The Ma’an governorate in southern Jordan is home to one of the country’s most cherished national treasures. Petra, or “rock” in Greek, is an ancient city located 150 miles south of Jerusalem and Amman, and roughly halfway between Damascus and the Red Sea, in an area that is of great significance to Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The city is close to several religious sites, such as the Valley of Moses (where it is believed Moses struck a rock and water gushed forth) and the tomb of Moses’ brother, Aaron.
The B’doul, descendants of the Arab Bedouins who fiercely protected Petra for centuries, believe that the narrow gorge leading to the ancient city “is the cleft made by Moses’ staff.” According to them, the Pharaoh of Egypt, Moses’ arch nemesis, built Petra’s large carved building (the Khazneh or “Treasury”) and stored his enormous wealth in an urn atop the building. However, scholars attribute these architectural accomplishments to another civilization.
The Nabateans, Arab Bedouins indigenous to what is now southwestern Jordan, built the ancient city around 300 BCE.
The Nabateans, Arab Bedouins indigenous to what is now southwestern Jordan, built the ancient city around 300 BCE. The Nabateans’ ability to transform a sandstone cliff into an 8,000-seat theater and a mountainside into a 150-foot edifice in Greco-Roman style continue to astound historians. In addition to the impressive structures carved into cliffs and mountains veined with red, purple, and yellow, Petra is also renowned for its highly advanced irrigation systems, which allowed the ancient city to flourish in the desert.
Unfortunately, aside from a few inscriptions and ancient texts, little is known about the Nabateans. Nobody knows where they came from, why they settled in Petra, and how they built one of the Middle East’s most celebrated cities. But that has not stopped people from trying to solve the mystery of this industrious civilization and what drove their achievements.
The Rise and Fall of the Nabateans
Caravans carrying valuable cargo from Egypt, Syria, Greece, Rome, India, China, and Arabia frequently traversed the Middle East. Trade was the wealth of the desert in ancient times. Understanding this, the Nabateans began to pillage and trade all over the region to gain power and influence. They even began to pirate Red Sea merchant ships until the Egyptian navy stopped them.
Eventually, the ambitious nomads came to control a vast area, from Damascus in the north, to Saudi Arabia in the south and east, and the Sinai in the west. Once they secured these territories, the Nabateans built the city of Petra around 300 BCE and “strategically located it in the only place that caravans could pass through the rugged mountains east of the Jordan River,” according to a History Channel documentary. Archaeologists estimate that the ancient city once occupied an area the size of Lower Manhattan.
As the nexus of all trade routes in the region, Petra became a significant trading hub and a vibrant melting pot of cultures. At the height of the Nabatean rule, the ancient city had over 30,000 inhabitants, who filled the ancient city’s countless temples, theaters, gardens, tombs, villas, Roman baths, and marketplaces. Alas, the impressive metropolis built by the Nabatean kings to flaunt their status, and the wealth they accumulated taxing trade caravans, eventually cost them their independence.
Growing tired of paying higher taxes for goods passing through Nabatean territory, the Roman Empire sent its legions to conquer Petra. After two failed attempts, the Romans finally defeated the Nabateans and annexed the ancient city in 106 CE. The Romans ruled Petra until a cataclysmic earthquake struck in 363 BCE destroying many of its buildings. The earthquake marked the demise of Petra.
In the fourth century, the Roman Empire began to withdraw from its Arabian frontier. Soon thereafter, the trade routes shifted, the merchants left Petra, and the Nabateans vanished as quickly as they rose. In the following centuries, only nomadic shepherds used the ancient city’s beautiful stone structures as shelter. The architectural wonder remained unknown to the world until a Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, made his way into Petra and revealed it to the Western world in the early 19th century.
Discovering the “Lost City”
In 1809, Burckhardt secured backing from Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society and the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, to finance his travels. The London-based club, also known as the African Association, instructed Burckhardt to travel from Cairo to the Sahara to the Niger River in search of its source.
After studying Arabic at Cambridge University between 1807 and 1808, Burckhardt began his expedition in February 1809. He first set sail to Malta and proceeded on to Syria. The Swiss adventurer lived in Aleppo, where he bought a small house and continued to learn Arabic and study the Qur’an and Islamic law. To disguise his European identity, Burckhardt called himself Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah and wore Arab-style clothes. Between 1809 and 1812, Burckhardt traveled to Syria, Palestine, and present-day Saudi Arabia.
One day, on his way from Nazareth to Cairo, Bedouin nomads told Burckhardt of a “wondrous ancient city hidden inside a mountain” near the supposed tomb of Aaron. The Swiss explorer hired a local guide to take him to the rumored location.
“[Its] situation and beauty . . . are calculated to make an extraordinary impression on the traveller, after having traversed . . . such a gloomy and almost subterranean passage . . . . It is one of the most elegant remains of antiquity existing.”
Burckhardt wrote about his unexpected detour to Petra in a 12-page diary entry on August 22, 1812, where he shared this vivid account: “[Its] situation and beauty . . . are calculated to make an extraordinary impression on the traveller, after having traversed . . . such a gloomy and almost subterranean passage . . . . It is one of the most elegant remains of antiquity existing.”
After discovering Petra, the Swiss adventurer traveled to Cairo and waited for a caravan to cross the Sahara. Due to unforeseen delays in Cairo, he seized the opportunity to go up the Nile, where he also discovered the Temples of Ramses II at Abu Simbel before traveling across Arabia to visit Mecca. Burckhardt never completed his mission of crossing the desert from the Nile to the Niger because he fell ill with food poisoning upon his return to Cairo and died in October 1817.
Over the years, Petra has received worldwide recognition and numerous accolades. UNESCO, which designated the ancient city a World Heritage Site in 1985, described Petra as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage.” In 2007, the ancient city was nominated one of the “New 7 Wonders of the World.”
The following year, in 2008, Smithsonian Magazine chose Petra as one of the “28 Places to See Before You Die.”
Even though Petra was hidden from most of the world for centuries, the ancient Nabatean city is currently one of Jordan’s most-visited tourist attractions, making it once again an important crossroad of cultures.