Do you remember the scene from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”? It was made in the amazing lost town of Petra. This mysterious place on Earth was inspiration for many directors, writers and explorers.
Petra (Greek meaning ‘stone’; Arabic Al-Batrāʾ) is a mysterious historical and archaeological city in the Jordanian governorate of Ma’ an, that is famous for its rock – cut architecture and water conduit system.
Established possibly as early as 312 BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans, it is a symbol of Jordan, as well as its most-visited tourist attraction. It lies on the slope of 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 Agaba. Petra has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985.
The site remained unknown to the Western world until 1812
The site remained unknown to the Western world until 1812, when it was introduced by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. UNESCO has described it as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage”. Petra was chosen by the Smithsonian Magazine as one of the “28 Places to See Before You Die.”
Writers identify Petra as the capital of the Nabataeans and the center of their caravan trade. Enclosed by towering rocks and watered by aperennial 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 Agaba and Leuce Come on the Red Sea and across the desert to the Persian Gulf.
Map of Petra
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 oasis. The area is visited by flash foods 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.
Petra in ancient times
Although 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”), where the Tomb of Aaron, said to be the burial-place of Aaron brother of Moses is located, or possibly from the high plateau to the north, 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 ft) wide) called the Sig (“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 “the Treasury”), hewn into the sandstone cliff.
A little further from the Treasury, at the foot of the mountain called en-Nejr, is a massive theatre, so placed 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-coloured mountain walls, divided into groups by deep fissures, and lined with knobs cut from the rock in the form of towers.
General view of Petra
The Rekem Inscription before it was buried by the bridge abutments.
More satisfactory evidence of the date of the earliest Nabataean settlement may be obtained from an examination of the tombs. Two types 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 there exist close parallels in the tomb-towers at el-I~ejr 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 facades 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 Ptolomies. 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 P. (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, that 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. 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, grew in importance and attracted the Arabian trade away from Petra, the latter declined. It seems, however, to have lingered on as a religious centre.
The narrow passage Siq that leads to Petra
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 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 in 1812.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, Palestinian physician and folklore expert and a Danish scholar, excavated and surveyed Petra.
T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)
In October 1917, Lawrence, as part of a general effort to divert Turkish military resources away from the British advance before the Third Battle of Gaza, led a small force of Syrians and Arabians in defending Petra against a much larger combined force of Turks and Germans. The Bedouin women living in the vicinity of Petra and under the leadership of Sheik Khallil’s wife were recruited to fight in the defense of the city. The defenders were able to completely devastate the Turkish and German forces.
The Monastery (Al Dier)
The Nabataeans worshipped the Arab gods and goddesses, as well as a few of their kings. Many statues carved in the rock depict these gods and goddesses.
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.
Christianity found its way to Petra in the 4th century AD, nearly 500 years after the establishment of Petra as a trade center. 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…
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 via a flight of steps that begins near the tomb complex known as “the Monastery”.
According to Arab tradition, Petra is the spot where Moses struck a rock with his staff and water came forth, and where Moses’ brother, Aaron 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.
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 latter has increased substantially, especially since the site received widespread media coverage in 2007 during the controversial New Seven Wonders of the World Internet and cell phone campaign.
Petra first and most important example of threatened landscapes
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.
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 most important example of threatened landscapes. A book released in 2012, Tourism and Archaeological Heritage Management at Petra: Driver to Development or Destruction?, represents the first in a series of important books to address the very nature of these deteriorating buildings, cites, sites, and regions. The next books in the series of deteriorating UNESCO World Heritage Sites will include Macchu Picchu, Angkor Wat and Pompeii.
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