the inner chamber of a temple) with a large area for dining with a cultic podium at the back. While no traces of decoration remain today, the room would have been plastered and painted. The façade again features a broken pediment around a central tholos, but its decoration is more abstract and less figurative than that of the Treasury. The column capitals are typically Nabataean, modeled on the Corinthian order, but abstracted. The façade features a Doric entablature, but rather than having figures in the metopes, roundels with no decoration appear. Thus, while the Monastery deploys many elements of Classical architecture, it does so in a unique way.
Nabataean Rock-cut Tomb in Petra - History
Figure 1. The Treasury, or Khazneh, of Petra (photo: E. Macaulay-Lewis)
The rock-cut façades are the iconic monuments of Petra. Of these, the most famous is the so-called Treasury, or Khazneh, which appeared in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as the final resting place of the Holy Grail. The prominence of the tombs in the landscape led many early explorers and scholars to see Petra as a large necropolis however, archaeology has shown that Petra was a well-developed metropolis with all of the trappings of a Hellenistic city.
The tomb façades draw upon a rich array of Hellenistic and Near Eastern architecture and, in this sense, their architecture reflects the diverse and different cultures with which the Nabateans traded, interacted, and even intermarried (King Aretas IV’s daughter was married to Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, whose mother was also Nabataean). Many of the tombs contain niches or small chambers for burials, cut into the stone walls. No human remains have ever been found in any of the tombs, and the exact funerary practices of the Nabataeans remain unknown.
The dating of the tombs has proved difficult as there are almost no finds, such as coins and pottery, that enable archaeologists to date these tombs a few inscriptions allow us to date some of the tombs at Petra, although at Egra, another Nabataean site in modern Saudi Arabia, there are thirty-one dated tombs. Today scholars believe that the tombs were probably constructed when the Nabateans were wealthiest between the second century BCE and the early second century CE Archaeologists and art historians have identified a number styles for the tomb façades, but they all co-existed and cannot be used date the tombs. The few surviving inscriptions in Nabataean, Greek, and Latin tell us about the people who were buried in these tombs.
The Treasury’s façade (24.9 m W × 38.77 m H) most clearly embodies the Hellenistic style and reflects the influence of Alexandria, the greatest city in the Eastern Mediterranean at this time (see the photograph at the top of this page). Its architecture features a broken pediment and central tholos (a circular building) on the upper level this architectural composition originated in Alexandria. Ornate Corinthian columns are used throughout. Above the broken pediments, the bases of two obelisks appear and stretch upwards into the rock.
The sculptural decoration also underscores a connection to the Hellenistic world. On the upper level, Amazons (bare-breasted) and Victories stand, flanking a central female figure (on the tholos), who is probably Isis-Tyche, a combination of the Egyptian Goddess, Isis, and Tyche, the Greek Goddess of good fortune. The lower level features the Greek twin gods, Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri, who protected travelers and the dead on their journeys. There are other details from the artistic traditions of the Hellenistic world, including eagles, the symbols of royal Ptolemies vines vegetation kantharoi (vase with large handles) and acroteria (architectural ornaments on a pediment). However, the tomb also features rosettes, a design originally associated with the ancient Near Eastern.
There are no inscriptions or ceramic evidence associated with the tomb that allows us to date it. Considering that it was located at the most important entrance to Petra through the Siq, it was probably a tomb for one of the Nabataean Kings. Aretas IV (reigned, 9 BCE–40 CE) is the most likely candidate, because he was the Nabataeans’ most successful ruler, and many buildings were erected in Petra during his reign.
Figure 2. Tombs at Petra (photo: E. Macaulay-Lewis)
The treasury was exceptional for its figurative detail and ornate Hellenistic architectural orders most tombs did not have figurative sculpture, a legacy of the Nabataean artistic tradition that was largely aniconic, or non-figurative. Many of the smaller tombs were less complex and also drew far less upon the artistic conventions of the Hellenistic world, suggesting that the Nabataeans combined the artistic traditions of the East and West in many different and unique ways.
It is a popular misconception that all of the rock-cut monuments, which number over 3,000, were all tombs. In fact, many of the other rock-cut monuments were living quarters or monumental dining rooms with interior benches. Of these, the Monastery (also known as ed-Deir) is most the famous. Even the large theater, constructed in the first century BCE, was cut into the rock of Petra.
