Umm Al-Biyara: Petra’s Not-So-Hidden Jewel

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Although the mountain of Umm Al-Biyara, or “Mother of Cisterns,” is one of the most prominent peaks in Petra and offers visitors dramatic views as well as impressive Nabataean ruins, it is one of the lesser known hikes in Petra.
Although the mountain of Umm Al-Biyara, or “Mother of Cisterns,” is one of the most prominent peaks in Petra and offers visitors dramatic views as well as impressive Nabataean ruins, it is one of the lesser known hikes in Petra. Photo by Wiebke Lepke.

Petra has many things to offer visitors who come to explore its dramatic tomb facades and the many ancient temples and buildings situated along the city’s main colonnaded thoroughfare. Petra’s beauty and grandeur, however, can only be fully appreciated from above, especially when seen from one of the scenic trails that ascend to the summits of the surrounding mountains. The most well-known hikes are those to Ed-Deir (the Monastery) and the High Place of Sacrifice. But if you’re looking for a less frequented and secluded hike, the one to the top of Umm Al-Biyara is for you.

A Google Earth image showing the path from Petra’s Colonnaded Street to the well-hidden staircase that leads to the summit of Umm Al-Biyara. Also highlighted is the location of a “secret” spot on Umm Al-Biyara featuring intriguing Nabataean carvings.
A Google Earth image showing the path from Petra’s Colonnaded Street to the well-hidden staircase that leads to the summit of Umm Al-Biyara. Also highlighted is the location of a “secret” spot on Umm Al-Biyara featuring intriguing Nabataean carvings.

Umm Al-Biyara (“Mother of Cisterns”) is Petra’s highest and most prominent mountain and looks directly over the ancient city center. It is topped by a flat plateau that slopes slightly downward toward the city. On top are the remains of Edomite buildings from the seventh–sixth centuries B.C., and more recent excavations have revealed a splendid Nabataean/Roman bath complex that overlooks the entire city.

The hike to the top of Umm Al-Biyara is a minimum half-day trip. Good walking shoes, sun screen, a hat, and plenty of water are essential, as the ascent is quite steep and challenging, especially during the heat of the day. Since Umm Al-Biyara is at the heart of Petra, hikers should account for the walk in and out of the park as well.

A narrow but well-marked staircase guides hikers up a series of switchbacks to the summit of Umm Al-Biyara. Photo by Wiebke Lepke.
A narrow but well-marked staircase guides hikers up a series of switchbacks to the summit of Umm Al-Biyara. Photo by Wiebke Lepke.

The biggest challenge when hiking Umm Al-Biyara, however, is simply knowing where to begin. Listed here are step-by-step instructions (along with the path marked on Google Earth) for reaching the well-hidden staircase that takes hikers from the mountain’s base to the summit.

  • From the Colonnaded Street, turn left just after passing Qasr Al-Bint; take the small path between the temple and “Nazzal’s Camp” (the fenced building at the foot of Jabal Al-Habis)
  • Follow the path south towards the hill of Az-Zantur and the lone standing column that stands beside the path (there is also a Bedouin coffee shop there if you need a refresher before the strenuous hike ahead)
  • Continue walking south along the path (in the direction of Petra’s Snake Monument), with Umm Al-Biyara on your right
  • As the path descends, you will cross a small wadi (valley) and then pass on the right a small rocky outcrop occupied by a local Bedouin family
  • Just after passing this outcrop, begin working your way up the slope to the right; after about 30 m, you will find a sign marking Umm Al-Biyara and the beginning of the staircase that leads to the mountain’s summit
Once on top of Umm Al-Biyara, visitors are treated to wonderful views over the heart of the ancient city. Photo by Wiebke Lepke.
Once on top of Umm Al-Biyara, visitors are treated to wonderful views over the heart of the ancient city. Photo by Wiebke Lepke.

The Umm Al-Biyara hike takes between 30 minutes and one hour, depending on physical ability and number of breaks needed. The trail is very steep in parts, but the staircase to the top is generally secure and well maintained. And be sure to stop regularly to take in the view, since the dramatic ascent reveals a constantly changing perspective on the city below.

Once you reach the top, you can survey the remains of Edomite structures, as well as the recent excavations of the Nabataean/Roman bath house. But be careful, as the summit also features a number of deep holes bored into the bedrock, which are in actuality the openings to the many ancient cisterns that the mountain’s inhabitants used to collect and harvest rainwater.

Hewn into Umm Al-Biyara’s summit are openings for the many cisterns that were used by the mountain’s ancient inhabitants to capture and harvest precious winter rains. But for the modern visitor trekking across the summit, the simple, often concealed openings also present dangerous hazards. Photo by Wiebke Lepke.
Hewn into Umm Al-Biyara’s summit are openings for the many cisterns that were used by the mountain’s ancient inhabitants to capture and harvest precious winter rains. But for the modern visitor trekking across the summit, the simple, often concealed openings also present dangerous hazards. Photo by Wiebke Lepke.

Perhaps Umm Al-Biyara’s greatest treasure, however, is a well-hidden rock outcrop that features a splendid array of Nabataean religious carvings, including several remarkable betyl idols. The outcrop is quite difficult to find, however, so here are some insider’s tips for locating this secret spot (the location is marked on the Google Earth image above):

  • From the monumental Roman structures visible on the east of the plateau, walk up the slope towards the western side of the summit where you will find a small, natural expanse with a small cave carved into a rock outcrop
  • Keep to the right (with the cave on your left), face north, and then enter a narrow passage that leads between the rocks
  • After entering a couple of meters into the passage, make a left at the first opportunity
  • After a brief scramble down, the narrow passage will lead you onto a small plateau
  • Once on the plateau, face west and look for a large fallen boulder; hike around the boulder on its right side, climbing slightly downward
  • On your left, look for the overhang created by the fallen boulder, where you will find some of the more impressive rock carvings Petra has to offer
Hidden in a secluded spot on the northwestern corner of Umm Al-Biyara’s summit is this overhang created by a large fallen boulder. Carved into the rock face are several intriguing Nabataean cultic niches, as well as various ancient inscriptions. Photo by Wiebke Lepke.
Hidden in a secluded spot on the northwestern corner of Umm Al-Biyara’s summit is this overhang created by a large fallen boulder. Carved into the rock face are several intriguing Nabataean cultic niches, as well as various ancient inscriptions. Photo by Wiebke Lepke.

Wiebke Lepke is a graduate student in the World Heritage Studies program at Brandenburgische Technische Universität in Cottbus, Germany. In summer 2015, she worked as an intern for ACOR’s TWLCRM Initiative.

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