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Petra city centre

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As you round the corner of the path leading from the theatre, the city centre of Petra, focused along the Cardo Maximus, or Colonnaded Street, stretches out ahead, framed by the barrier range of mountains – and the flat-topped giant Umm al-Biyara – behind. Although there are excavations continuing on the flat, rounded hills to either side, the overall impression is of rocky desolation; nonetheless, in Petra’s prime, the landscape in all directions was covered with buildings – houses big and small, temples, market-places – all of them long since collapsed. Many archeologists theorize that most of Petra is in fact still hidden beneath the dusty soil, and that all the facades and what few buildings have so far been exposed are the tip of the iceberg.

Until you reach the Temenos at the far end of the Colonnaded Street, the only monument actually on the street is the Nymphaeum, although both the northern (right-hand) and southern (left-hand) slopes hold plenty of interest.

The Nymphaeum

One of the few trees in the city centre – a huge, lush pistachio – stands proudly over the ruined Nymphaeum, originally a Roman public fountain, these days more popular as a shady hangout for the bedouin police than anything else. Virtually nothing remains of the ancient superstructure, and even the retaining wall is modern. However, its location is key, at the confluence of the Wadi Musa, flowing from east to west, and the Wadi Mataha, bringing the water diverted by the dam at the Siq entrance into the city from the northeast. It may also have been the terminus for the terracotta pipes and channels bringing water through the Siq itself. The sight and sound of water tumbling from such a monument must have been wonderful in such a parched city centre.

The Nymphaeum is where you’ll end up if you’ve walked the Wadi Muthlim route from the dam; it’s equally possible to walk the route in reverse, although the initial stretch will be down in the wadi bed, and less appealing than following the East Cliff around to join Wadi Mataha further north. You should allow around three hours from the Nymphaeum to circumambulate Jabal al-Khubtha and get back to the gate.

The Colonnaded Street

From the Nymphaeum all the way along the paved Colonnaded Street westwards, columns on your left (south) stand in front of what have been dubbed Petra’s markets. Ranged along street level, to either side of grand staircases, were small shops, which may have been refitted in the Byzantine period; some have been renovated, but work to excavate the floors and outbuildings remains ongoing.

To your right (north), slopes – formally dubbed Jabal Qabr Jumayan – host the Petra Church, with its superb mosaics, and a clutch of smaller Byzantine sites on the hills above, as well as one of the city’s longest-running excavations, the Temple of the Winged Lions.

If you walk dead ahead down the Colonnaded Street, without diverting to either side, you reach a ruined gateway giving into Petra’s sacred temple precinct, the Temenos.

The Petra Church

Above and behind the Nymphaeum stands a modern shelter protecting the Byzantine Petra Church, as it’s been called. This is a large tripartite basilica, roughly 26m by 15m, with three apses to the east and three entrances to the west, accessed from a stone-paved atrium. It was built in the late fifth century, and remodelled about fifty years later. Around 600 it was burned, and remained derelict until earthquakes shook it down shortly afterwards. Surviving in both aisles of the church, though, are superbly detailed floor mosaics depicting the bounty of creation, dated stylistically to the early sixth century. The presence of such a large church so richly decorated – and the discovery of the Petra scrolls – merely highlights how little is known about Byzantine Petra, and how much awaits discovery. Much of the stone used to build the church was pilfered from the ruined Nabatean and Roman monuments all around, and now lies tumbled down the slopes in front.

From beside the Petra Church, fine views extend over the valley. To the left is the East Cliff; ahead is the Great Temple; and to the right you can clearly see the unusual Unfinished Tomb, carved into the base of Al-Habees.

The interior

The spectacular south-aisle mosaics are in three rows, the central line of personifications of the seasons flanked by rows of animals, birds and fish. From door to altar, the middle line features fishermen and hunters interspersed with Ocean (with one foot on a fish), a delightfully clear-faced Spring, and Summer with her breast bared and holding a fish. The north-aisle mosaics depict people and indigenous and exotic animals and birds, including a camel-like giraffe, a hyena, boar, bear and leopard. Archeologists also found thousands of gilded glass tesserae, indicating that lavish wall mosaics once adorned the church, and they managed to reconstruct – from more than a hundred pieces – a huge marble tub with panthers for handles (which is now in the Basin Museum).

At the rear (west) of the atrium is a superbly well-preserved fifth-century Baptistry, with a cruciform font surrounded by four limestone columns.

The Blue Chapel

On a ridge just above the Petra Church is the partially reconstructed fifth-century Blue Chapel, so named for its bluish Egyptian granite columns, which were moved here presumably from a destroyed nearby monument or building. It’s tiny, and seems to have had access only via a small staircase from above, leading archeologists to theorize that this may have been the private chapel of a resident bishop, rather than a public building.

