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Petra: The Definitive Guide

Petra Monuments
Text from "Petra Book" by Jane Taylor

The Royal Tombs View in Photo Gallery

Opposite the theater, carved into the foot of al-Khubtha mountain, are the so-called 'Royal Tombs'. While it is generally agreed that they are tombs, the designation 'royal' comes only from their grandeur – who but Nabataean kings, it is supposed, would have tombs of such magnificence? But which king is associated with which monument is still unknown.

Urn Tomb View in Photo Gallery

The first, and one of the most imposing, is the Urn Tomb, named from the fairly small and insignificant urn at the top of the pediment. The tall, narrow façade towers above the city, its terrace supported by two rows of vaults which emphasise its height. The Bdoul bedouin call these vaults as-Sijn (prison), and the tomb above them al-Makhamah (court of justice). This may be pure myth, or it may reflect a later function of the monument, though not its original Nabataean purpose. Dated to the first half of the first century AD, it could have been the tomb of Malichus II who died in AD 70, or perhaps of his predecessor, Aretas IV, some thirty years earlier. Whoever it was, his burial place was not in a hole cut into the floor, for there is none, but in the central of the three burial chambers carved high in the façade between the columns. The remains of a carved bust can still be seen in this aperture, but those which must have similarly blocked off the two other chambers are missing.

In the mid-fifth century the Urn Tomb was converted into a church, and the cavernous interior still shows signs of the adjustments that were made, in particular the chipping away of the stone that separated the two central recesses to form one large, shallow apse. On the far left of the rear wall, a painted inscription in Greek records the dedication in 446/7 of this erstwhile tomb as a place of Christian worship: 'In the time of the most holy Bishop Jason this place was dedicated... to Christ the Saviour.'

The Silk Tomb View in Photo Gallery

North of the Urn Tomb is a cluster of smaller tombs which scarcely warrant being dubbed 'royal'. One of them is remarkable for the vivid striations in the rock façade, like the wildest shot silk, which led to its being called the Silk Tomb. Maybe it was this tomb which, according to Edward Lear, sent his Italian cook, Giorgio, into rhapsodies as they approached 'the east cliff... with its colors and carved architecture... "Oh master," said Giorgio (who is prone to culinary similes), "we have come into a world where everything is made of chocolate, ham, curry powder, and salmon."' Had Giorgio named the tomb, it would doubtless have had gastronomic rather than couture associations. What he omitted, however, here and throughout Petra, were the colors of fresh blackcurrant, blackcurrant ice-cream, peach, apricot, mulberry, saffron, raw steak, buttermilk and caramel.

The Corinthian Tomb View in Photo Gallery

The next large monument is the so-called Corinthian Tomb, one of the most sadly eroded façades in Petra. Its name comes from Léon de Laborde on his visit in 1828, who deemed its columns and capitals to be of the Corinthian order. 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 (AD 40-70), but no name has been associated with its construction.

The Palace Tomb View in Photo Gallery

Largest of the façades carved into the base of al-Khubtha is the Palace Tomb, so named because of its supposed resemblance to a Roman palace. With its immense width (49 metres), and almost equal height on five levels, the design was too grandiose to be accommodated by the available rock-face, so part of the upper orders had to be built instead of carved. Much of this superstructure has fallen, and it is now impossible to know how high it once stood. Equally unknown is when it was carved, or for whom, but it appears to have been near the end of the Nabataean period, perhaps in the reign of the last king, Rabbel II (AD 70-106), when it seems that sophistication of style had given way to sheer size and dramatic effect.