Figure 3. The Monastery, or ed-Deir (photo: E. Macaulay-Lewis)
Much like the Treasury, ed-Deir was not a monastery, but rather behind its façade was a monumental cella (the inner chamber of a temple) with a large area for dining with a cultic podium at the back. While no traces of decoration remain today, the room would have been plastered and painted. The façade again features a broken pediment around a central tholos, but its decoration is more abstract and less figurative than that of the Treasury. The column capitals are typically Nabataean, modeled on the Corinthian order, but abstracted. The façade features a Doric entablature, but rather than having figures in the metopes, roundels with no decoration appear. Thus, while the Monastery deploys many elements of Classical architecture, it does so in a unique way.
Tombs in Petra
This page attempts to enlist all the known Tombs in Petra (المقابر في البتراء). There are eight designs of tombs in Nabataean architecture. They are distinguished by the complexity of their carvings and whether they have columns, pediments or arches.
Cite this article
Tombs in Petra (n.d.). Retrieved on June 21, 2021, from https://madainproject.com/tombs_in_petra
Tombs in Petra. Madain Project, madainproject.com/tombs_in_petra.
"Tombs in Petra.” Madain Project, n.d. https://madainproject.com/tombs_in_petra.
Note: Always review your references and make any necessary corrections before using. Pay attention to names, capitalization, and dates.
List of Notable Tombs
The al-Khazneh (the Treasury) at Petra is the most iconic archaelogical site. The structure is believed to have been the mausoleum of the Nabatean King Aretas IV in the 1st century CE. It became to be known as "Al-Khazneh", or The Treasury, in the early 19th century by the area's Bedouins as they had believed it contained treasures. Although the purpose of the Treasury is unclear, a burial crypt was found directly beneath it. There are no inscriptions or ceramic evidence associated with the tomb that allows us to directly date it.
Tomb of prophet Aaron
The Tomb of Aaron is a small shrine over the top of the Jabl Haroun in Petra. It is a small white shrine covering the supposed grave of Prophet Haroun brother of prophet Moses. The 14th-century Mamluk mosque which stands here with its white dome is visible from most areas in and around Petra. This site at Jabal Hārūn (Aaron's Mountain) is occasionally visited by Jewish pilgrims as well as Muslims. A tablet with Arabic inscription over the entrance states that the shrine was built by Mohammad ibn Qalawun, in the year 739 of the Hegira (about 1363 CE).
The so called Urn tomb, suggested to belong to the Nabataean King Malchus II who died in 70 CE. The vaults supporting the terrace as-sun (prison) – perhaps myth, or reflecting a later use. It is one of the so-called one of the Royal Tombs. The tomb is located on the East Ridge (also called the East Cliff), in the side of the mountain known as al-Khubta, above Wadi Musa. To the north of the Urn Tomb is the Silk Tomb, and north of that is the (mis)called Corinthian.
The facade of the Palace Tomb, the lower part consists of 12 decorated columns and four gates. The second portal from the left is one of the most detriorated. The four portals lead in to four separate burial chambers, with three distinct stories in it's facade. It is one of the so-called Royal Tombs. Meant to resemble a palace, it measures about 50 meters width and is almost as high, with part of the upper levels built instead of carved out of the rock. It was probably erected near the end of the Nabataean period at the end of the 1st century CE.
Silk Tomb takes its name from majestic multi- colored layers of rock that appear like a silk drapery over a tomb. Located next to the distinctive Urn Tomb in the Royal Tomb group is the so-called Silk Tomb, noteworthy for the stunning swirls of pink-, white- and yellow-veined rock in its facade. The Silk Tomb is highly damaged by environmental influences with the entire facade surface gone exposing the underlying multicolored sandstone giving this tomb its name.
The al-Deir Monastery was built by the Nabataeans in the 1st century and measuring 50 metres (160 ft) wide by approximately 45 metres (148 ft) high, architecturally the Monastery is an example of the Nabatean Classical style. It is the second most visited building in Petra after al-Khazneh. The Deir's facade is comparable to the Khazneh in each building, the upper story is designed as a broken pediment, interrupted by a tholos that is topped by a large urn. However, the plain (though impressive) facade of the Deir lacks the fine detailing that is found on the face of the Khazneh.
Roman Soldier's Tomb
Recent archaeological evidence at the Nabataean tomb known as 'Roman Soldier Tomb' has indicated that this well-proportioned facade was probably part of a complex that included in front of it giving an interesting new insight into nabataean architecture, the tomb was accessible through a large courtyard with porticos and two-story buildings on both sides and a triclinium opposite the entrance. The main building phase of the tomb complex took place during the third quarter of the 1st century CE.
The so-called Corinthian Tomb, one of the most sadly eroded façades in Petra. The whole design – including its columns and floral capitals – was clearly modelled on that of the Treasury, but its squat proportions and eclectic style make it less aesthetically pleasing. It is believed to date from the reign of Malichus II (40-70 CE), but no name has been associated with its construction.