The Ridge Church

A short climb to the top of the hill that peaks behind the Petra Church brings you to the austere Ridge Church, another small building (some 18m by 13m) perched on a ridge at the northwestern edge of Byzantine-era Petra, overlooking the Wadi Turkmaniyyeh behind and the whole of the city centre in front. Its position suggests it may originally have been a military lookout post, which was converted in the late fourth century into a church. Much of the interior paving survives, but there’s no decoration. What’s most interesting about the place is that archeologists found almost no remnants of the building’s superstructure nearby, although they did find a hoard of water-washed stones in the church courtyard brought up from the wadi below. From this confusing evidence, they came up with an elaborate theory for the church’s destruction. At a time of increasing political instability, they postulate, the Petrans deliberately dismantled the church – which lay hard up against the city wall – in order to use its stones as missiles against invaders approaching from below. When the church had been razed, they collected more stones from the wadi to hoard against future attacks, but these were forgotten as, possibly, the city was overrun from a different direction. Any truth in this tale has yet to be confirmed.

The Temple of the Winged Lions

Overlooking the Temenos Gate west of the Petra Church is the Temple of the Winged Lions, the principal building of the northern slope. It was named for unusual column capitals featuring winged lions (one of which is in the Basin Museum), but would – so the excavator suggests – have been more appropriately named the Temple of al-Uzza, for it seems to have been dedicated to her. Dated approximately to the early first century AD, the building was approached via a bridge across the Wadi Musa, parts of which you can still see on the banks. Worshippers would have proceeded across ascending terraces, an open colonnaded courtyard and a portico into the temple itself, featuring close-packed columns and an altar platform. The floors were paved in contrasting black, brown and white marble, and the walls decorated with painted plaster. Archeologists uncovered both a painter’s workshop – with paints and pigments still in their ceramic pots – and a marble-cutter’s workshop adjoining the temple.

One of the most spectacular discoveries, also now on display in the Basin Museum, was a small rectangular stone idol, complete with a stylized face and a hole between the eyes (possibly for a set of horns, the symbol of the goddess Isis, to be inserted); the inscription along the base reads “Goddess of Hayyan son of Nybat”. Adjacent to the temple to the east is a large unexcavated area of rubble deemed to have been a royal palace, also with a bridge over the wadi, but no work has as yet been done on it.

The Garden Terrace

Across on the southern side of the Colonnaded Street, on the slopes above street level, an area has been recently identified as an expanse of ornamental gardens, dubbed the Garden Terrace. This was laid out in Petra’s “golden age” – the late first century BC – as a place of refuge in the city centre, tucked in amongst the grand public buildings and busy shops all around. In front, nearest the street, was a flat area that comprised the gardens themselves. Behind, occupying the whole southern part of the terrace, was a large pool, 43m long by 23m wide (and about 2.5m deep), surrounded by a colonnade. Occupying an island in the centre of the pool was a small, rectangular pavilion. The beauty of such a site can only be imagined.

The Great Temple

Alongside the Garden Terrace at the western end of the street, and accessed by a set of steps leading up from the street, is a late first-century BC building that has been dubbed the Great Temple, though not even the deity who was worshipped here is known. Ongoing excavation work by a US team suggests that this extremely grand affair, one of the largest complexes in the city at seven thousand square metres, might not have been a temple at all. Originally designed perhaps as some kind of gathering place or trade centre, then later adapted into a council chamber or even quasi-religious performance space, it seems as though the building – whatever it was – went through several incarnations, from one function to another, over centuries.

In its final, grandest phase access was via a staircase from street level through a monumental gateway onto a hexagonally paved lower courtyard, featuring triple colonnades to east and west culminating in semicircular benched alcoves.

Steps climbed again to the temple itself – if that’s what it was – some 25m above street level, fronted by four enormous columns which were originally stuccoed in red and white. Within stands a renovated Nabatean theatre, about 7m in diameter, which would have seated up to six hundred people, perhaps for performances, perhaps as a debating hall of sorts. The whole building is extremely complex, set on different levels, with internal and external corridors flanking it on east and west. Columns and chunks of architectural elements (many of them beautifully carved) all point to the fact that this was one of Petra’s most important monuments. You can even spot capitals here carved with the heads of Indian elephants – a symbol, perhaps, of just how cosmopolitan and well-connected the Nabatean traders were in their heyday.

Scramble to the highest point of the walls for views west to the arches of the Crusader fort atop Al-Habees, north across the wadi to the Temple of the Winged Lions, behind which lie the valley tombs of Wadi Muaysreh ash-Shargiyyeh, and northeast to the Petra Church, with Umm Sayhoun behind it and Mughur an-Nassara to one side.

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