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Petra: The Definitive Guide

Petra Monuments
Text from "Petra Book" by Jane Taylor

Colonnaded Street View in Photo Gallery

Running through the heart of Petra is the Colonnaded Street, the main thoroughfare of the ancient city. Hidden beneath the paving stones lie about four centuries of Nabataean domestic architecture, some of which was revealed in the late 1950s in a British excavation led by Peter Parr. Three metres below the street they found remains of simple stone and clay dwellings, with clay floors. Parr believes they date to the late fourth or early third centuries BC not long after that time, around 312 BC, when Diodorus describes the Nabataeans as nomadic, and so averse to wine, agriculture and house-building that 'if anyone is found acting contrary to this, death is his penalty'. These unsophisticated houses must, therefore, have been among the first architectural efforts of a metamorphosed people. Their style remained little changed for over 200 years.

Then, in the early first century BC, something quite new happened: town planning. The little houses were completely covered over to form a 15-metre-wide terrace, with a gravel road in the middle. Later, probably in the reign of Aretas IV (whose coins were found in the foundations), the road was further upgraded, transforming it into a public and ceremonial thoroughfare. Its grandeur was enhanced over the following century, as buildings of fine ashlar masonry were constructed on either side of it.

That the Romans made additions and alterations to the street soon after their annexation of the Nabataean kingdom is clear from an inscription found during Parr's excavations. It is a dedication to the Emperor Trajan, dated to AD 114 the time when the great Via Nova Traiana was completed, linking Aila (Aqaba) and Petra with the cities of the north. Opinion is still divided as to whether it was Aretas IV or the Romans who paved the street and lined it with columns and porticoes.

The earthquake of AD 363 brought down many of the columns and surrounding buildings, but the inhabitants doggedly pulled the stones out of the rubble to build new shops along the edge of the street, gradually extending on to the street itself. By the sixth century, accumulated sand and neglect had hidden the paving stones, and the fine street became a dirt track once more.

The Arched Gate View in Photo Gallery

A monumental gate stands at the end of the Colonnaded Street, originally with three stately arches which once formed the main entrance to the sacred precinct, or temenos, of the principal Nabataean temple of Petra. It was built after the road had been paved, for the stones were lifted and re-laid to accommodate it. Since it was more important for the arch to conform with the layout of the temenos, it is out of alignment with the street.

On the east side, facing the Colonnaded Street, four free-standing columns stood before the gate, the pilasters bordering the central arch decorated with square carved panels, alternately busts and flowers. The west side is plain. Four sculptures were found among the debris of the fallen arch in the 1950s, and must once have adorned it: two relief figures, of Hermes and a winged Tyche; a handsome bust of a bearded god, Dushara-Serapis, now over the door of the Museum; and a bust of a god with tightly curled hair, flashy sideburns and a pair of wings sprouting from his head.