Petra: The City Of Tombs Carved Into The Jordanian Desert

A curious and secluded necropolis is carved out of the rock in the Jordanian desert. Who built it? What happened to its inhabitants? Why did the city remain hidden for so many centuries?

Ancient city of Petra
Petra was the capital of the Nabatean Kingdom

Tales of returning travellers inspired the Victorian scholar John Burgon, later Dean of Chichester in England, to immortalize the ancient city of Petra: 'Match me a marvel save in Eastern clime/ A rose-red city half as old as time.' Equally inappropriate, for Petra is not rose-red, but perhaps more evocative of the colours of the place, while the comment made by Edward Lear's Italian cook, Giorgio: 'O master, we have come into a world where everything is made of chocolate, ham, curry-powder, and salmon.

Petra is hewn out of the rock within a ring of almost impenetrable mountains in the Jordanian desert, and even today can be reached only on foot or on horseback. From the Wadi Musa, or valley of Moses, close to the village of Elji, the path to Petra narrows to become the Siq, a dark defile little more than one metre (3ft) wide in places. The Siq winds its way through the mountains for nearly 1.5km (1mi) while cliffs tower above the humans and horses below. On both sides are decorated carved blocks with golden brownstone with channels cut into the rock to bring in water. Without warning the Siq emerges from the gloom into the sunshine and the visitor sees the first and most dramatic sight of Petra: the Khazneh, a glowing, dusky red Nabataean temple carved from rock.

Petra's Ancient Ruins

The well-preserved Khazneh or Treasury shows distinct Greek influence in its statues, niches, and columns. Was it a temple, tomb, or treasury? It was possibly all three, although its name is derived from a legend that a pharaoh's treasure was hidden in the urn at the top of the monument. For many years until the practice was officially forbidden, the local Bedouin would fire their guns at the urn in hope of being showered with its glittery contents. The building was probably used as a tomb since tombs abound in Petra: from the Royal Urn Tomb carved into a cliffside, to the public tombs with burial chambers set in the walls and the horrific shaft tombs into which criminals were pushed alive.

Roman ruins become apparent as the visitor progresses into the heart of the city, particularly the immense theatre on a hillside with 33 rows for over 3,000 spectators. The Romans also created the Colonnade road through the once-bustling central area of 2nd-century Petra: markets lined the road and the public drinking fountain, the Nymphaeum, dedicated to the water nymphs, provided shade and cooling water in the heat of the summer.

The Colonnade Road leads to the sacred Temenos area, originally protected by doors. At its heart is the free-standing Nabataean temple Kasr El Bint, which is now in ruins and probably dates from the 1st-century BC. Although a shrine to the deity Dusares, its name means the castle of the Daughter of the Pharaoh - why it should be so, remains a mystery. Just to the west is the modern museum housed in a tomb or temple. Much less accessible is the Deir or Monastery, one of the most striking sights of Petra, built into a shoulder of the mountain and also surmounted by an Urn. On the long climb up the wadi al Deir are a series of caves full of carved crosses which recall the short Christian era of Petra but whose function remains unresolved.

Who Were The Inhabitants Of Petra?

An extraordinarily skilled nomadic tribe of shepherds called the Nabataeans made Petra the centre of their empire over 2,000 years ago. They originated in northwest Arabia and over a period of 600 years from the 5th century BC spread their dominion as far North as Damascus. An even earlier settlement of Edomites - Edom, meaning red, is the biblical name for this region of the Middle East - predated the Nabataeans, but it was the latter who carved the city out of rock. They also developed their own style of architecture, unique and delicate pottery, and, vital to the history and success of Petra, a sophisticated system of water engineering.

Petra Theatre
Petra Theatre

Strategically situated at the crossroads of ancient trade routes, Petra thronged with merchants bringing goods from the Mediterranean, Egypt, Damascus, and Arabia. With Petra as an almost impregnable base, the Nabataeans controlled the caravan routes, grew wealthy, and prospered. Rock was all-important, so it was not surprising to discover their chief god, Dushara, was symbolized by blocks of stone and by obelisks found in the Siq and throughout the city. And sometime later the city was called Petra, meaning rock.

In the centuries before and after the birth of Christ, the Nabataeans were at the height of their power, and a population of around 20,000 lived within Petra. From time to time they had to defend themselves from attacks by their neighbours, particularly the Romans from the north who, in 63 BC, had planned to take Petra by storm. They finally succeeded in AD 106 when, seemingly without a struggle, the city of Petra became part of the Roman province of Arabia.

Although the Nabataean dynasty had come to an end, the people coexisted with the Romans for more than a century. During this time, Petra continued to prosper, and the Romans added the theatre and the colonnaded street. When Petra became a part of the Christian Byzantine Empire in the 4th century AD, one of the largest Nabataean tombs, the Urn Tomb, was converted into a church and the city became the seat of a bishop. But after the rise of the Moslems in the 7th century AD, history is silent on the fate of Petra, save for a brief sojourn by the Crusaders who built a small castle on top of a hill to the west.

The Rediscovery Of The City

A young Anglo-Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, on his way from Damascus to Cairo in 1812, heard rumours of an ancient city set in a mountain fastness and he determined to find it. He had already learned to speak Arabic so he disguised himself as a Moslem trader, one Ibrahim ibn Abdallah, who had vowed to God that he would sacrifice a goat to the prophet Aaron at his tomb on top of Gebel Haroun, a high hill overlooking the rumoured city.

Al Khazneh Temple
Al Khazneh Temple

This elaborate cover story was made necessary by the mistrust of strangers felt by the local Bedouin tribesmen. At Elji, Burkhardt persuaded two Bedouin to guide him along the wadi Musa through the Siq to the Khazneh, where under the cover of his robes he managed to make a drawing of the building. He made a brief excursion around the city and, with darkness falling, he sacrificed the goat at the foot of Aaron's shrine before returning to Elji, his mission accomplished. Now you have read about the ancient city of Petra, make sure you learn about Knossos: The Labyrinthine City, Bull-Leapers & The Palace Of Minos.


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