Deep within the deserts of Jordan lies the ancient city of Petra. Through a narrow gorge it emerges into view, revealing awe-inspiring monuments cut into the surrounding cliffs. What is this astonishing city? Who built it, and why?
Two thousand years ago, Petra stood at a crossroads of the ancient Near East. Camel caravans passed through, loaded with spices, textiles and incense from distant regions--and through such commerce, the city flourished. Its people, the Nabataeans, harnessed precious water, enabling the population to soar to perhaps 20,000.
The Nabataeans also erected monumental tombs, memorializing their kings and leaders. But over time political control changed, and so did trade routes. Eventually the city fell silent, forgotten by the outside world.
Today archaeologists are discovering clues to Petra's past. The spectacular objects displayed here, many unearthed by recent excavations, shed new light on this extraordinary desert city.
Petra (from the Latin word 'petrae', meaning 'rock') lies in a great rift valley east of Wadi 'Araba in Jordan about 80 kilometers south of the Dead Sea. It came into prominence in the late first century BCE (BC) through the success of the spice trade. The city was the principal city of ancient Nabataea and was famous above all for two things: its trade and its hydraulic engineering systems. It was locally autonomous until the reign of Trajan, but it flourished under Roman rule. The town grew up around its Colonnaded Street in the first century CE (AD) and by the mid-first century had witnessed rapid urbanization. Following the flow of the Wadi Musa, the city-center was laid out on either sides of the Colonnaded Street on an elongated plan between the theater in the east and the Qasr al-Bint in the west. The quarries were probably opened in this period, and there followed virtually continuous building through the first and second centuries CE.
According to tradition, in ca. 1200 BCE, the Petra area (but not necessarily the site itself) was populated by Edomites and the area was known as Edom ("red"). Before the Israelite incursions, the Edomites controlled the trade routes from Arabia in the south to Damascus in the north. Little is known about the Edomites at Petra itself, but as a people they were known for their wisdom, their writing, their textile industry, the excellence and fineness of their ceramics, and their skilled metal working.
A rose-red city half as old as time; though these words sound like the opening lyrics to a love song, they’re instead penned by a poet and speak of an ancient civilization that carved evidence of their history deep into the soft sandstone rocks jutting toward the soft blue Jordanian skies.
Wandering through the miles of sandy roads, the nubby domes of eroded mountains visible in every direction, I was overwhelmed the moment I stepped into this ancient civilization. How did they do it? Why did they carve such beautiful structures into the side of the towering rocks? And I wondered even more, since sandstone is so delicate, why is the evidence still here a full two thousand years later?
The next chapter of history belongs to the Persian period, and it is posited that during this time the Nabataeans migrated into Edom, forcing the Edomites to move into southern Palestine. But little is known about Petra proper until about 312 BC by which time the Nabataeans, one of many Arab tribes, occupied it and made it the capital of their kingdom. At this time, during the Hellenistic rule of the Seleucids, and later, the Ptolemies, the whole area flourished with increased trade and the establishment of new towns such as Philadelphia (Rabbath 'Ammon, modern Amman) and Gerasa (modern Jerash). Infighting between the Seleucids and Ptolemies allowed the Nabataeans to gain control over the caravan routes between Arabia and Syria. Although there were struggles between the Jewish Maccabeans and the Seleucid overlords, Nabataean trade continued.
It was taller than I imagined, and more detailed. Likely carved around 100 B.C.E., the details still etched into the soft sandstone rock speak to why so many myths and stories circulate today. Is there a bounty of treasury hidden under the this carved rock? Some Bedouin through the decades have believed this story and the pockmarked surface from gun shots aimed at the upper Urn speak to a shared yearning and dream for undiscovered treasures.
With Nabataean rule, Petra became the center for a spice trade that extended from Arabia to Aqaba and Petra, and onward either to Gaza in the northwest, or to the north through Amman to Bostra, Damascus, and finally on to Palmyra and the Syrian Desert. Nabataean Classical monuments reflect the international character of the Nabataean economy through their combination of native tradition and the classical spirit.
But among the most remarkable of all Nabataean achievements is the hydraulic engineering systems they developed including water conservation systems and the dams that were constructed to divert the rush of swollen winter waters that create flash floods.
In 64-63 BCE, the Nabataeans were conquered by the Roman general, Pompey, whose policy was to restore the cities taken by the Jews. However, he retained an independent Nabataea, although the area was taxed by the Romans and served as a buffer territory against the desert tribes. Completely subsumed by the Romans under the Emperor Trajan in 106 CE, Petra and Nabataea then became part of the Roman province known as Arabia Petraea with its capital at Petra. In 131 CE Hadrian, the Roman emperor, visited the site and named it after himself, Hadriane Petra. The city continued to flourish during the Roman period, with a Triumphal Arch spanning the Siq, and tomb structures either carved out of the living rock or built free-standing. Under Roman rule, Roman Classical monuments abounded — many with Nabataean overtones.
