Little Petra: Jordan’s Other Hidden City

Petra is one of these places you feel you must see if you can.  Impossibly romantic and mysterious, the images of red sandstone carvings, the long twisting entry route, and the ubiquitous camels are the stuff of a thousand tourist brochures and guide books.  And Indiana Jones got into trouble there on one of his adventures!  The lure is irresistible.

But what about Little Petra?  Have you even heard of the ‘little’ version of the large World Heritage site?  In one of my previous blogs, (Trekking With Umbrellas to Little Petra), I wrote about walking through the Jordanian desert for five days to arrive at Little Petra.  And there I left you, at the head of the valley, ready for the next part of my next adventure.

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The valley leading to siq al-Barid

Little Petra, siq al-Barid (or al-Beidha), is located around 8 km north of the more famous Petra, and can be reached either by walking there, or by road.  I took the long way to get there – 5 days of trekking through the desert, but there is a shorter walk from the main site at Petra, across the hills and fields.

Constructed by the mysterious Nabataeans in the first century BC, archaeologists only began excavating the site towards the end of the 20th century.  Whenever I have read about it, the words ‘probably’ and ‘may well be’ recur quite often.  Various thoughts are that it was a suburb of Petra itself, accommodation for workers, accommodation for visiting traders who were travelling the Silk Road, an agricultural centre, or a stop-off for camel caravans.  Currently, the accessible site consists of three wider open areas connected by a 450metre (1,480 ft) canyon, with several carved out ‘buildings’ to visit.  The canyon is narrow, which does not allow the sun to reach many parts of it for long – hence the name siq al-Barid means the ‘cold canyon’.

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The entrance

However, despite the temperature being a little cooler, the lovely yellow and cream sandstone looked warm, and welcoming, with an erratic honeycomb design of natural and carved holes and caves giving different colours and shapes to add interest.  Stare at the walls for long enough, and you would start to see animals and faces.

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I can see a chameleon and Darth Vadar!

This was a lovely reintroduction to civilization following the five days in the desert, as there were only a few other visitors. There is a small car-park and some Bedouin people selling souvenirs and jewellery, but none of the razzmatazz of the main Petra, which I think would have been quite overwhelming for me at that point.  This site is generally much quieter, often overlooked by travellers and tours, but unlike the main site, it is free to enter.  The entrance is via a narrow gap through the sandstone canyon which opens up and the carved openings and doorways  in the walls can be clearly seen.  These are likely, we were told, to have been used as houses and stores.  There is the first grand entry way on the right side which may, or may not be, a tomb.

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A Nabataean Tomb

The canyon then narrows again, before opening up to show other carved rooms, including large carved stone couches, in what may have been dining rooms.  Hopefully, there were a lot of pillows and mattresses available!  One of the more spectacular edifices, which archaeologists think is a temple, although there is no clear evidence for this, has slim unadorned columns on the upper section, and a pediment, leading into the large carved room.  What the ‘caves’ below were used for, no one seems to know – possibly for storage?

The fluidity of the shapes of the sandstone made it seem as if it were perhaps a giant ice cream which was slowly melting.  The constant weathering will change how the site looks incrementally on a daily basis.  Dust will blow away, thin bands of rock will collapse and crumble, and the way it looks will be changed for ever.  If the Nabataeans came back today, they would be sure to see some significant changes.

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The Temple

However, the real jewel in a visit to siq al-Barid is also just here.  There is another carved-out room, with blackened walls and a high ceiling.  The black substance is soot from the centuries of Bedouin using the rooms to live and shelter, building their fires for warmth and cooking.  But the archaeologists found that, under the layers of soot, there was a beautiful ceiling fresco.  This is quite spectacular, and it is amazing to see in such an arid area.  There is nothing like it in Petra itself, and it is the only surviving figurative Nabataean fresco in-situ.

The design is of intertwined vines and grapes and birds, with fat putti enjoying themselves.  Painted in different materials including translucent glazes and gold leaf, archaeologist suggest that the design may have alluded to Dionysus, the god of wine and good times, and compare it to other Hellenistic wall and ceiling paintings in sites such as Herculaneum in Italy.  This particular work might speak of a time where there was sufficient irrigation to grow grapes for wine – or perhaps was painted by someone who was homesick for the vineyards he was familiar with!

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Ceiling Fresco

However, it reminds me of some of the fabulous mediaeval tapestries I have seen in museums and great houses in Europe.  There is clearly a figure playing some kind of woodwind instrument, with other little figures hidden in-between the leaves, and it reminds me of the mille-fleur motif.  The colours are remarkably sharp and bold for having been neglected for so many centuries.  A truly unexpected and magical sight, and a verdant relief for the eyes after so many days in the desert landscape.

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The canyon comes to an end for visitors with a set of steps leading up to…  well, to a stunning view, but not to anywhere in particular.  I have to admit that after all these miles of trekking, I found the slog up the stairs tiring and then felt disappointed that there was ‘nothing there’!  But, on reflection, the views were pretty spectacular, and why shouldn’t a flight of carved stairs be of interest, in and for themselves?

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Stairway to…

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There were actually lots of little flights of stairs carved into the sandstone sides of the canyon when you stopped to look.  Floods, erosion and time meant that some could not now be easily reached from where we now stood, and others just went up to a blank wall – perhaps the plans for expansion never took place?

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However, the lack of vertical opportunities did not stop two people creating their own.  There were few visitors at the site, but when I reached the painted house, I was distracted by a crowd of just about everyone who was there that morning, all bunched together, looking up.  Yes, two idiots had decided to scale the side of the canyon, using the carvings around the front of one of the monuments to start their climb.

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Using toe holds and ledges, they had reached maybe around 10 meters from the ground – and realised that they could not get back down.  I have to say that I was not sympathetic to their plight.  Who in their right mind climbs on an ancient monument, particularly when it is made of easily eroded sandstone?  The sheer arrogance of these men were only matched by the people who had decided to carve graffiti into the sandstone.  The Jordanian guards obligingly brought ladders and climbed up themselves to help the men down, although they got a stern talking to.

I would have just left them there.

The site was probably abandoned sometime in the second half of the first millennium, and became a handy stopping point for other travellers on the Silk Road, and safe places for the Bedouin people to stay as they travelled through the land.

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From here, it is possible to walk to Ad-Deir in Petra, 6 kilometres to the south-west, but I was just very glad to see the vehicle to take me to my hotel in Petra for a welcome shower and the chance to rest my feet!

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