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 Tombs

The Silk Tomb at PetraThe Nabataean royal family and its entourage cut 34 tombs in the sandstone cliffs in the style of Roman temples. J. W. Burgon had these before his mind's eye in 1840, in a poem called "Petra," when he called the place: "A rose-red city half as old as Time."

But these tombs are exceptions in Petra. The upper and middle classes, subroyal, stuck to forms passed down from the Assyrian Empire (7th century BC) through Persia. And so we find rows of beautiful lesser tombs, more than 600 in number, each like a tower carved into the rock, "topped by jagged, stepped crenelations" (Guzzo and Schneider , p. 133). Some still have traces of stucco covered with bright red and yellow paint.

At first we might be tempted to think that the tombs evolved from the simpler, eastern style to the elaborate Hellenistic. If we only had Petra it would be hard to know, because just one tomb there has a date. In the Nabataean city of Hegra, however (today's Meda'in Saleh in Saudi Arabia, 250 miles to the south), there are plenty of rock-cut tombs with inscriptions and dates. From these it appears that differences in size and elaboration are due to social class, not to time. Applying this finding to Petra, most scholars conclude that there was no evolution of styles: side by side with the grand Hellenistic temple-like tombs, those of the simpler eastern style continued to be carved throughout the life of the city. 

As for the lower classes, they made do with rectangular pits in the earth, or they dug shafts, to a series of pits. There are many such in the hills around Petra, especially near the beginning of the Siq. Occasionally the nails of a coffin are found.

Tombs showing eastern influence at Petra

If you want to see the contrast with a royal tomb, enlarge the photo on the right. 

Every society has its way of facing or avoiding death, both the deaths of the people one loves and the prospect of one's own. The Nabataean arrangements give us an inkling of their way. The survivinig façades and the chambers behind them were only part of the story. A tomb complex included parts in front of the façade, but erosion and earthquake have wiped most of these away, and others may be hidden beneath later coverings of soil or debris. One tomb, however, called the Turkmaniyah, contains a long inscription indicating what there was: 

This tomb and the large burial-chamber within it and the small burial-chamber beyond it, in which are burial-places, niche-arragements, and the enclosure in front of them and the porticos and rooms within it and the gardens (? or seats) and triclinium-garden (?) and the wells of water and the cisterns (?) and walls and all the rest of the property which is in these places are sacred and dedicated to Dushara, the god of our lord [i.e., the god of the reigning king], and his sacred throne and all the gods, (as) in the documents of consecration according to their contents. And it is the responsibility of Dushara and his throne and all the gods that it should be done as in these documents of consecration and nothing of all that is in them shall be changed or removed and none shall be buried in this tomb except whoever has written for him an authorization for burial in these documents of consecration forever.  

A typical Petra tricliniumThe "enclosure" would have been a courtyard in front of the tomb in which rituals were performed, observed by people on the seats that are mentioned. The triclinium was a U-shaped triple bench on which people would sit (or recline) and feast. (The upper-class Roman dining room, for example, was typically a triclinium. We have a splendid example at Sepphoris.) It is clear from several Nabataean inscriptions, write Guzzo and Schneider (p. 148), that an annual feast was part of the ceremony at the tomb.

Time has erased the structures outside the Turkmaniyah tomb as it has in most cases elsewhere. An exception is the misnamed "Tomb of the Roman Soldier" (it is pure Nabataean). When you stand facing it, you are in its courtyard, and its triclinium is behind you. This triclinium is an exception among the several still extant at Petra, because it includes architectural decoration. 

Petra: Triclinium of the

The funeral feast is a widespread custom. This act of eating may be interpreted as a way of affirming that despite the loss, life must go on. But part of this affirmation concerns the relationship with the one who has died. It is as if one were saying, "Just as I take this food into me, so I take you into me and perpetuate your life in me." We do not know whether the Nabataeans conceived immortality in this way, or whether, on the contrary, they thought in terms of an independent afterlife of the particular soul. A few graves at Petra were found undisturbed, and the objects discovered in them do not seem directed toward a future life. They seem rather more like this-worldly mementos belonging to everyday existence. The kinds of things found (utensils, a bit of jewelry) also turned up among the ruins of houses. None were specially made for a cult of the dead. (Zangenberg , p. 98.)
The rites of mourning afford an opportunity to vent grief. Given the complexity of human relations, however, mourning can also be a lengthy process of making peace with the one who has died, in order that the perpetuation of that life in one's own does not put one at war with oneself. Such peacemaking requires support from the community.