Tomb of Sextius Florentinus
The tomb of Sextius Florentinus is the only tomb in Petra with an identifiable occupant. A Latin inscription over the doorway indicates that the tomb belonged to Roman governor Sextius Florentinus, who oversaw the province of Arabia. His dying wish was to be buried in Petra and his tomb was carved around 130 CE. It is located a few hundred metres around the hill from the Royal Tombs. Unlike many other tombs, the interior is worth a look for the clearly discernible loculi (graves) there are five carved into the back wall and three on the right.
Obelisk Tomb is located between the Petra Visitor Centre and the entrance to the Siq (south side of the path), there is a fine tomb with four pyramidal obelisks, built as funerary symbols by the Nabataeans in the 1st century BCE. The four obelisks, together with the eroded human figure in the centre, probably represent the five people buried in the tomb. It is an elaborate two story tomb carved from the solid rock. Its facade is an elaborate mixture of Egyptian, Greek, Indian and Nabataean architectural styles.
Turkamaniya Tomb, large hall from which a narrow passageway leads to an equally large burial hall. The first hall was probably used as a dining room. This kind of arrangement can be seen in other tombs easily accessible to tourists, such as the Obelisk tomb, the Treasury, and the Urn Tomb. The Turkamaniya Tomb inscription mentions graves, chambers, a courtyard, porticos, dwelling places, gardens, dining hall, water cisterns, terraces, and walls.
Street of Facades
Street of Facades also known as the Outer Siq or Theater Necropolis is lined with tall, impressive tombs, with large facades or false faces on their fronts and leads down into the heart of the city proper. It is considered by some experts to be the oldest burial burial ground in Petra. On both sides, there are a number of Nabataean burial interfaces decorated with grindstones along with other decorations and some of these interfaces were destroyed by natural factors, it is believed that these interfaces represents some of the senior officials in the city or princes.
Uneishu Tomb among the lesser tombs, the name comes from the inscription found nearby, presumably the surname of the family once buried inside. The tomb’s tall façade flanked by two columns with a double cornice is called a Hegr design. On the right is a much smaller version of the same architectural style. Historians believe the Uneishu Tomb was built for the “brother” or chief minister of Shaqilath II, a Nabataean queen. It was constructed around 76 CE.
The Unfinished tomb showing carving method of beginning from the top and working downward. El-Habis. Had it been finished it would have been the most elaborate and the largest tomb structure. This unfinished façade reveals a lot of information about both the effort expended and the process used by Nabatean masons in carving deeply into the irregular cliff face. The reasons why tombs such as this one remained unfinished aren't very clear.
The elegant façade of Renaissance Tomb with an intricately-made set of crowns and six Nabataean jars. crowned by a gable that has three funerary urns at the corners framed by Nabataean engaged pilasters. The interior has rock- carved loculi that were not used for burials the tomb may be dated to 2nd century CE. The tomb is called 'Renaissance Tomb' because the archivolt with an urn on top evokes such elements of the Italian Renaissance architecture.
Broken Pediment Tomb
Broken pediment tomb located in Wadi Farasa, is thought to have been carved in the 1st century CE.
In the area of al-Habis bedouins had taken over some of the tombs as residential structures. When Jordan authorities established the archaeological area of Petra they had to evict some Bedouins who living in these. According to Burckhardt no one lived in these on his travel to Jabl al-Haroun where he sacrificed a goat.
The Nabataeans of Ancient Arabia
Known the world over for their hauntingly beautiful cities of Petra and Mada’in Saleh and engineering acumen, the Nabataeans of ancient Arabia were the middlemen in the long distance trade between the ancient Mediterranean and South Arabia. Mysterious and beguiling, their legacy endures across time and space in the Arabic script and in the sophistication of their cities, carved out of the harsh desert landscape.
Dr. Laïla Nehmé
In this exclusive interview, Dr. Laïla Nehmé , a senior research scientist at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, speaks to James Blake Wiener of Ancient History Encyclopedia (AHE) about the creative genius of the Nabataeans.
JW: What do we know about the origins of the Nabataeans, Dr. Nehmé? Written records from the Nabataean kingdom are limited, and there are only a few surviving documents in addition to scattered inscriptions and graffiti about them in Aramaic.
LN: There have been various attempts, in the past, to determine where the Nabataeans originally come from, and it has been suggested that their homeland was southern Arabia. There, they would have acquired skills in hydraulics. They could have also originated in eastern Arabia, where parallels for the earliest Nabataean monumental tombs have been identified, or possibly northern Arabia, where they would have led a nomadic lifestyle before settling in Petra in the fourth or third century BCE.
