From the Petra entrance gate, a modern gravel path – one side for horses, the other for pedestrians – leads down through a lunar landscape of white rocky domes and looming cliffs known as the Bab as-Siq (“Gate of the Siq”). The bed of the Wadi Musa, carrying water during the winter and early spring, curves alongside. In all but the bleached-out midday hours, the light is soft enough to pick up earth tones of browns and beiges in the rock, but it’s only with the last rays of the sunset that there’s any hint of the pink that Petra is famous for.
Almost immediately, you can see evidence of Nabatean endeavour: three huge god-blocks, six to eight metres high, loom next to the path just round the first corner, carved probably to serve as both representations of and repositories for the gods to stand sentinel over the city’s vital water supply. Twenty-five such god-blocks exist in Petra, deemed by the locals to have been the work of jinn, or genies, and so also termed jinn-blocks; another name is sahrij, or water-tanks (which has been loosely interpreted to mean tanks holding divine energy next to flowing water). The middle one has shaft graves cut into it, implying that it may also have served as some kind of funerary monument. Opposite the god-blocks are caves, one of which has an obelisk carved in relief, representing the soul of a dead person. Such carved shrines abound in every corner of Petra’s mountains, and, for those with time to explore, the small side-valleys off this section of the Bab as-Siq are filled with tombs, water channels, niches and shrines: behind the blocks, the area of domes known as Ramleh is cut through by parallel wadis, one of which is Wadi Muthlim, and is equally explorable.
The Obelisk Tomb and Bab as-Siq Triclinium
The first major Nabatean monuments are a few metres further on, and – being on an exposed corner – badly eroded. Although apparently the upper and lower halves of a single monument, the Obelisk Tomb and Bab as-Siq Triclinium may be separate entities, carved at different times. Above, four pyramidal obelisks guard the entrance to a cave in the rock; such freestanding obelisks may have been like the god-blocks, representing a god and storing divine energy in a material form. Between the four is an eroded figure in a niche; the cave behind holds graves. Below, the triclinium, or dining room, is a single chamber with stone benches on three walls, for holding banquets in honour of the dead. On the opposite side of the path, 5m off the ground, a bilingual inscription in Nabatean and Greek records that one Abdmank chose this spot to build a tomb for himself and his children, although it’s not certain that this refers to the monuments opposite.
Just past the Obelisk Tomb is a path leading to the hidden Petran suburb of Madras, tucked into the hills to the left (south), from where it’s possible to cross the hilltops over the Jabal al-Jilf plateau, avoiding the Siq, to the top of the high, narrow Danqur al-Khazneh valley leading down to the Treasury; the views are stunning, and the sense of isolation is worth the scramble if you’ve already seen the Siq. However, the route is far from clear, relying on worn Nabatean rock-cut stairs, and you’ll need a guide.
The dam and tunnel
Back on the path, the curving northern bank of the wadi is liberally pockmarked with caves and niches, round to the point where the path is taken over the wadi bed by a bridge and the Wadi Musa itself is blocked by a modern dam; this is almost exactly the same configuration as was built by the Nabateans in about 50 AD, and for the same reasons: to divert the floodwaters of the Wadi Musa away from the Siq so that the principal entry into the city could remain clear year round. On the opposite bank of the wadi are four obelisks, one mentioning a man who lived in Reqem (Petra) but died in Jerash.
It’s here, at the mouth of the Siq, that all horseriders must dismount. Entrance tickets are sometimes checked.
To the right, the Nabatean-carved, 8m-high tunnel – guarded by another, solitary god-block – enabled the floodwaters to feed into the Wadi Muthlim leading north around the gigantic Jabal al-Khubtha. Today, this is an alternative way into Petra.
As much as they created a blend of Arab culture with Mediterranean, the Nabateans also blended inherited elements of the ancient religions of Egypt, Syria, Canaan, Assyria and Babylon with elements of the Greek and Roman pantheons, to create specifically Petran forms of worship.
