Little Petra: Another Chapter in Jordanian History

Reader Contribution by Marilyn Jones
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After two days in Petra, our Exodus Travels tour journeys north to Siq al-Barid, known as Little Petra. Part of Petra Archeological Park, it is included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

Unlike the larger Petra area, Little Petra does not require admission and is very quiet in stark contrast with Petra, but nonetheless strikingly beautiful and mysterious. Archaeologists believe that Little Petra was established in the first century, when the Nabataean culture was at its peak in the region.

The larger Petra site was first discovered by Europeans in 1812 when a Swiss traveler, Jacob Burckhardt, became the first Western visitor since the Romans. He did not venture north of the larger Petra where Little Petra is located.

Little Petra was known only to the Bedouin nomads who sometimes camped there until the late 1950s when a British archaeologist, Diana Kirkbride, added to her excavations at Petra digs in the Beidha (a major Neolithis archaeological site) area which included Little Petra.

One feature Little Petra has that the larger Petra does not is a biclinium, or dining room, discovered in 2010. Located in one of the caves, it features art depicting grapes, vines and a winged male child thought to be in honor of the Greek god Dionysus and the consumption of wine. The 2,000-year-old ceiling frescoes are a very rare large-scale example of Hellenistic painting.

I pass a beautifully carved and ancient facade and children playing on a small sand dune before entering a narrow chasm leading to more discoveries. Caves, tombs and storage areas line the terra cotta colored canyon walls. An elderly Bedouin woman shows how she spins wool, a man plays a one-stringed instrument and children sing a traditional song for tips. A handful of merchants sell scarves and jewelry.

It is peaceful here. Visitors clamber up steep uneven steps to view the site’s famous cave paintings and a spectacular view of the canyon. We are free to go inside the caves to better understand life here centuries ago.

As we leave, our guide, Omar Hamadeen, asks a Bedouin family if we can see the inside of their tent. The tent is made of woven goat hair and is waterproof. The tent is divided into two spaces — one for the wife and daughters, and the other for the father and his sons. In the center is a fire for warmth and cooking. Most of the Bedouin tribes migrated from the Arabian Peninsula to what is now Jordan between the 14th and 18th centuries. Today Bedouins make up 33 to 40 percent of the population and live in the vast desert wasteland.  Some Bedouins in Jordan are semi-nomadic. During part of the year they adopt a nomadic existence, but return to their lands and homes in time to practice agriculture.

Little Petra holds many secrets yet uncovered. Spending time here offers yet another view of this Middle Eastern country’s past.  

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