It is, however, not necessarily useful to think in terms of “origin,” as the Nabataeans are better thought of as an “Arab” people who lived for several centuries at the confluence and on the margins of various kingdoms and empires — the Seleucids, Ptolemies, Romans, and Hasmoneans. They borrowed customs, aesthetics, and technology from them. Nonetheless, they added their own concepts and ideas, producing a unique cultural syncretism. They were “Arabs” because most of their names are of Arabian origin and because they probably spoke an early form of Arabic, even if they wrote in Aramaic letters
Rock graffiti and inscriptions at Petra, which is located in present-day Jordan. (Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Nehmé.)
There are very few records that come from the Nabataeans themselves: A few papyri, which are mainly private contracts, and thousands of graffiti scattered on the rocks, 90% of which contain only the name of the individual who wrote it, his father’s name, and a formulaic greeting. Fortunately, ancient authors like Diodorus of Sicily (fl. 50 BCE), Strabo (64 or 63 BCE-c. 24 CE), Flavius Josephus (c. 37-100 CE) and others, describe the manners and customs of the Nabataeans. These sources allow us to immerse ourselves in their daily life and religion, or in the political and military events that punctuated their history.
JW: The Nabataeans became wealthy from the “Incense Trade.” Do we know how they came to dominate this trade route with the kingdoms of South Arabia? Would it be fair to say that the trade of myrrh and frankincense was their “lifeblood”?
LN: It is true that the Nabataeans became wealthy because they were involved — and we know they were from the end of the fourth century BCE onward — in the long-distance trade of incense and aromatics, which they conveyed from at least central and northern Arabia to the Mediterranean harbors through the caravan routes and stations they controlled. They were certainly skilled cameleers, and they knew how to travel across arid lands because they were familiar with the watering places.
Triclinium or banqueting hall in Mada’in Saleh. (Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Nehmé.)
They were therefore able to play a substantial part in the lucrative trade of these products, which the Mediterranean world was so eager to import. Of course, this wealth came also from the taxes on the goods, which were paid to them in the various caravan stations. In this context, trade was certainly their ‘lifeblood’, but they pursued many other activities, including agriculture, pastoralism, and viticulture. This is the case around Petra — where many Nabataean grape presses were found — and in the Arabian oases. In Mada’in Saleh (ancient Hegra), located in present-day Saudi Arabia, for instance, one finds that irrigated agriculture was undertaken: Palm trees, cereals, legumes, and fruit trees were grown. Cotton, a plant which requires significant water, was also cultivated in Mada’in Saleh. The Nabataeans were familiar with weaving, pottery manufacturing, and metalwork as well.
JW: One cannot deny that the Nabataeans were also skilled engineers they built beautiful cities — like their capital Petra and the metropolis Mada’in Saleh — which are filled with rock-cut monumental tombs, wide avenues, impressive theaters, and elaborately ornamented façades. In the middle of the Negev Desert, the Nabataeans developed a complex system of water collection that provided them with ample water year round.
How were the Nabataeans able to accomplish such feats given the rugged terrain and lack of natural resources in the region?
LN: It should be noted that Nabataean cities and settlements existed in what is present-day Jordan, Syria, Israel, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and Saudi Arabia. The Nabataeans had many skills in building, hydraulics, and agriculture, which they must have acquired through a process we unfortunately know nothing about. It seems to me that the two keywords which explain best their achievements are “adaptation” and “opportunism.”
An ancient Nabataean well in Mada’in Saleh, reused in modern times. (Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Nehmé.)
The first because they were able to adapt to diverse environments and apply to each the appropriate technical solution the second, because although most of these environments were difficult — they were tough or lacked water resources — they made the most of it. The Nabataeans exploited and made good use of all available resources. I will give two examples in order to collect water, the Nabataeans resorted to two very different strategies in Petra and in Mada’in Saleh.
In Petra, they brought the water down from the springs, which still flow a few kilometers east of the city center, through a sophisticated system of canals. Additionally, at a more local level, in the various districts around the city center, they dug a series of interconnected small canals and settling basins, each of which lead to one of the 200 Nabataean cisterns identified so far in Petra. This provided each family or group of families with enough water for their daily use. In Mada’in Saleh, which lies in an alluvial plain where the water table was only a few meters below the ground in ancient times, there is no such thing. The Nabataeans had no choice but to exploit this water table, which they did by successfully digging 130 wells, at more or less regular intervals, thus turning their surroundings into a luxuriant oasis.