Central to their religion was rock. Jehovah, the god of the Israelites, was said to inhabit a blank rock called Bet-El (“House of God”) – and this insistence on non-figurative representation was shared by many Levantine and Arabian peoples. It was passed on to the Nabateans, in contrast to the Egyptians’ and Assyrians’ lavish portrayals of gods and goddesses. Concepts such as “the Lord is my rock” also appear many times in the Old Testament, implying an extension of the “House of God” idea so that the rock actually represents the deity itself. Nabatean deities were thus often represented simply by squared-off rocks, termed “god-blocks”. In addition, a later development gave the rock a third aspect: that of the altar, the contact point between the divine and the material.
At the head of the Nabatean pantheon was Dushara, “He of the Shara” (the mountains around Petra), later identified with the Greek god Zeus and the Syrian Hadad. The fact that his name is so closely tied to the locality indicates that he may originally have been an Edomite, rather than a Nabatean, god. To the Nabateans, Dushara was the sun, the Creator, and he was often represented by an obelisk – the visual materialization of a beam of light striking the earth. With the mingling of Semitic and Mediterranean ideas, Dushara also came to be associated with Dionysus, god of wine, and so began to assume human form, bedecked with vines and grapes (as at the Nabatean temple on Jabal Tannur).
At Dushara’s side were Atargatis, the goddess of fertility, of grain, fruit and fish; Allat (which means simply “The Goddess”), who represented the moon; Manat, the goddess of luck and fate, suggested to have been the patron deity of Petra and possibly the goddess worshipped at the Treasury; and al-Uzza (“The Mighty One”), assimilated with the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Roman goddesses Diana, deity of water and fertility, and Venus, embodied by the evening star and representing spiritual and erotic love. Allat, al-Uzza and Manat are all mentioned by name in the Quran, implying that their cult was still active and popular in Mecca as late as the seventh century, the time of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Nabateans also had many smaller gods, including al-Kutbay, god of writing; She’a-al-Qawm, the patron deity of caravans; Qos, originally an Edomite god; and Baal-Shamin, a Phoenician god especially popular in northern Nabatea, who had a temple somewhere near the modern mosque in the centre of Wadi Musa town.
The Wadi Muthlim route
The Wadi Muthlim route
Although you should definitely follow the Siq into Petra at least once (and probably more than once, at different times of day), if you’ve allocated several days to a visit, the beautiful Wadi Muthlim is a good alternative entry route through stunning scenery, but taking no less than two hours to deliver you to the Nymphaeum in the city centre. Due to the very real danger of flash floods, you shouldn’t attempt it at all during the rainy season – roughly November to March – and even as late as May, there may be difficult-to-avoid standing pools of water harbouring water snakes: wading would be a mistake.
Before beginning the walk, you can take a small detour from the dam at the Siq entrance up to the Eagle Niche, set in the rocks 400m to the northwest. Cross the wadi over the roof of the tunnel and head left up the second side-valley; it’s a short scramble over the smooth, hot rock up to a set of small niches carved in the right-hand wall, one of which features a strikingly carved eagle with wings outspread.
Back at the tunnel, Wadi Muthlim – full of oleanders, but with high walls cutting out all sound bar the occasional birdsong – is easily passable up to the remains of another Nabatean dam; beyond here, the path gets steadily narrower until you reach a point where a massive boulder all but blocks the way. It’s possible to squeeze past, and the path continues to narrow until, with the wadi floor no wider than your foot, you reach a T-junction; arrows on the solid walls all around will point you left. This cross-wadi is the Sidd Maajn, equally narrow, but beautifully eroded by flowing water. As you proceed, seemingly moving through the heart of the mountain, you’ll notice the Nabateans were here before you: there are dozens of carved niches, some featuring pediments, other curving horns. It’s around here that the way might be blocked by rockpools.
Eventually, you’ll emerge into the open Wadi Mataha, about 600m northeast of Dorotheos’ House, and the best part of 2km northeast of the Nymphaeum.