The ancient Nabataean city of Petra

Petra Bjelica
The Monastery, Petra. Author: Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 3.0

Petra is one of the most fascinating archaeological sites and tourist attractions in the world, full of forsaken tombs and rock-hewn temples. But, for some 600 years, it was completely forgotten and erased from Western knowledge.

It wasn’t until a curious Swiss explorer disguised himself as a Bedouin in order to be taken a secret old town. It was the amazement and awe he experienced upon reaching Petra that revealed his disguise and false identity.

It was the year 1812 and Jean Louis Burckhardt will be remembered as its re-discoverer. Ever since, this stunning city hasn’t ceased to amaze tourists, archeologists, scholars, or travelers.

Petra, First Glimpse of the Treasury. Author: David Bjorgen,CC-BY-SA 2.5

It is situated in modern-day Jordan but at its zenith in the 1st century BC, Petra was the capital of the Nabatean Empire which numbered about 30,000 people.

This location, between the Dead and Red sea and near the crossroads of important trade routes, insured a flow of prosperity.

One route was used for connecting the Mediterranean Sea, meaning the Romans and Greeks, with the Persian Gulf.

Where Indian spices and Chinese silks were traded, while the other linked the Red Sea to Syria.

Nabateans were a nomadic Arabic tribe, considered by some as one of the most talented ancient societies who managed to build ingenious water management system.

In addition with its easily defendable location, it is understandable why this city rose to such prosperity.

In front of the Treasury, Petra at night. Author: JordanieSylvain L., CC-by-2.0

There is further evidence of earlier settlements; excavations have found remains from the Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic period, and again around 1200 BC of the Old Testament’s Edomite culture.

Shortly after or during the 1 century BC, it was annexed to the Roman Empire which led to the decline of its important commercial and ceremonial role.

But it was not until a massive earthquake in 363 AD destroyed the water system and left it devastated and abandoned.

During the crusades, it was also inhabited, but after the 7th century, Petra was forgotten by the rest of the world.

Theater, Petra. Author: Douglas Perkins, CC-by-2.0

The “rose-red city half as old as time,” as depicted in a song by John Willian Burgon, is completely surrounded by mountains and protected by narrow gorges.

Half-built and half-carved in vibrant orange, pink and rose-red stone, Petra means ‘the rock’ in Greek.

Full of empty temples, tombs, tunnels, channels, dams, cisterns, and reservoirs, it covers an area of 6 square kilometers and lies on the slope of the biblical Mount Hor.

Archeologists claim that only 15% of the city is uncovered and 85% still remains unexcavated.

Palace Tomb and Corinthian Tomb, Petra. Author: Bernard Gagnon, CC-by-2.0

Petra is a great example of a combination of many influences blending into a coherent and unique style. Among the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Assyrian and Roman elements, there is also an amalgam of traditional Nabataean rock-cut building and Hellenistic facades.

The most famous and elaborated building is Al-Khazneh, known as the Treasury.

Rock Cut Tombs, Petra. Author: Rhys Davenport, CC-by-2.0

It was actually a tomb for the Nabataean king, mistaken as a place of hidden treasure. Going through a very narrow gorge 1km long and called the Siq, one would arrive at the mystical monolithic edifice.

It is precisely the one seen in most pictures of Petra, made world-wide famous when appeared in the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Today, it is a place where tourists and visitors can experience Bedouin storytelling and singing during the night.

The Treasury (Al Khazneh) in Petra at sunset, viewed from the top of the Siq. Author: Paul Stocker, CC-BY-2.0

A couple of kilometers further and about 800 steps high stands the largest temple in Petra. Al Deir or the Monastery is carved into a mountain wall, it is 48.3 meters high and 47 meters wide with an entrance door of 8 meters.

It is believed to have been a temple of the deity Dushara, Lord of the Mountains, one of the chief Nabataean gods associated with Zeus.

The Monastery, Petra. Author: Diego Delso, CC BY-SA

Besides these two, there are many more structures arduously cut and carved into the sandstone. This stone is quite soft and if it was not for the fact that very little rain falls in Jordan, many of them would have long ago collapsed or dissolved.

It is only one of the possible threats since there is an ongoing erosion. In 1985 Petra was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage sites and on that occasion has occurred the resettlement of the Bedouin tribe Bdul, since their livestock was eroding the terrain.

From that period forward, a lot of energy has been involved in creating a functional management of the site. Nevertheless, the vast number of tourists visiting regularly present an ongoing erosion threat as well.

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In 2007 Petra was declared one of the Seven New Wonders of the World and is on all must-see lists of magical places to visit on the planet.