Petra (Arabic: البتراء, Al-Batrāʾ; Ancient Greek: Πέτρα), originally known to the Nabataeans as Raqmu, is a historical and archaeological city in southern Jordan. The city is famous for its rock-cut architecture and water conduit system. Another name for Petra is the Rose City due to the color of the stone out of which it is carved.
Established possibly as early as 312 BC as the capital city of the Arab Nabataeans, it is a symbol of Jordan, as well as Jordan’s most-visited tourist attraction. The Nabataeans were nomadic Arabs who took advantage of Petra’s proximity to regional trade routes to establish it as a major trading hub. The Nabataeans are also known for their great ability in constructing efficient water-collecting methods in the barren deserts and their talent in carving structures into solid rocks. Petra lies on the slope of Jebel al-Madhbah (identified by some as the biblical Mount Hor) in a basin among the mountains which form the eastern flank of Arabah (Wadi Araba), the large valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985.
The site remained unknown to the western world until 1812, when it was introduced by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. It was described as “a rose-red city half as old as time” in a Newdigate Prize-winning poem by John William Burgon. UNESCO has described it as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage”. Petra was named amongst the New7Wonders of the World in 2007 and was also chosen by the Smithsonian Magazine as one of the “28 Places to See Before You Die”.
Pliny the Elder and other writers identify Petra as the capital of the Nabataeans and the center of their caravan trade. Enclosed by towering rocks and watered by a perennial stream, Petra not only possessed the advantages of a fortress, but controlled the main commercial routes which passed through it to Gaza in the west, to Bosra and Damascus in the north, to Aqaba and Leuce Come on the Red Sea, and across the desert to the Persian Gulf.
Excavations have demonstrated that it was the ability of the Nabataeans to control the water supply that led to the rise of the desert city, creating an artificial oasis. The area is visited by flash floods, and archaeological evidence demonstrates the Nabataeans controlled these floods by the use of dams, cisterns and water conduits. These innovations stored water for prolonged periods of drought and enabled the city to prosper from its sale.
In ancient times, Petra might have been approached from the south on a track leading across the plain of Petra, around Jabal Haroun (“Aaron’s Mountain”), the location of the Tomb of Aaron, said to be the burial-place of Aaron, brother of Moses. Another approach was possibly from the high plateau to the north. Today, most modern visitors approach the site from the east. The impressive eastern entrance leads steeply down through a dark, narrow gorge (in places only 3–4 m (9.8–13.1 ft) wide) called the Siq (“the shaft”), a natural geological feature formed from a deep split in the sandstone rocks and serving as a waterway flowing into Wadi Musa. At the end of the narrow gorge stands Petra’s most elaborate ruin, Al Khazneh (popularly known as and meaning “the Treasury”), hewn into the sandstone cliff. While remaining in remarkably preserved condition, the face of the structure is marked by hundreds of bullet holes made by the local Bedouin tribes that hoped to dislodge riches that were once rumored to be hidden within it.
A little farther from the Treasury, at the foot of the mountain called en-Nejr, is a massive theatre, positioned so as to bring the greatest number of tombs within view. At the point where the valley opens out into the plain, the site of the city is revealed with striking effect. The amphitheatre has been cut into the hillside and into several of the tombs during its construction. Rectangular gaps in the seating are still visible. Almost enclosing it on three sides are rose-colored mountain walls, divided into groups by deep fissures and lined with knobs cut from the rock in the form of towers.
By 2010 BC, some of the earliest recorded farmers had settled in Beidha, a pre-pottery settlement just north of Petra. Petra is listed in Egyptian campaign accounts and the Amarna letters as Pel, Sela or Seir. Though the city was founded relatively late, a sanctuary has existed there since very ancient times. The Jewish historian, Josephus (ca. 37–100), describes the region as inhabited by the Madianite nation as early as 1340 BC, and that the nation was governed by five kings, whom he names: “Rekem; the city which bears his name ranks highest in the land of the Arabs and to this day is called by the whole Arabian nation, after the name of its royal founder, Rekeme: called Petra by the Greeks.” The famed architecture of Petra, and other Nabataean sites, was built during indigenous rule in early antiquity.
The Semitic name of the city, if not Sela, remains unknown. The passage in Diodorus Siculus (xix. 94–97) which describes the expeditions which Antigonus sent against the Nabataeans in 312 BC is understood to throw some light upon the history of Petra, but the “petra” (rock) referred to as a natural fortress and place of refuge cannot be a proper name and the description implies that the metropolis was not yet in existence, although its place was used by Arabians.
The native dynasty came to an end but the city continued to flourish under Roman rule. It was around this time that the Petra Roman Road was built. A century later, in the time of Alexander Severus, when the city was at the height of its splendor, the issue of coinage comes to an end. There is no more building of sumptuous tombs, owing apparently to some sudden catastrophe, such as an invasion by the neo-Persian power under the Sassanid Empire. Meanwhile, as Palmyra (fl. 130–270) grew in importance and attracted the Arabian trade away from Petra, the latter declined. It appears, however, to have lingered on as a religious centre. Another Roman road was constructed at the site. Epiphanius of Salamis (c.315–403) writes that in his time a feast was held there on December 25 in honor of the virgin Khaabou (Chaabou) and her offspring Dushara (Panarion LI, 22:9-12). Dushara and al-Uzza were two of the main deities of the city, which otherwise included many idols from other Nabatean deities such as Allat and Manat.
