Petra, an ancient Nabataean city located in Jordan, is one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World,” as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also the fourth site in the Smithsonian’s list of “28 Places to See before You Die” (the fourth and final site in the sub-category of “Portals of the Past”).
In the 19th century, Petra was dubbed “a rose-red city half as old as time.” That appellation stuck, and millions of tourists flock here every year to see a city whose buildings are literally carved into the sandstone cliffs. This romantic and surreal city tucked away deep within desert mountains is a must see because it affords us a view into a culture far removed from the modern world and lost to it until Petra’s discovery in 1812.
I remember clearly during my visits to Petra the sheer thrill of walking for more than 3,300 feet down through the narrow, winding confines of the entry-way into the city proper. This entry-way (called the “Siq”) was, by design, a difficult and demanding trek. In the desert heat, this trek is indeed unrelenting. On this August day, just when I thought that my endurance was about to wain, there before me appeared the facade of the Treasury, commanding and resplendent having been carved right out of and into the face of the sandstone cliff. It reflected the rays of a bright sun into the darkness of the entrance passageway. My fears of physical exhaustion quickly faded at the sight of this unbelievable structure.
During my most recent visit, I was intrigued to learn that the Nabeteans had built a similar, though smaller, settlement nearby affectionately known today as “little” Petra. This site also boasts a picturesque entry-way, and having marveled at the intrinsic beauty of Petra, I decided I would make the short trek to see Petra’s “baby sister.” The site is a short taxi ride away from the main site, and my driver kindly agreed to wait for me to tour the site before returning me to my hotel.
“Little” Petra (its name in Arabic is “Siq al-Barid” which means “cold canyon”) is located about four miles north of iconic Petra. It is situated near the town of Wadi Musa and is within the protected area of the “Petra Archaeological Park” which encompasses 102 square miles. Little Petra was built near the site of one of the oldest settlements in Jordan thought to have been first occupied from 7500–6500 BC making it one of the first settled villages in all of human history.
This area marks one of the earliest locations where semi-settled nomads evolved into settled villagers marking the initiation of an agrarian economy. Also, the remains have provided researchers with a rough idea of what Neolithic dwellings might have looked like centuries ago. Unfortunately, sometime during this period, the site burned down and was only partially reconstructed. Soon after, the site was totally abandoned.
What is today “Little Petra” was built during the 1st century AD, when the Nabataean culture was at its peak. Like Petra, its buildings were carved into the walls of the sandstone canyons. Of course, it is smaller than Petra in its overall scale and size. For instance, Little Petra’s siq is only 1,300 feet in length – about one-third of the length of the one at Petra. While the purpose of some of its buildings is not known for certain, archaeologists believe that one reason for the construction of the complex might have been to house visiting traders traveling along the Silk Road. After the decline of the Nabataeans (7th century BC), Little Petra was also abandoned, and during the ensuing centuries, it has only been used by Bedouin nomads.
Little Petra consists of three open areas connected by a 1,480-foot canyon. Like Petra, the site features several rock-cut facades – a signature design characteristic of the Nabataeans. Little Petra has two main areas: The lower ground with caves and tombs much like Petra and the higher ground with a viewing area that affords a panoramic sweep of the entire site. This upper area is accessed via a steep and narrow staircase that remains virtually intact.
This suburb to Petra also served as a site for the observance of religious festivals, including the “Feast of Drink.” During this celebration, hosted by the king of the Nabataeans, food and drink would be provided for all of the guests. There is a room dug into a sandstone cliff that contains a recently restored nearly 2,000-year old Nabataean painting. This room is known colloquially as the “Painted House.” The fresco depicts, with considerable detail, images related to wine consumption, possibly reflecting worship of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Further, since this newly discovered painting reflects grape vines, it has served to confirm the view that this area was a center for wine production.
I suggest that, should you ever have the good fortune to visit Petra, you also see Little Petra; however, I suggest you visit it first because it may well lose some of its luster if you experience it only after having seen its “big” sister – the “rose-red city half as old as time.”
Next time: “The Pyramids of Giza”