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.