A Nabataean tomb in Mada’in Saleh in the upper part of which one can see the quarry work. (Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Nehmé.)
The other example of ingenuity that comes to everyone’s mind is the Nabataeans’ ability to take advantage of the rocky landscape in the places where they settled: Petra, Mada’in Saleh, and Al-Bad‘ (in present-day Saudi Arabia). Rock cut monuments were not only the best solution to build tombs and other monuments in these natural settings, but they were also the most efficient way to obtain building material since every tomb site was treated as a quarry before the surface of the rock was more finely carved and decorated.
JW: How do Nabataean burial practices and funerary architecture differ from those of their neighbors in the Arabian Peninsula and Near East? What makes them so distinct and of great interest and importance to archaeologists?
LN: Excellent question, James. One should first make a distinction between funerary architecture and burial practices. The former is indeed very specific to the Nabataeans, particularly with regard to the rock cut architecture. A rock cut tomb with a motif of crow steps at its top, an Egyptian gorge below it, a pilaster on each side of the façade, and a triangular pediment sitting on top of the door cannot be anything but “Nabataean.” Therefore, the discovery of such a tomb at a site somewhere between Damascus and Khaybar, in the Hejaz, is a decisive argument for Nabataean occupation i.e., it is a “diagnostic” feature, as is also Nabataean fine ware painted pottery.
An ancient Nabataean wine press north of Petra. (Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Nehmé.)
As for the burial practices, on which our excavations in Mada’in Saleh have recently shed light in an unprecedented way, they do not differ fundamentally from that of their neighbors, at least not in general terms. The Nabataeans like their neighbors used shrouds and wooden coffins, ointments, and made funerary deposits. What makes them of great interest to archaeologists is the detail with which one can reproduce the burial process. This is true especially in Mada’in Saleh: The deceased was undressed and anointed — probably at home — with a mixture of vegetable resins and fatty acids. They were then wrapped into three layers of textiles of decreasing fineness — two of linen and one of animal hair — separated by the same mixture and maintained together with straps. Thus arranged, the body was finally put in a leather wrapper and carried from the house to the tomb by means of a leather transportation shroud equipped with handles. This is all very new, and it adds a lot to the information already available.
JW: The decline of the Nabataeans is a topic that archaeologists and historians continue to debate. What do you believe the archaeological record shows? Their civilization seemed to flourish independently and then as a Roman client-state until about the third century CE.
LN: The Nabataean kingdom flourished for about two hundred years as an independent kingdom, which did not prevent it from becoming a client state of Rome during the second half of the first century BCE. Alliances, important decisions, and territorial expansion were certainly undertaken with Rome’s implicit consent. However, the kingdom was nevertheless independent and managed its internal affairs in the manner it had always done with a king at its head, an administration which issued Nabataean currency, and provincial governors installed across the provinces.
Close-up of a Nabataean “canal” (the line above the rock-cut chambers) in Petra. (Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Nehmé.)
In 106 CE, this “political” independence was lost because the whole of the Nabataean territory was annexed by the Roman emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 CE) in order to form a new Roman province — adequately called the “Province of Arabia.” It should be known, however, that the Nabataeans did not suddenly and altogether disappear. Most of them must have remained in the cities where they lived, went on using the Nabataean alphabet until the mid-fourth century CE, and continued to give typical Nabataean names to their children. (Names, particularly those derived from the names of their kings and gods such as “Obodas,” remained popular.) They additionally maintained their pottery tradition until the sixth century CE as is evidenced by the pottery kilns located around Petra.
Although archaeology and epigraphy tell us that the Nabataean kingdom disappeared as a political entity, aspects of the Nabataean culture endured for several centuries. That being acknowledged, archaeology also tells unexpected things: The excavation of several triclinia — banqueting halls — in Mada’in Saleh. showed that these structures stopped being used as meeting places for Nabataean fraternal societies soon after the Roman take over. The Romans did not see with a favorable eye meeting places where political discussions were certainly flying around!
Textile fragment unearthed at Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Nehmé.)
JW: What is the greatest legacy of the Nabataeans in your estimation, Dr. Nehmé? How should we best remember them and their various achievements?
LN: Asking this question to a person who is both an archaeologist and an epigraphist leads indubitably to two answers. The first is of course their monumental rock cut tombs, and one will certainly not need Indiana Jones’ Last Crusade final scene to remember the Khazneh in Petra, and all the smaller monuments they cut into the rocks. All we can hope for is that they do not suffer too much from environmental and human depredations in the future. The second is probably more surprising for a non-academic public, and that is the Arabic script.