We may imagine that this was going on at Petra, in the courtyard and triclinium before the façade of the tomb. Such interpretations are very general, though, and there were probably much more specific beliefs associated with the tombs. We shall discuss one possibility later, in connection with the "High Place of Sacrifice."

Because the carving of a tomb required time and art, we may also imagine that the one who commissioned it intended to lie in it. After his death his family members, who gathered periodically at the tomb to renew the perpetuation of his life in their own, did so in the consciousness that they would rest here too, and the same would be done for them. 

From the many tombs at Petra, we shall concentrate on a few.

As you head toward the Siq, on your left, there is a modest but striking tomb marked by four elongated pyramids. It is called the Tomb of the Obelisks (although obelisks would not be so broad at the base). Each probably represents one of the people who was buried inside. Such a memorial is called a nefesh, a word that in Semitic languages also means a person, a soul. Inside this tomb, however, there are five burial places, not four. The largest, in the back wall, is an arcosolium.  Now if there were five burials, why only four monuments? From outside, looking closely - or after enlarging the photo on the left - you will see the representation of a human figure in a niche between monuments two and three. This, we may guess, is the fifth nefesh, representing the man (for it is a man, garbed in Greek fashion) who commissioned the tomb and who lay in the arcosolium. 

Beneath the Obelisk Tomb is a façade in a different style and at a slight angle to it. Its design includes a "broken" pediment , like the one that appears on the Treasury and the Deir. Inside is a triclinium, barren of decoration as these usually are. One would think the triclinium belonged to the tomb above, for what is a triclinium in Petra without a tomb (or a fancy tomb without a triclinium)? Yet the difference in style and angle is disturbing.

After the "Treasury," whose function is unclear, the great tombs of Petra unfold themselves in the side of the mountain known as al-Khubta. Together they are called the Royal Tombs. One very grand specimen is angled to overlook the city center. At its top is the form of an urn, and so it bears the name Urn Tomb.

Petra: The Urn Tomb

As it appears today, the Urn Tomb requires a little sorting out. In 446/7 AD, according to an inscription inside, it was transformed into a church. Its outer courtyard was then extended and supported by vaults. The Doric colonnade on the courtyard's north side belonged, however, to the original tomb, and there was a corresponding colonnade on the south as well. Here then we have the courtyard that the Turkmaniyah inscription would lead us to expect, but there is no trace of a triclinium.
What distinguishes the Urn Tomb is its scale. Surely this was the resting place of a king. Yet there are no burial chambers in this hall. There are indeed arched alcoves, as in the other royal tombs (also in the Treasury and the Deir). We might suppose that sarcophagi were placed in these alcoves, but not a trace of one has been found in Petra. (Also, the three in the east wall of the Urn Tomb look as though they were cut to suggest apses for the later church.)Where then were the bodies buried?

If you were a king—say, Aretas IV, who built so much in the city, or his successor, Malichus II—and if you chose a burial site at such a commanding spot, surely you would want to be out front. Look again at the photo above. Near the tops of the engaged columns, between them, we see two square niches (a third is masked by the cliff on the right). Some scholars interpret these as the burial chambers. Judging from their size, they could have been chambers for secondary burial, that is, repositories for the bones after the flesh was gone. The niches were closed by slabs. The central one still has part of its slab. On it, in relief, is a man in a toga—the king is watching.

There are five more niches in the side wall above the colonnade of the Urn Tomb (again, see photo above). These may have been cut later to receive the bones of the king's relatives or officials.

To the north of the Urn Tomb is the Silk Tomb, pictured at the start of this article. North of that is the (mis)called Corinthian. It is so badly eroded that one cannot tell whether it had niches, but we find them again in the last of the series, called the Palace Tomb (see photo on left). Again they are curiously high up, between the engaged columns. In 1967 an intrepid and curious mountaineer named Joe Brown climbed into the third niche from the left and discovered a vertical shaft that led him to the cliff above. A water system there leads runoff, as well as water from the Khubta aqueduct, into an apse-like chute cut north of the tomb. When we look at the royal tombs, therefore, we should imagine a grand waterfall in the chute, which filled the cisterns below. The overflow went to the nymphaeum, garden and swimming pool in the civic center.

Palace tomb and water chute

If the niches high up in the royal tombs contained the royal bones, there is still the question: where were the bodies before the flesh disappeared? This question leads us to the site called the High Place of Sacrifice.