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Petra: The Definitive Guide

Petra Monuments
Text from "Petra Book" by Jane Taylor

The Siq View in Photo Gallery

Water lies at the heart of much of the mythology of Petra, and certainly of the Siq, with resonances reaching back to Moses. Here in Petra, it is said, having fled with his people from Egypt and the wrath of Pharaoh, Moses used his God-given magical powers for good when he struck a rock and released a spring of water. A bedouin guide told one nineteenth-century traveller that Wadi Mousa was so named 'from the cleft being made by the rod of Moses when he brought the stream through into the valley beyond'. Faced with such magic, it seems pedestrian to assert that the Siq was formed by a primeval and cataclysmic earthquake.

Most nineteenth-century travellers, from Burckhardt on, described the Entrance Arch which spanned the gorge at the beginning of the Siq. Today all that remains are the eroded sides which were carved into the rock-face, with statues adorning its niches, and the last vestiges of the springing of the arch on the south (left-hand) side. The whole structure must have presaged for those who entered something of the grandeur and strangeness that were in store for them. When the arch was built is unclear – doubtless there were inscriptions, but they may have been early victims of a flash flood. Its demise is clearer – Gray Hill, a British diplomat who visited Petra in 1896, was told that it had fallen the year before.

Two water systems run along the Siq: the first was the channel cut into the north side, which already existed when the Nabataeans began their overhaul of the Siq in the early first century BC. Then, having created a road with a gentle and even gradient along the full length of the gorge, they cut a new water channel on the south side, with the same even gradient as the road, to make a gravity-flow channel. New technology was then introduced by setting interlocking earthenware pipes into the north channel to increase the pressure. Both systems were fed with water from a great reservoir near the present-day Crowne Plaza Hotel. This in turn was supplied from the abundant springs in the hills to the east of Petra.

Several sections of the ancient paved road survive, some discovered in 1997 when the Siq was excavated by the Petra National Trust, its water control systems investigated, and its original ground level restored. One of the most exciting discoveries was of two pairs of camels and cameleers, one and a half times life size, carved in relief into the cliff face. Of unknown date, these reliefs speak of a city that owed its existence and its abundance to the caravan trade, and to the camel.

A profusion of votive niches – over 50 of them – carved at intervals on both sides of the cliffs, transform the Siq from a mere thoroughfare into a sacred way of the Nabataeans. It seems to have been sacred in the Roman period too, for some inscriptions are dated to the second and third centuries AD. Several niches have a single god-block in relief, others have two, three, or even six, while one has ten blocks of varying sizes in a row – perhaps the donor was hedging his bets by invoking ten deities at once.

Grandest of all, and unique in its style, is a niche carved into a natural outcrop beside a stretch of paved road. It is easily missed on the way into Petra for the carved façade seems to have been designed for those leaving the city. Two god-blocks stand side by side within an architectural frame of pilasters and architrave crowned by a Doric frieze. While the smaller god-block is plain, the larger deity stares disconcertingly at passers-by out of square eyes set on either side of a strip of a nose; it is believed to date from the reign of Malichus II in the mid-first century AD.

If we are overawed by the sheer scale of the towering cliffs which immure the narrow defile on its long and tortuous path, so too must people in ancient times have been silenced as they made their way into Petra. The ever increasing range of color of the rocks, sweeping through all shades of red, purple and ochre, only adds to the astonishment. The Nabataeans must have calculated that if tough negotiations were to be undertaken, the daunting effect of the Siq on their visitors would give a powerful advantage to themselves.