At the time when Arabic started to be written by people who spoke Arabic and used Arabic in their written documents (in the administration and chancelleries), Nabataean was the only script of prestige, which survived in the area where this happened: northwest Arabia. The script was indigenous, more or less adequate, and not used exclusively by the nomads. The most important legacy of the Nabataeans, although they were not aware of it, is therefore the Arabic script, which now used by millions of people around the world.
Cisterns can be found all over Petra in present-day Jordan, while there is only one cistern in Mada’in Saleh. (Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Nehmé.)
JW: Dr. Nehmé, thank you for sharing your thoughts about this most interesting ancient culture. We look forward to following your research and activities!
LN: You are very welcome, James! Hopefully in the near future, I shall be continuing to run with my European and Saudi colleagues the excavations at Mada’in Saleh, mainly the ones we have started in the residential area, including a Roman fortified camp, a Nabataean sanctuary, a monumental gate along a rampart, and a large residential unit. I would also like to continue the publication of the material I have collected, which sheds light on the development of the Nabataean script into Arabic: The inscriptions themselves, the analysis of the script, of the orthography, of the personal names they contain, and their distribution.
Finding who is responsible for the development of the Arabic script is a fascinating challenge. Finally, considering that since I started archaeology, 30 years ago, I moved south from Syria to Jordan and from there to Saudi Arabia, I would happily extend my investigation area to Egypt, where the Nabataeans were present — east of the Nile and in the Sinai peninsula — and, in the short-term, to the region immediately south of Mada’in Saleh, where the Nabataeans were very active in ancient times. All of this means setting up new projects, which is a long and time consuming part of our job as researchers.
Nabataean Rock-cut Tomb in Petra - History
Nabataean City of Petra (Jordan)
Nabataean Petra began around 300 BC from nomadic settlement origins. The city was also occupied starting around 106 AD with final occupation to the 7th century AD. Petra location was located between Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian territories. As a result over time many exterior cultural, political, and technological influenced the history of the Nabataean City. The Nabataean kingdom included Jordan, the Hawran in southern Syria, Sinai, the Negev, a large part of the Hijaz in north-western Arabia, and for a short time it even included Damascus. The verb “nabat” in Arabic means for water “to percolate from underground to the surface.”
Petra’s location as an intersection for caravan trade from Arabia, Africa, and the Far East sustained the life and wealth of the city and allowing appropriate water supply infrastructure for its survival as a result of the complex topography and the limited water resources of the area. Water infrastructure technology passed on through the ages obviously from the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Minoan, Hellenistic Greeks, and the Romans, Petra was able to develop magnificent water infrastructure for the arid area. The Nabataeans had a tremendous understanding of the natural flow of water in the unique surroundings. Water infrastructure included terraces, channels, settling basins, aqueducts, dams, rainwater harvesting, flood harvesting, groundwater harvesting, a large range of size and types of cisterns, reservoirs created by dams, water distribution tanks, and springs. Throughout the Petra area there are hundreds of cisterns.
Road to entrance along Wadi Musa
Near entrance along Wadi Musa
At entrance showing new additions for diverting flows from the Siq and the ancient tunnel built by the Nabataeans for diverting flows from the Siq
Entrance to Siq where Wadi Musa originally flowed.
Flood bypass tunnel built by the Nabataeans near entrance to the Siq from Wadi Musa into Wadi Mudhlim through the tunnel W. Bachmann’s 1917 reconstruction of the entrance to the Siq with the plan above and the elevation above. Also shown is the location of the flood bypass tunnel.
Aqueduct along Siq , which is Wadi Musa.
Outlet from cistern/settling basin
Wadi Qantara inlet with newly constructed dam structure in the background. Cross-drainage structure for water channel (aqueduct) is shown with the two outlets.
Wadi Qantara inlet showing the rock-cut steps to the sanctuary in the western cliff.
Aqueduct channel showing rock cover that once covered the aqueduct
Stilling basin in Siq at bottom of Wadi Jilf after restoration.
Shows stilling basin at outlet of Wadi Jilf. Two outlets in cross-drainage structure in background.
Settling basin along aqueduct in the Siq
View of aqueduct along Siq
Along Siq showing aqueducts on both sides.
At end of Siq is the Treasury (Al Khazna)
Steps of the path to the High Place of Sacrfice along Wadi Al-Mahfur
The High Place of Sacrifice. Notice the outlet on the right for cleaning the sacrifice area.
Small sacrifice area with drain and carved out area that could also collect water carved out chamber for storage of water.
Cistern at the High Place
Cistern at Triclinium of the Garden measures 18.2 m long, 6 m wide and 3.6 m deep.
