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Petra: The Definitive Guide

Petra Monuments
Text from "Petra Book" by Jane Taylor

Snake Monument

Setting out southwards from Qasr al-Bint, the path passes Amoud Far'oun (Pharoah's column), then crosses Wadi Nmeir and strikes south-west along Wadi Thughra. This is the ancient caravan path from southern Wadi Araba, the Sinai and Egypt, the route by which many of the nineteenth-century travellers entered Petra. The path skirts the great crag of Umm al-Biyara and is overlooked by a profusion of tomb façades cut into its cliffs; then it rises again, heading west through an open, rolling hillside and up to a higher plateau. The antiquity of the route is attested by the number of small wayside shrines cut into the rock.

For most of the way the rocks are a riotous mixture of all shades of red, blue, mauve, salmon, orange and yellow, but near the top they change to the same pale honey color of al-Beidha. Just before the path reaches the plateau stand two djinn blocks, cut from the bedrock. They are part of a considerable necropolis.

Dominating the site is one of Petra's most curious and enigmatic carvings – the Snake Monument. All that remains of this once huge monolith is the base of a square-cut rock on which are the lower coils of a snake. Burckhardt described the djinn blocks but ignored the snake; Irby and Mangles wrote of 'a singular monument... an obtuse cone, produced by the coils of a spiral... standing on a vast square pedestal or altar'.

Its original function is another Petra puzzle, generating plenty of theories. These range from a spirit of the underworld guarding the dead to a representation of Dushara, or of a foreign god, or a generalized genius loci.

It was near here that David Roberts and his party, as they approached in March 1839, were pursued by Sheikh Abu Zeitun and an armed bedouin band. When they had made their peace, Roberts's travelling companion, Kinnear, described the joy of their first sight of Petra:

'We entered the valley from the South at a point from which a view of nearly the whole of it burst at once on our sight. My expectations were far more than realized... It is certainly one of the most wonderful scenes in the world. The eye wanders in amazement from the stupendous rampart of rocks which surrounds the valley to the porticoes and ornamented doorways sculptured on its surface... But in the valley itself, the patches of green corn among the ruins, the stream bordered with oleander and willow, the sweet sound of running water, and the cry of the cuckoo and partridge, were all delightful and refreshing after the silence and dreary solitude of the desert.'