By 313 CE (AD), Christianity had become a state-recognized religion. In 330 CE, the Emperor Constantine established the Eastern Roman Empire with its capital at Constantinople. Although the 363 earthquake destroyed half of the city, it appears that Petra retained its urban vitality into late antiquity, when it was the seat of a Byzantine bishopric. The newly excavated Petra church with its papyrus scrolls document this period, especially in the sixth century, a phenomenon less well-attested in other sites so far south of 'Amman. In this period there is also striking archaeological and documentary evidence for accommodation between Christians and the pagan aristocracy. Thereafter one can read the archaeology of a fragmented middle Byzantine community living among and re-using the abandoned limestone and sandstone elements of its classical past. The inhabitants during the Byzantine Period recycled many standing structures and rock-cut monuments, while also constructing their own buildings, including churches — such as the recently excavated Petra Church with the extraordinary mosaics. Among the rock-cut monuments they reused is the great tomb or the Ad-Dayr (known also as 'The Monastery'), which was modified into a church. With a change in trade routes, Petra's commercial decline was inevitable. An even more devastating earthquake had a severe impact on the city in 551 CE, and all but brought the city to ruin. With the rise of Islam, Petra became a backwater community. Petra was revealed to the western world in 1812 for the first time since the Crusades when it was re-discovered by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.
Archaeologists discount claims that the Treasury’s elaborate facade was built to house the booty of an Egyptian Pharaoh, instead research proved the urn on top is completely sandstone, not hidden treasure. The historians counter that the Treasury is, like many of the other huge sandstone facades, a colossal burial tomb.
Little is actually known about the Nabataean though, so in my mind I look at smooth columns and eroded statues and imagine the mythological gods and goddess that once adorned the surface. These imagined symbols of Nabataean faith would have jutted life-like out of the sandstone and then journeyed through the day as a riot of colors matching the sun’s movement across the sky. Rose-red in the soft morning light would give way to yellows and browns in the harsh light of midday before a burnt, deep orange would settle over the sandstone gods as the sun took a final bow to the creative imagination and skill of the Nabatea.
As one of the most spectacular sites in the Middle East, Petra has long attracted travelers and explorers. During the 19th century, the site was visited and documented by several Europeans, after J. L. Burckhardt’s initial visit. A synthesis of the site was published by Libbey and Hoskins in 1905, presenting one of the first overviews in print. Archaeological excavations began in earnest at the turn of the century, with the earliest scientific expedition being published in Arabia Petraea in 1907, by A. Musil. In the 1920's R. E. Brünnow and A. von Domaszewski surveyed the site and published an ambitious mapping project in their Die Provincia Arabia. This survey has since undergone many necessary revisions, the most recent of which was published by Judith McKenzie in 1990.
Modern excavations continue to increase our understanding of the site and correct the work of earlier scholars. In 1958, P. J. Parr and C. M. Bennett of the British School of Archaeology began an excavation of the city center which remains the most informative and scientific to date. Recently, the Petra/Jerash Project, undertaken by the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, the University of Jordan, the University of Utah, and Swiss archaeologists, have excavated a number of monuments at these two sites. Architectural remains now visible at Petra indicate a thriving city, however, despite almost 100 years of excavation, only one-percent of the city been investigated.
Once impressed with these first sights of Petra, and the fanciful imagining of gods that may have never existed, I moved on to the Street of Facades. Or rather, a parade of carved out tombs, that pale in individual comparison to the Treasury, but when viewed in succession they are gorgeous in their own right.
The Great Temple was first explored by Brünnow and von Domaszewski, but it was Bachmann, in his revision of the Petra city plan, who postulated the existence of a “Great Temple,” aligned with the Colonnade Street, lying on the hillside to the south. He speculated that the temple was approached through a monumental Propylaeum with a grand staircase leading into a colonnaded, terraced Lower Temenos, or sacred precinct. Another broad monumental stairway led to a second, Upper Temenos. At its center was the temple, with yet another flight of stairs leading into the temple proper. While no standing structures were revealed before these excavations, the site is littered with architectural fragments, including column drums, probably toppled by one of the earthquakes which rocked the site. Given the promise of the Great Temple precinct and its importance in understanding Petra’s architectural and intercultural history, it is remarkable that it remained unexcavated until 1993 when the Brown University investigations began.