Petra (Arabic: البترا, Al-Batrāʾ; Ancient Greek: Πέτρα), originally known as Raqmu to the Nabataeans, is a historical and archaeological city in the southern Jordanian governorate of Ma’an that 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. It 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. Petra 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. Stations 19 through 26 of the stations list of Exodus are places associated with Petra. This part of the country was biblically assigned to the Horites, the predecessors of the Edomites. The habits of the original natives may have influenced the Nabataean custom of burying the dead and offering worship in half-excavated caves. Although Petra is usually identified with Sela, which means a rock, the Biblical references refer to it as “the cleft in the rock”, referring to its entrance. In the parallel passage, however, Sela is understood to mean simply “the rock”.
Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews iv. 7, 1~ 4, 7), Eusebius and Jerome (Onom. sacr. 286, 71. 145, 9; 228, 55. 287, 94) assert that Rekem was the native name, and this name appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls as a prominent Edomite site most closely describing Petra, and associated with Mount Seir. But in the Aramaic versions, Rekem is the name of Kadesh, implying that Josephus may have confused the two places. 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” referred to as a natural fortress and place of refuge cannot be a proper name and the description implies that the town was not yet in existence.
Rekem is likely derived from the Nabataean name for the city, Raqmu. The name “Rekem” was inscribed in the rock wall of the Wadi Musa opposite the entrance to the Siq, However, Jordan built a bridge over the wadi and this inscription was buried beneath tons of concrete.
More satisfactory evidence of the date of the earliest Nabataean settlement may be obtained from an examination of the tombs. Two types of tombs have been distinguished: the Nabataean and the Greco-Roman. The Nabataean type starts from the simple pylon-tomb with a door set in a tower crowned by a parapet ornament, in imitation of the front of a dwelling-house. Then, after passing through various stages, the full Nabataean type is reached, retaining all the native features and at the same time exhibiting characteristics which are partly Egyptian and partly Greek. Of this type close parallels exist in the tomb-towers at Mada’in Saleh in north Arabia, which bear long Nabataean inscriptions and supply a date for the corresponding monuments at Petra. Then comes a series of tombfronts which terminate in a semicircular arch, a feature derived from north Syria. Finally come the elaborate façades copied from the front of a Roman temple; however, all traces of native style have vanished. The exact dates of the stages in this development cannot be fixed. Few inscriptions of any length have been found at Petra, perhaps because they have perished with the stucco or cement which was used upon many of the buildings. The simple pylon-tombs which belong to the pre-Hellenic age serve as evidence for the earliest period. It is not known how far back in this stage the Nabataean settlement goes, but it does not go back farther than the 6th century BC. A period follows in which the dominant civilization combines Greek, Egyptian and Syrian elements, clearly pointing to the age of the Ptolemies. Towards the close of the 2nd century BC, when the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms were equally depressed, the Nabataean kingdom came to the front. Under Aretas III Philhellene, (c.85–60 BC), the royal coins begin. The theatre was probably excavated at that time, and Petra must have assumed the aspect of a Hellenistic city. In the reign of Aretas IV Philopatris, (9 BC–40 AD), the tombs of the el-I~ejr type may be dated, and perhaps also the High-place.
In 106 AD, when Cornelius Palma was governor of Syria, the part of Arabia under the rule of Petra was absorbed into the Roman Empire as part of Arabia Petraea and became its capital. 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 (Haer. 51).
Late Antiquity to Early Middle Ages
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 Palaestina III, many churches were excavated in and around Petra from the Byzantine era, in one of them more than 150 papyrus were discovered which contain mainly contracts. The ruins of Petra were an object of curiosity in 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 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.
T. E. Lawrence
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 English military, were able to devastate the Ottoman forces.
Late Twentieth 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 was 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 Strategy 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
The site suffers from a host of threats, including collapse of ancient structures, erosion due to flooding and improper rainwater drainage, weathering from salt upwelling, improper restoration of ancient structures, and unsustainable tourism. The last has increased substantially, especially since the site received widespread media coverage in 2007 during the New Seven Wonders of the World Internet and cell phone campaign.
In an attempt to reduce the impact of these threats, Petra National Trust (PNT) was established in 1989. Over this time, it has worked together with numerous local and international organizations on projects that promote the protection, conservation and preservation of the Petra site. Moreover, UNESCO and ICOMOS recently collaborated to publish their first book on human and natural threats to these sensitive World Heritage sites. They chose Petra as its first, and the most important example of threatened landscapes. A book released in 2012, Tourism and Archaeological Heritage Management at Petra: Driver to Development or Destruction?, was the first in a series of important books to address the very nature of these deteriorating buildings, cities, sites, and regions. The next books in the series of deteriorating UNESCO World Heritage Sites will include Macchu Picchu, Angkor Wat, and Pompeii.
