Petra astounds. Tucked away in a remote valley basin in the heart of southern Jordan’s Shara mountains and shielded from the outside world behind an impenetrable barrier of rock, this ancient city remains wreathed in mystery. Since a Western adventurer stumbled on the site in 1812, it has fired imaginations, its grandeur and dramatic setting pushing it – like the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal – into the realms of legend. Today, it’s almost as if time has literally drawn a veil over the once-great city, which grew wealthy enough on the caravan trade to challenge the might of Rome: two millennia of wind and rain have blurred the sharp edges of its ornate classical facades and rubbed away at its soft sandstone to expose vivid bands of colour beneath, putting the whole scene into soft focus.
The highlights of the ancient city do not disappoint. The epic walk in, through the tall, echoing Siq canyon, precedes a jaw-dropping encounter with the Treasury, Petra’s iconic facade, its columns and exquisite detailing carved directly from the cliff face. Further on, past the huge Theatre, you reach the giant Royal Tombs, gazing out over the hidden valley that shelters Petra’s city centre. Walk along the Colonnaded Street, then tackle the stepped climb to Petra’s largest monument, the Monastery, carved from a mountain summit. Budget some downtime to take in the extraordinary late-afternoon views from the Qasr al-Bint temple up the Colonnaded Street towards the fiery East Cliff. Visiting these core sites, walking on stony (or, sometimes, sandy) footpaths the whole way, would fill a fairly exhausting full day. Many people take longer over it than that.
Stay longer – most package tours allow a couple of days in Petra at least – and possibilities abound for wider exploration. The High Place of Sacrifice offers spectacular views from a mountain-top altar, easily reached by a stepped path. Walking in an outlying wadi – Wadi Turkmaniyyeh is a prime example – takes you out of the tourist hubbub into still landscapes of barren peaks and wild canyons, while “Little Petra”, a few kilometres to the north, hides a mini-Siq and carved facades of its own, far from the main site.
Where Petra sits, in a valley basin between two lines of jagged peaks, there’s only one route in and out, and that passes through the modern town of Wadi Musa on the eastern side of the mountains. In the last few decades Wadi Musa has grown to serve the lucrative tourist trade to Petra; it has all the services, including hotels and restaurants: there’s nowhere to stay within the ancient city itself, and virtually nowhere to eat either. The single entrance gate into Petra is in Wadi Musa, but once you’ve crossed that barrier you’re immediately thrown into the rocky landscape of the desert. Within Petra there is no urban development of any kind, and the local culture is all rural.
Spending a few days here is a constant to-and-fro – down-at-heel Wadi Musa providing all the necessities of life, majestic Petra all the historical and natural drama.
The history of Petra – a Greek word meaning “rock” – encompasses more than a hundred centuries of human settlement. In prehistory, the Petra region saw some of the first experiments in farming. The hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic Age gave way, over nine thousand years ago, to settled communities living in walled farming villages such as at Beidha, just north of Petra. Nomadic tribes passed through the Petra basin in the millennia following, but the spur to its development came with attempts at contact between the two great ancient powers of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The desert plateaux of Mesopotamia, to the east of the King’s Highway, were sealed off by high mountains from the routes both across the Naqab (Negev) to Gaza and across the Sinai to Egypt; somehow a caravan route across the barrier had to be found if contact was to be made. Petra, where abundant springs tumble down into the Wadi Araba through a natural fault in the mountains, was prime choice, marking the spot on the north–south King’s Highway where an east–west passage could connect the two empires.
The Biblical era
The first significant mention of Petra is in the Old Testament, as the Israelites approached Edom after their forty years in the desert. Local legend – running against the geographical evidence – maintains that it was in the hills just above Petra that God ordered Moses to produce water for the Israelites by speaking to a rock. Moses instead struck the rock, and the spring that gushed is today named Ain Musa (Spring of Moses), its outflow housed beneath a small domed building at the eastern entrance to the town of Wadi Musa. King Reqem of Edom (Reqem was the Semitic name for Petra, and he was probably just a local chieftain) refused permission to the Israelites to pass through his territory, but before they departed Moses’ brother Aaron (Haroun in Arabic) died, and was buried supposedly on top of Jabal Haroun overlooking Petra. A white shrine atop the mountain is still a site of pilgrimage.
