Little Petra PDF Print E-mail
Written by Micah Key
Tucked away in a little canyon that never receives the full warmth of the sun, “Little Petra” provides a more intimate glimpse of Nabataean culture than its larger namesake four miles to the south. The entrance is through a narrow passage, the Siq al-Barid (Cold Canyon), a natural defense. When the passage opens a little, one immediately sees evidence of Nabatean work. Houses carved from the sandstone nestle cheek and jowl with dining halls and cave dwellings. Threaded among them are numerous stairs running crazily up the canyon walls, as in a drawing by M.C. Escher.

Why did the Nabataeans create this place? One theory holds that it was a religious settlement. Another theory says it was a caravanserai for travelers who wished to be close to Petra while avoiding its extremely high tolls. This conjecture is supported by the frequent triclinia. The lack of inscriptions makes it difficult to determine a date for Little Petra, but the style of a tomb just outside the siq clearly shows Hellenistic influence.

Little Petra: Tomb with sculpted rock facade

The canyon meanders for the entire length of Little Petra with no branching off. Just as we come out of the siq, on the left, is a monument with columns; beneath it is a cave that functioned as a house and kitchen. The columns, carved from the rock, are unique to Little Petra. The monument's interior is a single room barren of decoration, but the house underneath contains several rooms, one with shelves sculpted into the walls.

  Monument with cave in Little Petra

Triclinium in Little Petra Further on, we encounter a row of four triclinia - celebration halls - complete with benches. There is evidence that each hall had a wooden table. Inside and outside, there are washbasins fed by channels from cisterns, which the Nabataeans cleverly fashioned to catch runoff from the hills.

A little past the dining rooms, on the left and up a flight of steps, is a biclinium (dining room with two benches). It contains the only surviving example of Nabataean painting. The ceiling at the back of this cave has been severely damaged by 2000 years of weather and campfires, but it is still possible to make out flowering vines, a squirrel hanging upside down, a winged cupid with a bow and arrow, and Pan with his pipe.

In the last open area before the canyon ends, a flight of stairs leads up and out of the siq to a wide ledge, then down into the wadi that leads to Petra.

Painted ceiling in the biclinium of Little Petra