Petra, Jordan

Where is it?

Petra is located in south Jordan between the Red Sea and the Dean Sea.  In a dry desert region surrounded by rocks and subject to flash floods, the inhabitants of Petra, the Nabateans, found a way to make the landscape work for them.  They settled in this region despite these difficulties because it was nearby important trading routes.

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About the Nabateans

            The Nabateans were an Arabian nomadic tribe that were thought to be on their way to Palestine when they decided to settle in Petra nearby the caravan trails in the protective red sandstone hills of the desert.  They settled in a gorge that creates the main road in Petra called the Siq in the 6th century BC.  The Nabateans were mainly farmers and bred animals, however, when they settled into Petra, they ended up capitalizing on the nearby caravan trails by connecting important trade routes east and west, north and south.

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Petra as a Trading Hub

Being situated among the caravan trails ensured Petra’s success, and by the 2nd century BC it was the capital of the Nabatean Kingdom and encompassed a 10km region with a population of around 20,000 citizens.  Petra had become a trading hub that connected China, Arabia, India, and Rome.  The desert in Jordan was a difficult and dangerous place along trade routes, and the Nabateans offered travelers safe passage, water, and shelter for a fee.  They also had tolls and placed a tax on all goods sold there.  Exchanging goods may have been expensive; however, Petra was a place that promoted free exchange of culture and ideas from across the known world.  You can see this blend in Petra by observing the Hellenistic Greek art and architecture with their ancient eastern traditions.  Even more interesting, the Nabateans spoke and wrote in a dialect of the Aramaic language, but wrote formal documents in Greek and later in Latin.

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How did they flourish in the desert?

            The Nabateans engineered an extensive water management system to control the water flow into their city as well as store the water during the rainy season for the dry season.  Because they were in a gorge, they also had to worry about flash flooding, and found a way to divert that water as well and store it for later use.  They had an extensive system connected to 3 springs several kilometers away carrying water to Petra via over 200 channels and cisterns to reservoirs.  The Nabateans used rock cut gutters lined with plaster to make them water-tight as well as terracotta pipes to carry the water.  They had several rules for water allocation, and they charged travelers for their water, but they did have fountains and even a Roman-style nymphaeum for aesthetics and leisure.

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One of the Seven Wonders of the World      

How did Petra become one of the Seven Wonders of the World?  Its architecture.  The Nabateans did not build onto the desert, they built into it.  The Nabateans carved their city into the rose red sandstone and spared no expense.  Since it was part of their culture to flaunt their wealth, and they were very serious about honoring the dead, the architecture is stunning.  The most well-known and recognized building is the Al-Khazneh or the “Treasury.”  It is a stunning façade built into the rock face, but its inside is bare and its original purpose is still unknown.  The Treasury is mostly recognized in the west because of its appearance in the movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There is a multitude of carvings in Petra including some Roman additions built when Petra was annexed by Emperor Trajan to the Roman Province of Arabia in 106 AD.  Excavations are still taking place.

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So what happened to Petra?

When the Romans took over Petra, the Nabateans flourished.  They embraced the Roman influence and even have many Roman architectural features in the city including their Roman-style theater.  However, not long after, the Romans also took over the trade routes and diverted elsewhere.  This was the beginning of the end for the wealth and power of the Nabateans.  Their city continued to decline during the Byzantine Empire, although they did embrace the spread of Christianity by converting the Um Tomb into a church, but in 636AD the Arabs conquered Petra, and by 661AD, Petra was isolated.  A series of earthquakes came next; signaling the end of the great Nabatean Kingdom.  Other than a few short instances, Petra was lost to the western world for almost 500 years.

The Bedouin tribes moved in during the 13th century AD, and became very protective of the city.  Petra was rediscovered in 1812 by Swiss Johann Ludwig Burckhardt disguised himself as an Arab, going by the name “Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah.”

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Conserving Petra

Conserving this treasure is extremely important to the Jordanians.  Petra is protected by the Department of Antiquities under the Ministry for Tourism and Antiquities by Jordan National Law.  The erosion due to wind and rain happens naturally, but because the Bedouins’ livestock reduced the land cover, making the wind erosion worse, the Bedouin Tribes relocated to Umm Sayhun 20 years ago to preserve the city.  The Nabatean flood-diversion system is also continually maintained to ensure Petra does not flood.  Tourism is also a pressure on modern Petra, however, it helps sustain and fund the city’s research and preservation.


Museums to Visit

            There are two museums to see in Petra:

  • Petra Archeological Museum
    • Opened in 1963
    • Inside a Nabatean cave on the slope of Al-Habis
    • Includes finds from several excavations
    • Emphasis on decorative elements of architecture and sculpture work
  • Petra Nabatean Museum
    • Opened in 1994
    • Includes 3 different halls to explore
    • First hall includes Petra’s history, geology, pottery work, and hydraulic engineering information
    • Second Hall includes excavation findings, and explains Petra’s trading empire and its fall
    • Third hall is filled with artifacts with an emphasis on the manufacturing of goods the Nabateans sold  

For more information (sources):

Pictures from:  (Map of Petra & Burckhardt) (Map of Jordan)  (City of Petra) (Petra Siq) (Inscriptions) (Roman Styling) (Waterworks) (Nymphaeum) (Treasury) (Indiana Jones) (Roman Theater in Petra) (Final)

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