Just after 1000 BC, the Israelite King David moved to take control of Petra and the whole of Edom – by now rich on the proceeds of copper production as well as trade. His son Solomon consolidated the Israelite grip on trade and technology, and for fifty years diverted Petra’s profits into his own coffers. However, after his death, the Israelite kingdom collapsed and feuding erupted. Some Edomites withdrew to a settlement on top of the impregnable Umm al-Biyara mountain overlooking central Petra and to a village at Tawilan above Ain Musa. Fluctuations in regional power soon after led to Petra passing from Edomite hands to Assyrian to Babylonian to Persian: such instability left the way open for a new people to stamp their authority on the land and stake a claim to its future.
The first mention of the Nabateans was in 647 BC, when they were listed as one of the enemies of Ashurbanipal, last king of Assyria; at that stage, they were still a tribe of bedouin nomads inhabiting northern and northwestern Arabia. When the Babylonians depopulated much of Palestine during the sixth century BC, many Edomites came down from Petra to claim the empty land to the west. In turn, the Nabateans migrated out of the arid Arabian desert to the lusher and more temperate mountains of Edom, and, specifically, to the well-watered and easily defended prize of Petra. Whereas the Edomites had occupied the hills above Petra, the Nabateans quickly saw the potential for developing the central bowl of the valley floor. The migrants arrived slowly, though, and for several centuries it seems that most stuck to their bedouin lifestyle, building little other than a temple and refuge atop Umm al-Biyara. However, displaying the adaptability that was to become their trademark, the Nabateans soon gave up the traditional occupation of raiding the plentiful caravans that passed to and fro in favour of charging the merchants for safe passage and a place to do business. It was probably around this time that the first organized, permanent trading emporium was established at Petra, and Edom became known as Arabia Petrea.
The Roman author Diodorus Siculus reports that the Greek Seleucid ruler of Syria, Antigonus, attacked the Nabateans in 312 BC – though whether at Petra itself or another well-defended rocky hideout nearby is unknown; Sela is a candidate. Either way, his troops sneaked in under cover of darkness, and found that all the Nabatean men were away. The Greeks slaughtered a few women and children and made off with as much booty as they could carry – silver, myrrh and frankincense. However, someone managed to raise the alarm, since within an hour, the Nabateans were in pursuit. They rapidly caught up with the complacent army, massacred all but fifty, recovered the valuables and returned home. In true merchant style, though, the Nabateans instinctively recognized that war would do no good to their flourishing business, and so sent a mollifying letter of explanation to Antigonus. The general let some time pass before attacking again – only to be easily repelled. Comfortably ensconced in their unassailable headquarters, the Nabateans this time acted the wealthy tycoon: they bought peace from the humiliated Greeks.
Growth of Nabatean power
Over the following two centuries, the battling between Seleucid Syria and Ptolemaic Egypt for control of Alexander’s empire enabled the Nabateans to fill the power vacuum in Transjordan and extend their kingdom far beyond Petra. By 80 BC they controlled Damascus. Petra grew ever more wealthy on its profits from trade, standing at the pivots between Egypt, Arabia and Syria, and between East Asia and the Mediterranean. Traditional commodities such as copper, iron and Dead Sea bitumen, used for embalming in Egypt, were losing ground to spices from the southern Arabian coast – myrrh, balsam and frankincense, the last of which was central to religious ritual all over the Hellenistic world. Pepper, ginger, sugar and cotton arrived from India for onward distribution. Chinese documents even talk of imports of silk, glass, gold, silver, henna and frankincense from a place known as Li-Kan, taken to be a corruption of “Reqem”. Nabatean power seemed limitless. When Pompey sent troops against Petra in 62 BC, the Nabateans were even able to buy peace from the Roman Empire. Petran prosperity grew and grew.
Petra’s golden age
The first centuries BC and AD saw Petra at its zenith, with a settled population of perhaps as many as thirty thousand. The Roman author Strabo describes it as a wealthy, cosmopolitan city, full of fine buildings and villas, gardens and watercourses, with Romans and other foreigners thronging the streets, and a democratic king. “The Nabateans,” reported Strabo, “are so acquisitive that they give honours to those who increase their possessions, and publicly fine those who lose them.”
However, the writing was on the wall. The discovery of the monsoon winds had begun to cause a shift in trade patterns: overland routes from Arabia were being abandoned in favour of transport by sea. In addition, Rome was diverting inland trade away from the upstart Petra, instead directing it into Egypt and Syria, presaging the rise of Palmyra. The pressure on Nabatea was inexorable. The last Nabatean king, Rabbel II, tried moving his capital from Petra north to Bosra, but eventually had to strike a deal with Rome. On his death in 106 AD the entire Nabatean kingdom passed peacefully into Roman hands.
