The Nabateans were Arabic-speaking nomads who selected the best oases to settle in. And they used the inaccessible mountains to protect themselves from bandits and highway robbers.
But these people were a desert people, so they had no architectural heritage of their own. The Petra style was therefore a jumble of influences absorbed along the trading routes: Egyptian, Assyrian, Hellenistic, Mesopotamian and Roman imagery.
By the C2nd BC, Petra was already internationally famous for its natural and architectural beauty, for its wealth and its pink colours. Petra had c30,000 people who used their knowledge of the desert to become a junction of the main caravan routes; spices came from the east to Egypt and the Mediterranean, all of it taxed in Petra.
Apart from the large, carved funerary monuments, ordinary facilities were also built eg baths, houses, theatres, water pipes, cisterns, temples. The vast tracts of the Nabataean Empire can be seen in the remains of their innovative networks of water capture, storage, transport and irrigation systems, showing how survival in this desert landscape flourished.
To get in, the visitor had to go via 1.5 ks of a narrow siq-gorge, surrounded by staggering 100m cliffs made of sheer pink sandstone. The siq’s entrance used to be marked by a Roman archway, but now only the vertical ruins are visible.
Enter the city via this pink sandstone sik/gorge
Petra’s siq first opens onto the vast façade of the C3rd BC Treasury and its towers, precisely and deeply carved into the soft sandstone mountainside. Built as a royal tomb, there was a constant belief that the giant urn carved into the centre of the second tier contained vast, hidden gold. But while the grand edifice was a statement of their wealth, the building was actually just a hall.
There are dozens of tombs and other built structures within Petra. The space from the Treasury to Qasr al-Bint is Petra’s main central business district, with the outlying hills further away. Though the weather-worn rockface is still peppered with ancient dwellings and sepulchres, many are more modest and some are unfinished.
Alas for Petra, its increasing influence and prosperity was seen as a threat to Rome; in 106 AD, Emperor Trajan annexed the Nabataeans into the Roman province of Arabia, with Petra as the capital. Once Romans took control of the trade routes, diverting them towards Bosra, Petra's decline was inevitable. This decline was worsened by early C6th earth quakes.
There was a second building resurgence during the later C6th AD, this time under Byzantine rule when Christianity arrived. Many buildings were converted to churches.
Which might explain why the tomb/hall was called a monastery. Following the route walked by the faithful, the Monastery was later re-purposed by the Crusaders as a temple. Crosses etched into the walls inside the building showed the Byzantines’ priority. But, still, why did religious pilgrims come to Petra?
Petra had been the location of many Biblical events. Moses struck a rock here, in order to give water to his people en route from Egypt to Israel. And the altar where Abraham intended to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac was also here. Lastly note a small white mosque called Jebel Haroun, the biblical mountain tomb in Mount Hor where Moses’ brother Aaron was buried. Aaron was sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Note the smallish platform known as the High Place of Sacrifice. The altar was a sacrificial site where priests cut the throats of beasts, in front of the pilgrims.
Ampitheatre with 8,000 seats
Next to the Treasury is the C1st AD Ampitheatre, dug out of the mountainside. Apparently there were surrounding buildings, but the Romans pulled them down because they spoilt the site’s acoustics. The 33 concentric tiers of seating could hold 8000 people in the audience!! People packed in for poetry reading, pantomimes and especially Roman gladiatorial contests.
So Petra is a place that has borne witness to the rise and fall of one civilisation after another. Yet the city remained hidden from the West since the time of the Crusades because local Bedouin tribes feared an influx of greedy treasure hunters.
In 1809, Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt moved to Aleppo, as part of his work with a British association seeing the source of the Niger River. He mastered Arabic, converted to Islam, wore a full beard and took the name Sheikh Ibrahim bin Abdullah. En route to Cairo, he heard rumour of ruins hidden in the Wadi Musa mountains!! But the locals need not have worried - the treasure Burckhardt sought was scientific not profiteering.
Map of Jordan and Israel, marking Amman, Petra, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv
Burckhardt’s plan in 1812 worked. When he entered Petra, he was the first outsider to do so for centuries. He was amazed by countless tombs and the great amphitheatre carved into the rock. Having surprised his guide with his incursions, Burckhardt was hurried to the city’s parched core, the Colonnaded St and Qasr al-Bint. Burckhardt dared venture no further; his exploration of Petra was soon over. Luckily he had secretly made notes and sketches in his diary. Burckhardt sent a letter back to his colleagues excitedly reporting his discovery, but he hardly had time to enjoy his fame. He died in 1817, at 32.
With no surviving written sources, Petra’s built environment provides academics’ most valuable resource. Scholars know the Nabataeans were in Petra since 312 BC, yet no one has found any archaeological evidence from back then. Clearly most of the city is still underground. Now modern archaeological research is continuing by Jordanian, Israeli and foreign teams. In 1985, Petra was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.