As you emerge from the gorge and enter the city proper, you immediately come across one of its most striking structures, the Khazne al-Firaun. It’s the first of a series of elaborate rock-cut tombs, which can be up to 50 metres wide and up to 40 metres high – equivalent to 165 by 130 feet. Such tombs are scattered throughout the city. Some of large-scale facades even lie just beyond the edge of the city, for instance the Obelisk Tomb, the Ad Deir and the Tomb of the Roman Soldier.
Some of the buildings owe their present names to the local Bedouins, who were sometimes quite fanciful. Khazne al-Firaun, for instance, means "Treasury of the Pharaoh". Others, like the Urn Tomb, were named for their appearance, still others after their architectural style, like the Corinthian Tomb. Especially impressive is what’s known as the Kings’ Wall with the Royal Tombs, which consists of 13 monumental façades. As well as these large façade tombs, where are also several hundred smaller ones and a great many simple rock-cut burial chambers.
In antiquity, Petra was awash with colour: all the facades and interiors were stuccoed and colourfully painted. But only minor traces have survived the centuries. Inscriptions tell of walled courtyards with rows of columns, more buildings and rock-cut rooms, cisterns and even gardens. The existence of all these has been confirmed by excavations.
The major tomb complexes are thought to have been built between 50 BC and 100 AD, during the heyday of the Nabataean kingdom. The largest are thought to have housed the tombs of the Nabataean kings. But since neither finds nor inscriptions exist, the precise construction date remains uncertain. Only the tomb of the Roman Sextius Florentinus bears a name – it’s the only one whose owner is known.