The Romans and after
After the Roman annexation, Petra became a principal centre of the new Provincia Arabia, and seems to have undergone something of a cultural renaissance, with the theatre and Colonnaded Street both being renovated. The city was important enough to be visited by Emperor Hadrian in 130 AD, and possibly also by Emperor Severus in 199. However, the tide of history was turning, and by 300 Petra was in serious decline, with houses and temples falling derelict through lack of maintenance. Palmyra, an oasis entrepôt in the eastern Syrian desert, was on the ascendant, and sea trade into Egypt was well established; Petra was stuck between the two, and there was no reason to keep it alive. Roman patronage began to drift away from the city, and money followed.
Petra’s decline was drawn out. Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the empire in 324, but for many decades afterwards the proud Nabateans mingled elements of the new faith with remnants of their own pagan heritage. An earthquake in 363, according to the contemporary bishop of Jerusalem, levelled half of Petra, although the city limped on for another couple of centuries. In 447, the Urn Tomb was converted into a huge church, and both the lavishly decorated Petra Church and plainer Ridge Church were built within the following century or so. Nonetheless, by the time of the seventh-century Islamic invasion, Petra was more or less deserted, and the earthquake of 749 probably forced the final stragglers to depart the crumbling city.
The Crusader era
On their push through Transjordan in the early twelfth century, the Crusaders built small forts within Petra at Al-Habees and Wu’ayra, though these were tiny outposts of their headquarters at nearby Shobak and were abandoned less than a century later. In 1276, the Mamluke sultan Baybars – on his way from Cairo to suppress a revolt in Karak – entered Petra from the southwest and proceeded through the deserted city “amidst most marvellous caves, the facades sculptured into the very rock face”. He emerged from the Siq on June 6, 1276, and, as far as records show, was the last person, other than the local bedouin, to see Petra for over five hundred years.
Petra in the nineteenth century
On August 22, 1812, a Swiss explorer, Jean Louis Burckhardt, entered the Siq in heavy Arab disguise in the company of a local guide. His short visit, and the notes and sketches he managed to make, brought the fable of Petra to the attention of the world once again. In 1818, two commanders of the British Royal Navy, Charles Irby and James Mangles, spent some days sightseeing in the ancient city, but it was the visits of Léon de Laborde in 1826 and the British artist David Roberts in 1839 that first brought plentiful images of Petra to the West. Laborde’s engravings were often fanciful and over-romanticized, but Roberts’s drawings were relatively accurate. As well as helping to shape the legend of Petra in Western minds – Burgon’s oft-quoted line about the “rose-red city” appeared within a few years – they also launched tourism to the place. The second half of the nineteenth century saw a steady trickle of earnest visitors, even though Petra could still be reached only with extreme hardship by horse or camel from Jerusalem. Serious archeological investigation began at the turn of the century, with specialists cataloguing all Petra’s monuments in 1898 and producing the first accurate maps in 1925. The adjacent village – long known as Elji, then Wadi Musa (Moses Valley) – got its first telephone line in 1926.
The modern era
In 1931 the Thomas Cook travel company set up a camp in Petra for European tourists, offering the choice of tent or cave accommodation. It was followed in the 1950s by the first tourist hotel, the government-run Rest House. Nonetheless, until a regular bus service from Amman began in 1980, facilities around the site remained minimal. Wadi Musa town was a backwater, despite the designation of Petra as a national park. In the early 1980s the government ordered the Bdul tribe, who had been resident in Petra’s caves for as long as anyone could remember, to move out to Umm Sayhoun, a purpose-built settlement of small breezeblock houses 4km away. The prospect of electricity, running water, health care and better education for the kids proved irresistible, and, in dribs and drabs, the Bdul departed. Development of the site and archeological exploration then took off: Petra was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, and four years later a group of concerned local establishment figures set up the Petra National Trust (PNT; w petranationaltrust.org), a not-for-profit NGO campaigning on issues of the environment, antiquities and the region’s cultural heritage.
Today a buffer zone of over 750 square kilometres of land, from Shobak to well south of Rajif, is formally protected, while a core 264 square kilometres around the site itself is defined as the strictly regulated Petra Archeological Park (w petrapark.com). Recent years have seen a host of new projects, ranging from ongoing digs at several locations to major engineering works repaving the Siq, installing upgraded tourist facilities around the site and beautifying Wadi Musa town.