Retaining wall for cistern with an outlet
Basin below the retaining wall of large cistern
The Garden Tomb with the cistern retaining wall on the right at the Triclinium
Showing Garden of the Tomb and the retaining wall
Small cistern showing the foundations for the arches covering the cistern at the Garden Tomb Sedimentation basin on path (steps) down from High Place to Triclinium
Another view of sedimentation basin on path (steps) down from High Place to Triclinimum
Channel leading into cistern
Cistern filled with sediment, channel leading to cistern in background.
Channel leading along steps
Channel Showing small cistern and channel
Showing a natural system of runoff. Water harvesting cavities can form at the base of this type of natural system.
Nabataean city of Little Petra
In Little Petra looking back to entrance.
A cistern at the base of the cliff.
Note the level of the water in the cistern.
Entrance to large cistern near entrance to Little Petra
Inside large cistern. To the right and above is where water entered the cistern
Inside large cistern showing opening where water enters cistern.
Outside of large cistern showing entrance and where water flows over the cliff to enter the cistern.
Wadi Al-M’aysra Ash Sharqiyya
Reservoir embankment (dam) along Wadi
Lower reservoir showing upper reservoir in the background.
Embankment for upper reservoir.
Looking downstream at two reservoirs.
Settling basin for flow entering the larger cistern
Shows the settling basin and the cistern
Settling basin and cistern
Cistern near entrance to Little Petra showing that the cistern was modified at some time
Cistern showing channel into the cistern
Cistern entrance and water channels leading to cistern
Cistern with steps receiving tank to left and then the settling tank.
Cistern with settling basin and shows steps down into cistern
Cistern with receiving tank and settling basin
Nabataean city of ancient Hawara, modern Humayma or “Humeima”
Humayma was a small trading post and caravan way-station, founded by the Nabataean King Aretas III in the 80’s B.C.
The water management system was impressively developed for the settlement area taking in account the runoff potential of the area and the ability to design the settlement to capture the water.
Reservoir possibly swimming pool)
Each corner of reservoir (swimming pool) above has the step.
Cistern that has been referred as a flood harvesting system.
Closer view of cistern showing the arches used to support the cistern roof
Rock-cut cistern with plaster on walls and support locations for the arch cover.
Settling tank for reservoir in above two photos showing aqueduct in background
The Ancient City Of Jordan – Petra
Petra At Its Heights
From the parts of the ancient city of Petra, they come to realize that around AD 50 the city of Petra was having its brilliant days. Right from the first century BC up to the first century AD, Petra was one of the global focuses of business and society. The Nabataean merchants were offering luxury products, for example, fragrances, flavor and materials to Greece, Egypt and Rome.
Despite the fact that it was forsake the Nabataeans succeeded in tackling water and abruptly the populace in Petra rose to 20000. The stunning sanctuaries, around 3000 stone-cut tombs, the meal corridors, sacred places and residences exhibit the designing, construction modeling, innovation and masterfulness of the Nabataeans.
They made all the structures seem staggering by enhancing them with brilliant paints and covering with stucco. The most energizing piece of Petra history is the mechanical advancement brought by the Nabataeans encouraging the blasting of the populace. They built up the innovation to give watering system to products and enclosures by bridling the natural springs. In that abandon land they had an innovatively proficient arrangement of pools and stores.
The history Petra city is the historical backdrop of the Nabataeans who built up the city and made it the flourishing capital of Nabataea. The Nabataeans were exceedingly influential and in addition rich. They took pride in the improvement of Petra and they considered the city of Petra as their crown gem. Amid the first century BC these desert dealers had the control of the incense and zest exchange everywhere throughout the Arabian Peninsula. The source of these transients and also and the purpose behind their movement to Petra is still a puzzle.
The individuals who lived in Petra
The city of Petra was the home for around 20000 individuals. As per Petra history realities, they included Nabataeans, Romans and agents from different parts of the antiquated world. The late archeological inquires about uncover that the business group in Petra was driving sumptuous lives. The stoneware’s that they utilized were exorbitant and they had bronze lights that were lit in the nights. Then again, the picture of the normal existence of the non-world class, who lived in houses made of mud blocks and who utilized a modest mixed bag of stoneware is still not clear.
