Petra: The Definitive Guide
Al-Beidha (Little Petra)
Beyond Umm Sayhun, a short distance north of Petra, the road runs between wild and beautiful outcrops of rock, the color of pale honey. It is called al-Beidha in Arabic, 'the white one'.
Turning left at the T-junction, some steps to the right of the road lead up to an opening in the rock which leads to the largest Nabataean cistern in the Petra area, still used today by the Amareen bedouin whose territory this is. Inside, a vast space was chiselled out of the rock in order to store the water that was vital for this major agricultural area, the bread-basket of the northern suburbs.
Al-Beidha was also one of the main commercial areas of Petra, the entry and exit point for the trade routes to the north and north-west. Here the caravans from the Negev, Gaza and Askalon, from Jerusalem and the Phoenician coast would arrive and settle for a while to engage in trade, their camels and donkeys quartered in the broad acres near the cistern. The merchants probably stayed in the cool seclusion of the Siq al-Barid, the cold gorge, whose entrance is at the end of a narrowing of the valley.
Just before the entrance is a façade of luminous simplicity, at the top of a short flight of steps. It does not seem to have been or a tomb for al-Beidha was designed more for the living than for the dead. Perhaps it was the office of the collector of tolls of the trading caravans that lodged here. Like all the monuments of Siq al-Barid, this façade is thought to have been carved in the first half of the first century AD, when the whole quarter was developed during a period of Petra's expansion.
Beyond the short and very narrow cleft in the rock that forms its entrance – too narrow for laden camels to pass – the Siq al-Barid opens out into the first of three natural courtyards. In the high enclosing cliffs is a profusion of façades and cisterns, interspersed with steps, some of which lead to high and holy places on the summits. Dominating the south cliff is the elegant and simple façade of what may have been a temple.
The second natural courtyard seems to have been a place for feasting for here, carved into the rocks, are more triclinia per square metre than in any other area of Petra. Unlike the triclinia associated with tombs, these have no religious or funerary association – they may be just refectories in which the merchants ate their meals together.
One of the rooms in this courtyard is unique for its early first-century AD frescoed ceiling. From the outside it is insignificant, an unadorned hole reached by a flight of steps, whose safety (though not appearance) has been somewhat improved by concrete reinforcement. It is a biclinium, or two-benched dining room, and the ceiling of the alcove at the back of the chamber is painted all over with a delicate tracery of vines with bunches of grapes hanging from the branches. Inhabiting this leafy and flowered world are a variety of birds, some in flight, others resting on branches, a cherub-like figure of Eros with his bow and arrow, and a flute-playing Pan.