The Nabataeans worshipped Arab gods and goddesses of the pre-Islamic times as well as a few of their deified kings. One, Obodas I, was deified after his death. Dushara was the primary male god accompanied by his female trinity: Al-‘Uzzá, Allat and Manāt. Many statues carved in the rock depict these gods and goddesses. New evidence indicates that broader Edomite, and Nabataean theology had strong links to Earth-Sun relationships, often manifested in the orientation of prominent Petra structures to equinox and solstices sunrises and sunsets.
A stele is dedicated to Qos-Allah ‘Qos is Allah’ or ‘Qos the god’, by Qosmilk (melech – king) is found at Petra (Glueck 516). Qos is identifiable with Kaush (Qaush) the God of the older Edomites. The stele is horned and the seal from the Edomite Tawilan near Petra identified with Kaush displays a star and crescent (Browning 28), both consistent with a moon deity. It is conceivable the latter could have resulted from trade with Harran (Bartlett 194). There is continuing debate about the nature of Qos (qaus – bow) who has been identified both with a hunting bow (hunting god) and a rainbow (weather god) although the crescent above is also a bow.
Nabatean inscriptions in Sinai and other places display widespread references to names including Allah, El and Allat (god and goddess), with regional references to al-Uzza, Baal and Manutu (Manat) (Negev 11). Allat is also found in Sinai in South Arabian language. Allah occurs particularly as Garm-‘allahi – god dedided (Greek Garamelos) and Aush-allahi – ‘gods covenant’ (Greek Ausallos). We find both Shalm-lahi ‘Allah is peace’ and Shalm-allat, ‘the peace of the goddess’. We also find Amat-allahi ‘she-servant of god’ and Halaf-llahi ‘the successor of Allah’.
The Monastery, Petra’s largest monument, dates from the 1st century BC. It was dedicated to Obodas I and is believed to be the symposium of Obodas the god. This information is inscribed on the ruins of the Monastery (the name is the translation of the Arabic “Ad Deir“).
Christianity found its way to Petra in the 4th century AD, nearly 500 years after the establishment of Petra as a trade center. Athanasius mentions a bishop of Petra (Anhioch. 10) named Asterius. At least one of the tombs (the “tomb with the urn”?) was used as a church. An inscription in red paint records its consecration “in the time of the most holy bishop Jason” (447). After the Islamic conquest of 629–632 Christianity in Petra, as of most of Arabia, gave way to Islam. During the First Crusade Petra was occupied by Baldwin I of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and formed the second fief of the barony of Al Karak (in the lordship of Oultrejordain) with the title Château de la Valée de Moyse or Sela. It remained in the hands of the Franks until 1189. It is still a titular see of the Catholic Church.
Two Crusader-period castles are known in and around Petra. The first is al-Wu’ayra and is situated just north of Wadi Musa. It can be viewed from the road to “Little Petra”. It is the castle of Valle Moise which was seized by a band of Turks with the help of local Muslims and only recovered by the Crusaders after they began to destroy the olive trees of Wadi Musa. The potential loss of livelihood led the locals to negotiate surrender. The second is on the summit of el-Habis in the heart of Petra and can be accessed from the West side of the Qasr al-Bint.
According to Arab tradition, Petra is the spot where Moses (Musa) struck a rock with his staff and water came forth, and where Moses’ brother, Aaron (Harun), is buried, at Mount Hor, known today as Jabal Haroun or Mount Aaron. The Wadi Musa or “Wadi of Moses” is the Arab name for the narrow valley at the head of which Petra is sited. A mountaintop shrine of Moses’ sister Miriam was still shown to pilgrims at the time of Jerome in the 4th century, but its location has not been identified since.
In popular culture
Petra is the main topic in John William Burgon‘s sonnet (rhyme scheme aabbccddeeffgg) “Petra” which won the Newdigate Prize in 1845. Petra appeared in the novels Left Behind Series, Appointment with Death, The Eagle in the Sand, The Red Sea Sharks, the nineteenth book in The Adventures of Tintin series and in Kingsbury’s The Moon Goddess and the Son. It featured prominently in the Marcus Didius Falco mystery novel Last Act in Palmyra. In Blue Balliett‘s novel, Chasing Vermeer, the character Petra Andalee is named after the site.
In 1979 Marguerite van Geldermalsen from New Zealand married Mohammed Abdullah, a Bedouin in Petra. They lived in a cave in Petra until the death of her husband. She authored the book Married to a Bedouin. Van Geldermalsen is the only western woman who has ever lived in a Petra cave.
An Englishwoman, Joan Ward, wrote Living With Arabs: Nine Years with the Petra Bedouin documenting her experiences while living in Umm Sayhoun with the Petra Bedouin, covering the period 2004-2013.
The site is featured in films such as: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Arabian Nights, Passion in the Desert, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, The Mummy Returns and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
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.
Music 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.
Watch Video from Youtube: