Petra: Getting Water from Stone

Nabataeans were one of the early Arabic tribes to settle in southern Jordan. They were smart (and lucky) enough to settle on what would become one of the most important trade routes of the ancient world. Caravans would travel from Europe and North Africa through the Arabian peninsula on their way to east Asia, stopping at Petra on the way. The Nabataeans realized the value of all this traffic and made money levying tolls and selling goods and services to travelers. Because they were a major nexus for traffic from many cultures, the Nabataeans were able to absorb multiple layers of learning and engineering technology. They are especially known for their advanced hydraulic systems and their ability to deliver water in the middle of the desert.

The Obelisk Tomb and Bab As-Siq Triclinium

To get to Petra, you have to walk down the Siq, a narrow, 1 kilometer trail leading into the city. The cliff walls of the Siq are naturally formed from the same multi-colored rock that forms the rest of the city.

Before you enter the Siq is The Obelisk Tomb and Bab As-Siq Triclinium, which shows a Graeco-Roman influence. A triclinium is a room with three benches; it was used for sacred feasts to honor the dead. Much of the city of Petra is still undergoing renovation, as you can tell by the ladder next to the Tomb.

The Entrance to the Siq:From Left is Ban, Me and Dr. Muna
Cliff Walls of the Siq

 As happened to most (if not all, I’m not an archaeologist) civilizations on the Mediterranean, the Nabataeans came under the control of the Romans in 106 CE. Much of the architecture in Petra shows Roman influences, as well as African and Asian influences because of the constant flow of travelers and traders. The Obelisk Tomb is a good example of this; the obelisk is Egyptian in origin, while the columnar structure is Graeco-Roman, not to mention purely ornamental. 

Water Channel Cut into the Walls of the Siq

As you walk down the Siq, you can see a channel cut into the walls of the Siq; this channel was used to deliver water to Petra. As the city grew, the channel was covered to protect the water supply going into the city.

The Nabataeans were extremely skilled at water resources engineering, used their knowledge to harvest rainwater, filter sediment from their water supply, and deliver pressurized water to the people of Petra. They also used it ornamentally, creating artificial waterfalls.

Remains of a Circular Pipe Carved into the Walls of the Siq

The photo below shows a channel that collected rainwater as it fell on the walls of the Siq and flowed down over the carved ridges, created an artificial waterfall.

Rainwater Channel with Carved Ridges for a Waterfall Effect

Public water sources were available throughout Petra. These sources were often indicated by a carving such as the one shown below, which is known as a djinn.

Camels Keeping Company with a Carved Djinn

As you exit the Siq, you walk into the an open courtyard dominated by the Al-Khazneh or Treasury. Thought to have been the tomb of a 1st century BCE Nabataean King, the Khazneh is 43 meters (141 feet) high and 30 meters (98.5 feet) wide. It is the most impressive structure in Petra and is one of the ancient wonders of the world. The Siq and the face of the Khazneh were featured in the third Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. You really can’t appreciate grandeur of the Khazneh unless you see it in person.


Much of the rock face in Petra is carved and hollowed out; some of these were residences, tombs and churches. The interiors of these shows a marvelous striated rock.

A Tomb in Petra
Interior Wall and Ceiling of a Residence in Petra

Another spectacular site in Petra is Ad-Deir, the Monastery. You have to climb 778 steps (by my count) to get to Ad-Deir, but the reward is another beautifully carved entrance and view of the area surrounding Petra. Many local entrepreneurs hang around the steps leading up to the Monastery, offering donkey rides up the steps: “Only 5 Dinar” or “It’s a one-hour climb; only 20 minutes by donkey” or “1000 steps up to the Monastery; ride my donkey” or my personal favorite, “Try before you fly. Michael Jackson.” First, it only took me 45 minutes and I stopped several times to rest. Second, when you tell them it’s not actually 1000 steps, they try to bargain with you: “850 steps.” Third, and this is the sad part, the donkeys did not seem well cared for. Most of them had chains around their muzzles that were too tight, causing festering, and I didn’t see a single donkey handler (not sure what else to call them) carrying water for their donkey once they hauled a lazy tourist up to the top. So I chose to haul myself and I didn’t regret it.

The Face of the Monastery
The Climb up to the Monastery

All in all, Petra was one of the most overwhelming experiences of my life. There was so much detail that I missed. It would have taken me another week to see all of the noted sites in Petra, and a lifetime to study their significance. I am definitely going back.