Late Antiquity to Early Middle Age
Petra declined rapidly under Roman rule, in large part from the revision of sea-based trade routes. In 363 an earthquake destroyed many buildings, and crippled the vital water management system. The last inhabitants abandoned the city (further weakened by another major earthquake in 551) when the Arabs conquered the region in 663. The old city of Petra was the capital of the Byzantine province of Palaestina III and many churches were excavated in and around Petra from the Byzantine era. In one of them more than 150 papyri were discovered which contained mainly contracts. The ruins of Petra were an object of curiosity during the Middle Ages and were visited by Sultan Baibars of Egypt towards the end of the 13th century.
The first European to describe them was Swiss traveller Johann Ludwig Burckhardt during his travels in 1812. At that time, the Greek Church of Jerusalem operated a diocese in Al Karak named Battra (باطره in Arabic, and Πέτρας in Greek) and it was the opinion among the clergy of Jerusalem that Kerak was the ancient city of Petra.
Because the structures weakened with age, many of the tombs became vulnerable to thieves, and many treasures were stolen. In 1929, a four-person team, consisting of British archaeologists Agnes Conway and George Horsfield, Palestinian physician and folklore expert Dr Tawfiq Canaan and Dr Ditlef Nielsen, a Danish scholar, excavated and surveyed Petra.
In October 1917, as part of a general effort to divert Ottoman military resources away from the British advance before the Third Battle of Gaza, a revolt of Arabs in Petra was led by British Army officer T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) against the Ottoman regime. The Bedouin women living in the vicinity of Petra and under the leadership of Sheik Khallil’s wife were gathered to fight in the revolt of the city. The rebellions, with the support of British military, were able to devastate the Ottoman forces.
Late 20th Century: World Heritage Site designation
The Bidoul/ Bidul or Petra Bedouin were forcibly resettled from their cave dwellings in Petra to Umm Sayhoun/ Um Seihun by the Jordanian government in 1985, prior to the UNESCO designation process. Here, they were provided with block-built housing with some infrastructure including in particular a sewage and drainage system. Among the six communities in the Petra Region, Umm Sayhoun is one of the smaller communities. The village of Wadi Musa is the largest in the area, inhabited largely by the Layathnah Bedouin, and is now the closest settlement to the visitor centre, the main entrance via the Siq and the archaeological site generally. Umm Sayhoun gives access to the ‘back route’ into the site, the Wadi Turkmaniyeh pedestrian route.
On December 6, 1985, Petra was designated a World Heritage Site.
The Bidouls belong to one of the Bedu tribes whose cultural heritage and traditional skills were proclaimed by UNESCO on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2005 and inscribed in 2008.
In 2011, following an 11-month project planning phase, the Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority in Association with DesignWorkshop and JCP s.r.l published a Strategic Master Plan that guides planned development of the Petra Region. This is intended to guide planned development of the Petra Region in an efficient, balanced and sustainable way over the next 20 years for the benefit of the local population and of Jordan in general. As part of this, a Strategic Plan was developed for Umm Sayhoun and surrounding areas.
The process of developing the Strategic Plan considered the area’s needs from five points of view:
- a socio-economic perspective;
- the perspective of Petra Archaeological Park;
- the perspective of Petra’s tourism product;
- a land use perspective;
- an environmental perspective.
27 sites in Petra are now available on Google Street View.
In 2016, archaeologists discovered a large, previously unknown monumental structure buried beneath the sands of Petra using satellite imagery.
Threats to Petra
Petra was featured in episode 20 of Misaeng (TV series).
Petra was featured in an episode of Time Scanners, made for National Geographic, where six ancient structures were laser scanned, with the results built into 3D models. Examining the model of Petra revealed insights into how the structure was built.
Petra was the focus of an American PBS NOVA special, Petra: Lost City of Stone, which premiered in the US and Europe in February 2015.
Playwright John Yarbrough’s tragicomedy, Petra, debuted at the Manhattan Repertory Theatre in 2014 and was followed by award-winning performances at the Hudson Guild in New York in 2015. It was selected for the Best American Short Plays 2014-2015 anthology.
Musics and Music Videos
In 1977, the Lebanese Rahbani brothers wrote the musical “Petra” as a response to the Lebanese Civil War.
The Sisters of Mercy filmed their music video for “Dominion/Mother Russia” in and around Al Khazneh (“The Treasury”) in February 1988.
In 1994 Petra featured in the video to the Urban Species video Spiritual Love.
It was recreated for the video games Spy Hunter (2001), King’s Quest V, Lego Indiana Jones, Sonic Unleashed, Knights of the Temple: Infernal Crusade, Civilization V, Civilization VI, and Europa Universalis IV.
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