A Visual Tour of Petra: The Siq
Umm Sayhun, Jordan
Petra was established sometime around the 6th century BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans—a nomadic Arab tribe that migrated from western Arabia and settled in modern-day Jordan, dominating the lands during pre-Roman times.
As the Nabateans forsook their purely nomadic lifestyle and settled in Petra, they grew rich by levying taxes on passing caravans to ensure safe passage through their lands. Taxing the popular trade routes turned out to be much more effective than raiding them.
Excavations have demonstrated that it was the ability of the Nabataeans to control the water supply that led to the rise of the desert city, creating an artificial oasis. The area is visited by flash floods and archaeological evidence shows that the Nabataeans controlled these floods by the use of dams, cisterns and water conduits. These innovations stored water for prolonged periods of drought, and enabled the city to prosper.
The entrance to Petra is a long, winding sandstone chasm known as the Siq. To reach the start of it, visitors must first walk about a half-mile along the wide valley known as the Bab as-Siq.
Obelisk Tomb and Bab as-Siq Triclinium
The first major monument visitors encounter in Petra is actually two separate monuments, stacked on top of each other: the Obelisk Tomb (on top) and the Bab as-Siq Triclinium (below).
The four great obelisks of the tomb, along with a figure in a niche in the center, guard a rock-hewn cave containing burials. The lower half, the Bab as-Siq Triclinium, functioned as a dining room (triclinium) where feasts were held in honor of the dead. The interior is a single room with rock-carved benches on all three sides.
Inside Petra's Siq
The Siq is not technically a gorge, as it was formed not by erosion but tectonic forces, which caused the rock to split dramatically in half. It was only then that the waters of the Wadi Musa flowed in and the winds blew through the newly-formed chasm, gradually rounding the sharp edges into smooth curves.
Along with the strategic protection offered by the passage (that is no wider than seven feet in some places), the resident Nabateans also leveraged the Siq's downward slope for water management. The original channels cut into the walls to bring water into Petra are visible, and in some places the 2000-year-old terracotta pipes are still in place—in one location they were arranged so that both people and animals could drink from them.
Along the Siq are some underground chambers, the function of which has not yet been clarified. The possibility that they were tombs has been excluded and archaeologists think it unlikely that they were dwellings. The majority consensus is that they housed the guards that defended the main entrance to the city.
During its prime, the Siq was used as the grand caravan entrance into Petra. These trade caravans passed through the city bound for Giza in the south, Bosra and Damascus in the north, eastward to the Persian Gulf, and to Aqaba on the Red Sea.
The floor of the Siq was later paved by the conquering Romans—a section of which was uncovered intact in 1997 when over six vertical feet of sediment and gravel accumulation was removed (to lower the path).
The Swiss government paid for the restoration of the Siq, and when the gravel and earth was dug away the path was sadly resurfaced in concrete. This certainly took something away from the romance and atmosphere of discovery in the passage (and created more of a Disney theme park sensation), but it does make it possible to walk without keeping one's eyes fixed on the ground.
Nabataean Religious Processions
Some historians speculate that the primary function of the Siq was akin to the ancient Graeco-Roman Sacred Way. Some of the most important rituals of Petra's spiritual life began as a procession through the narrow canyon, while it also represented the endpoint of the pilgrimage by Nabataean pilgrims. Many of the wall niches that are still visible today along the Siq's walls were designed to hold figures or representations (called baetyls) of the main Nabataean god, Dushara. These small sacred sites served as touchstones of the sacred for pilgrims and priests, offering them a link to the more ornate temples, tombs and sanctuaries in the city's heart, reminding them that they were leaving the outside world, and on the threshold of what was for many a holy city.
Today's Siq is a lovely meandering path between beautifully-colored sandstone cliffs towering 300-600 feet high. If by good luck (or good planning) you succeed in passing through it when nobody else is around, the mood is wonderful. Although if a tour group or a bevy of students is there, you can hear their voices echoing from several hundred feet away.