Petra PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
The Siq
The "Treasury"
"Qasr al-Bint"
Civic Center
"Deir" ("Monastery")
High Place

The Siq   

For the grander part of Petra's history, the main entrance was through the Siq, a narrow cleft in the rock. It is 1.2 kilometers long and overhung by cliffs 80 meters high. (You can get an impression of the effect by enlarging the picture on the right.) Within, at various points along the way, are about 60 representations of stelae , a third of the total at Petra. (Article on stelae.) These indicate that the passage also functioned as a sacred way .

The Nabataeans could not have used the Siq safely in winter, however, until they made a system to divert flash floods. Petra gets just a few days of heavy rain, but even a 15-minute downpour can be lethal. Much water flows into natural basins that feed Wadi Musa (the Moses Riverbed). Unless protective measures are taken (as they are today), this water can roar through the Siq like an express train, killing anything in its path.

The early Nabataean inhabitants, from the 3d to the 1st centuries BC, would have used a different access, at least in winter (for example, the valley that comes in from the southwest, where a Snake Monument greeted them). They lived in modest dwellings on the banks of Wadi Musa, as well as in caves that they cut into the cliffs. Their water came from the Musa Spring, which is located 7 kilometers east of the present tourist village (which it still supplies). It flowed through the Siq in an open channel, 2 meters wide and 1 meter deep, which continued through the city center and drained out through a wadi in the mountains to the west.

This channel is no longer visible. It was buried when the Nabataeans raised the floor of the Siq, on it paving a road with a gentle descent (only 5% over a distance of 1.2 km.) and carving new water channels in the cliffs on both sides. (The ancient traveler would have heard the swish and lap of the water, as well as its echo from the towering cliffs.) In front of the entrance they built a dam to stop the floodwaters, which they diverted into a tunnel that led to another gorge. Over this dam they made a bridge into the Siq, 25 feet above the riverbed. The dam, the bridge, the tunnel and the elevated road formed a unified system. Each required the others in order to be effective, so they must have been made about the same time.

Petra: Tunnel diverting floodwaters from the Siq

But when? We cannot be sure. Inscriptions were found beneath the retaining wall of the road, but according to Judith McKenzie (p. 37), they cannot be dated with certainty. Logically, though, the system must have coincided with the carving of the so-called Treasury (Khazneh), which appears as you emerge from the Siq at its elevated level. This ranks among the most dramatic visual effects in the world. Surely it was intended as such.