God And Goddess
The archeological discoveries about Petra history uncover that Petra was an aggregation of different religious customs of close-by areas – Arabia, Edom, Egypt and Syria. Then again, all the customs had the impact of Greek society. In all the customs they venerated two gods – the god and the goddess. As indicated by old Petra history the god and goddess were known as Dushara and al – Uzza. The Dushara was considered as the preeminent divine force of the universe identical to Zeus, the Greek god. Al – ‘Uzza was viewed as equivalent to the Greco-Roman god Venus – the goddess of thriving and fruitfulness. The stone-cut sanctuaries and the corners recorded inside uncover the Petra history truths about individual and also family love. Collective blowouts, different religious celebrations and remembrance service for the expired were parts of the Nabataean love and the meal rooms were utilized for all these purposes.
A Structural Geological Study of the Tombs of Nabataean Petra
Many studies have discussed the first century BC to first century AD Nabataean rock-cut monuments in the Nabataean city of Petra, Jordan. These surveys provide information about proposed chronologies for the façade tombs and limited data about burial customs of the Nabataeans themselves. One neglected topic is the Nabataean tomb placement in relation to the structural geology of the Petra region. During the 2014 field season of the BYU Ad-Deir Monument and Plateau project, it was discovered that the Ad-Deir Monument was built between geologic faults and fractures, suggesting that the Nabataeans used these features to carve the façade. In order to study the Nabataean knowledge of geology and the landscape used in the placement of their tombs, I have been working on a survey of the Petra façade tombs, with an emphasis on their relationship to the local and regional faults and fractures. This poster will showcase some of my findings.
A fter a satisfying visit to Wadi Rum, we drove to Wadi Musa to be received by our host Nawwaf and his cousin Khaled, who calls himself the King. After a hearty dinner of tangy lemony lentils and bread I went to bed excited to be on the verge of realising a dream.
At 7:30 am, with our tickets we entered the star attraction of Jordan. Walking through a narrow canyon called the Siq is thrilling because as you are mesmerised by the ever-changing colours of the stone, lo and behold — the Treasury, Al-Khazneh of Petra suddenly appears! This Nabataean rock-cut building is a splendid work of art.
Admiring the pinkish street of façades past tombs until the amphitheatre, I climbed to the High Place of Sacrifice which offers breathtaking views of Petra. You quickly understand why this magnificent site is called Petra, which means stone in Greek. The paths up and down are lined with hypnotic hues. On the way we encountered Amina, a Bedouin jeweller and craftswoman who made tea for us, and Taman, a girl who declared that she would never get married for she disliked men. Even though she seemed quite determined we all thought it was just a passing phase that everyone goes through!
Back down, we visited the Garden Tomb in its impressive setting and the Triclinium, its colourful stones and interiors. The Nabataean Arabs were not only master sculptors but also excellent at collecting water here in the desert. Petra, then known as Raqmu, located at an important trade route for caravans was thus controlled by these nomadic Arabs.
Making a brief stop at the colonnaded street of the Great Temple and 1st century Qasr al-Bint dedicated to the god Dushara, we trekked up to the Monastery. On the way up, we met Khaled — the King, not our driver. He was busy attending to his souvenir shop. We made a brief halt to catch a breath and a drink of cool juice.
Ascending further, the Monastery Al-Deir appears as dramatically as the Treasury and is as stunning in its architecture. This 1st century BC structure is Petra’s biggest. From up here, the views of the mountains and Wadi Araba are to die for. We spent a lot of time gazing at the spectacular views on every side until hunger got the better of us.
We climbed down to Khaled’s shop where he cooked us a simple yet wholesome lunch of eggs and tomatoes with some of the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted (and yes, I’m counting Italy, Spain, France and Greece) and flat bread. Sated, we all walked down with the stones now looking more pink and purple in the afternoon sun.
The visit ended with the Royal tombs, the Palace tomb, the Urn tomb and the Silk tomb. The changing colours in the light of the setting sun added to Petra’s splendour. The amphitheatre looked even more rose-red than in the morning. Alas, it was time for the site to close and all visitors were asked to leave. Our Bedouin host and guide took us away from the entrance on a strenuous trek in the desert sand allowing me to keep glancing over my shoulder to savour my last views of this majestic landscape. The colours continued to change until it got dark and the lights of Jebel Musa were visible in the distance.
We went to Khaled’s house, met his family and waited until Nawwaf picked us up and took us to his cave where we spent the night. Unfortunately, it was too dark to see anything. Inside he cooked a dish of kofta which we merrily washed down with arak and went to bed. It was quite a unique experience and a great way to end our stay in one of the wonders of the world.
UNESCO has listed Petra as a threatened site due to flooding, improper draining and of course mass tourism among others. It is ironic that the ancient Nabataeans masterfully controlled floods and collected water but in the 21st century, this site is endangered. Let us hope that adequate measures are taken so that many more visitors can pay homage to the skills of our ancestors and our collective heritage for centuries more in precious Petra.