Petra is an ancient metropolis carved into a canyon and established by the Nabataeans, a nomadic tribe from western Arabia skilled in trade and engineering. It was the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, strategically located along major ancient trade routes. Sacred sculptures, monuments and around 800 tombs cover the 264 square kilometres ruins, the most famous of which is the Treasury, believed to have been the mausoleum of Nabataean King Aretas III in the 1st century AD. Petra lay for centuries until it was rediscovered in 1812 and has now become Jordan’s most popular tourist attractions. Referred to as the “Rose City” because of the colour of the stones used in its buildings, Petra was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, and in 2007 it was named one of the new seven wonders of the world.
Some of the earliest settled communities in the world lived in the area of Petra. Between 8,500 BC and 5,000 BC, farmers settled intermittently and lived in small villages of stone houses in the surrounding wadis and hill-sides of Petra. Remains of the most famous of these villages, Baydha, were excavated in the 1950s just north of Petra. During the Bronze Age (3,000 BC to 1,200 BC) there is not much evidence of human activity in the Petra region. The Iron Age (1,200 BC to 539 BC) then brings significant historical history as the Edomites were thought to have established their kingdom there (Edom). Edom collapsed in the 6th century BC and was destroyed by the Babylonians in 552 BC.
The Nabataeans arrived in the region of modern-day Jordan from the Negev Desert sometime before the 4th century BC. Their empire covered southern Jordan and stretched as far east as the Sinai Peninsula. They gained their wealth through trade on the Incense Routes travelling between the Kingdom of Saba in southern Arabia and the port of Gaza on the Mediterranean Sea. Using advanced skills in engineering, they eventually created their capital city of Petra, half-built, half-carved into the rock. This Nabataean caravan-city, situated between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, became a major caravan centre for the incense of Arabia, the silks of China and the spices of India, a crossroads between Arabia, Egypt and Syria-Phoenicia.
Petra is surrounded by mountains riddled with passages and gorges with an abundance of freshwater. The inventive Nabataeans used water to build their city and became masters in water engineering, creating a highly sophisticated system of reservoirs and irrigation channels. Rain and spring water was collected in individual deposits, from which it was then distributed across the city. The water was sufficient to support a nymphaeum, pools, and elaborate gardens. These irrigation systems are found to this day throughout the area.
Many of Petra’s incredible monuments were constructed during the reign of King Aretas IV, between 8 BC and AD 40 and may have grown to house 20,000-30,000 people during its heyday. The city was at its height in AD 106 when emperor Trajan annexed the kingdom of the Nabataean and turned it into a province, Arabia Petraea. Around this time the Via Traiana Nova, an ancient Roman road, was built to link Bostra in the north to the sea-port of Aila (Aqaba) in the south. Petra obtained the title of metropolis (chief city) of Arabia from Trajan and was called Hadriana Petra after Hadrian’s visit in AD 129/30. At the beginning of the 3rd century AD, Elagabalus honoured the city with the status of Roman Colony.
Roman city planning was adopted, and new structures were built, including the colonnaded street, the Roman Soldier Tomb and the Sextius Florentinus Tomb. Petra continued to flourish for more than 250 years until the middle of the 4th century AD when an earthquake destroyed many of its buildings. The Byzantines eventually took control of the region and governed Petra for some 300 years. Some of Petra’s population converted to Christianity, while others maintained their Pagan beliefs. The city became the seat of a bishopric, indicating its importance during the Byzantine period. Another major earthquake in AD 551 brought further devastation. Then trade routes shifted, and by the middle of the 7th century what remained of Petra was largely deserted.
Petra went unentered by outsiders for nearly 600 years. Only local Bedouin tribes knew of its existence until Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt became the first modern European to lay eyes on the ancient Nabataean city on 22 August 1812. The Scottish painter David Roberts visited Petra in 1839 and returned to England with sketches and stories of the encounter with local tribes. On 6 December 1985, Petra was designated a World Heritage Site. In 1989, the city’s carved rose-red sandstone facades were featured in the blockbuster film Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. In a popular poll in 2007, it was also named one of the 7 New Wonders of the World. The Petra Archaeological Park became an autonomous legal entity over the management of this site in August 2007.
Visitors today can see varying blends of Nabataean and Graeco-Roman architectural styles in the city’s tombs, many of which were looted by thieves and their treasures thus lost. Many people think that Petra begins and ends with Al Khaznah – The Treasury – but there is so much more to explore within this ancient city.