History and museums
Little Petra (Arabic: البتراء الصغيرة, al-batrā aṣ-ṣaġïra), also known as Siq al-Barid (Arabic: سيق البريد, literally "the cold canyon") is an archaeological site located north of Petra and the town of Wadi Musa in the Ma'an Governorate of Jordan. Like Petra, it is a Nabataean site, with buildings carved into the walls of the sandstone canyons. As its name suggests, it is much smaller, consisting of three wider open areas connected by a 450-metre (1,480 ft) canyon. It is part of the Petra Archeological Park, though accessed separately, and included in Petra's inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is often visited by tourists in conjunction with Petra itself, since it is free and usually less crowded.
Like Petra, it was probably built during the height of Nabataean influence during the 1st century C.E. While the purpose of some of the buildings is not clear, archaeologists believe that the whole complex was a suburb of Petra, the Nabatean capital, meant to house visiting traders on the Silk Road. After the decline of the Nabataeans, it fell vacant, used only by Bedouin nomads, for centuries. Along with neighboring Beidha, Little Petra was excavated in the later 20th century by Diana Kirkbride and Brian Byrd.
In 2010, a biclinium, or dining room, in one of the caves was discovered to have surviving interior art depicting grapes, vines and putti in great detail with a varied palette, probably in homage to the Greek god Dionysus and the consumption of wine. The 2,000-year-old ceiling frescoes in the Hellenistic style have since been restored. While they are not only the only known example of interior Nabataean figurative painting in situ, they are a very rare large-scale example of Hellenistic painting, considered superior even to similar later Roman paintings at Herculaneum
Little Petra is in an arid, mountainous desert region 1,040 metres (3,410 ft) above sea level. To the east the Arabian Desert opens up. On the west the rugged terrain soon descends into the Jordan Rift Valley, with lands around the Dead Sea as low as 400 metres (1,300 ft) below sea level.
It is on the local road that leaves Wadi Musa and follows the edge of the mountains around Petra itself through the small Bedouin village of Umm Sayhoun. About 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) north of Wadi Musa, a short road to the west leads to the small, unpaved parking lot for Little Petra and Beidha, a Neolithic site nearby. There is another small Bedouin settlement 1 km (0.6 mi) to the east.
From the parking lot Siq al-Barid opens up in the rock facade to the west southwest. Its name, literally "cold canyon", comes from its orientation and its high walls preventing the entry of most available sunlight. The modern name "Little Petra" comes from its similarities to the larger site to the south—both must be entered via a narrow canyon, and consist primarily of Nabataean buildings.
The canyon widens after 400 metres (1,300 ft). In this open area many of the sandstone walls have had openings carved into them; they were used as dwellings. On the south face is a colonnaded triclinium with a projecting pedimented portico that archaeologists believe was used as a temple, though they know very little about it.
The canyon then narrows again for another 50 m (150 ft), leading to another, smaller open area. The carved openings are even more numerous here, including four large triclinia. Archaeologists believe these spaces could have been used to entertain visiting merchants.
On the south side is a small biclinium. It has some rare surviving Nabataean paintings on its rear wall, and so it is called the Painted Room. Opposite the room on the north is a large cistern, part of the water system built by the original inhabitants.
At the west end of the canyon a set of steps leads to the top of the rock. There are panoramic views available of the entire Petra region. A lightly-used foot trail leads from there to Ad-Deir at Petra, 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) to the southwest.
Archaeologists believe that Little Petra was established in the 1st century C.E., when the Nabataean culture was at its peak in the region. It was probably a suburb of the larger city to the south, perhaps where its more successful merchants lived, and entertained their visiting counterparts. The location may have been chosen because of the nearby older settlement of Beidha, inhabited since the earlier Neolithic era. Since investigations of the site have generally focused on the Nabataean and earlier periods, it is not known whether it was still inhabited around the same time Petra itself was ultimately abandoned, in the 7th century.
For the remainder of the millennium, and much of the next, Little Petra remained unknown to all but the Bedouin nomads who sometimes camped in it or its vicinity. Europeans, who could not visit the Arab world under Islamic rule, heard about Petra but were unsure of its existence. When Swiss traveler Jacob Burckhardt became the first Western visitor to Petra since Roman times in 1812, he did not venture to its north, or did not write about it. Later Western visitors to the region likewise seem to have concentrated on the main Petra site. Only in the late 1950s did British archaeologist Diana Kirkbride supplement her excavations at Petra itself with digs in the Beidha area, which included Little Petra, not described as a separate site at the time. Those digs continued until 1983, two years before UNESCO inscribed the Petra area, including Beidha and Little Petra, as a World Heritage Site.
Following that designation, tourism to Petra increased, and spiked upwards again following the 1989 release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which climaxed with the main characters riding down Petra's Siq to Al-Khazneh, where they found the Holy Grail. To assure that this growth benefited the region and did not degrade its archaeological resources, the Petra Regional Authority was created to manage all the resources within a 755-square-kilometre (292 sq mi) area. Beidha and Little Petra, among other satellite sites, were included in the 264-square-kilometre (102 sq mi) Petra Archaeological Park. The village of Umm Sayhoun was built between Wadi Musa and the two sites to house the Bedouin.
In 2010, archaeologists made public a discovery from the 1980s. In one of the small biclinia in the western open area, a nearly intact ceiling fresco had been mostly concealed by years of soot from Bedouin campfires and graffiti. Restorers from London's Courtauld Institute of Art were hired in 2007; the existence of the paintings was announced once their work was complete. The area has since been opened to visiting tourists; it is known colloquially as the Painted House.
The frescoes depict, with considerable detail, images related to wine consumption, possibly reflecting worship of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. They use a variety of paints and materials, including gold leaf and translucent glazes. Three species of grapes have been identified in them, along with two birds (a demoiselle crane and Palestinian sunbird). Other elements include putti playing the flute and fighting off the birds. "The sheer quality of the painting is magical," said Lisa Sherkede, one of the Courtauld's restorers.
In addition to its aesthetic accomplishments, the art has considerable historic significance. While much Nabataean architecture and sculpture remains, Nabataean painting is very rare today. Courtauld expert David Park says the Little Petra frescoes are, in fact, "the only surviving in situ figurative Nabataean wall painting." They are also rare as a large intact surviving Hellenistic painting, since most that do survive are fragments. Another restorer, Stephen Rickerby, says they "are as good as, or better than, some of the Roman paintings you see, for example at Herculaneum" which show Hellenistic influence.
Like Petra, Little Petra is open to the public during the daytime. It is, however, operated separately, and does not require an admission ticket and fee as Petra does. The local Bedouins sell souvenirs and snacks in the small parking lot, which also serves Beidha. Bedouin herders sometimes take their stock into the site to water at the cisterns.
Many visitors to Petra have increasingly been including Little Petra on their itineraries. Guidebooks recommend it as less crowded and more relaxed than Petra itself. The Painted House, which has no counterpart at Petra, has also added to the attraction.
It is also possible to hike via the 6-kilometre (3.7 mi) trail from the end of the canyon to Ad-Deyr at Petra. Those who make the journey are advised to do so with a guide as the trail, while obvious in many places, is not formally marked. Hikers are also cautioned against attempting the trail alone, or late in the day, as nights in the region are often cold. It is also forbidden to enter Petra without having paid the larger site's admission.