The Kasneh from atop the mouth of the Siq

Petra (the Greek meaning is 'rock') lies in a great rift valley east of Wadi 'Araba in Jordan about 80 kilometers south of the Dead Sea. It came into prominence in the late first century BC through the success of the spice trade. The city was the principal city of ancient Nabataea and was famous above all for two things: its trade and its hydraulic engineering systems. It was locally autonomous until the reign of Trajan, but it flourished under Roman rule. The town grew up around its Colonnaded Street in the first century AD and by the mid-first century had witnessed rapid urbanization. Following the flow of the Wadi Musa, the city-center was laid out on either sides of the Colonnaded Street on an elongated plan between the theater in the east and the Qasr al-Bint in the west. The quarries were probably opened in this period, and there followed virtually continuous building through the first and second centuries AD.

Stories of Petra?s beauty, history, and immense wealth have persisted for centuries. Petra has witnessed the Israelite exodus from Egypt, the flourishing trade routes of the Nabataeans, the Roman empire, the Crusades, and the lives of modern Bedouin.

Considered by many to be the Eighth Wonder of the World, Petra, nestled within the walls of a desert chasm remained shrouded from occidental knowledge beginning during the Crusades until 1812. The Bedouins guarded the beauty and wonder in this city born of sand and limestone deposits within the canyon walls in hopes that one day they would gain for themselves the treasure they believed lay within. A Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhart disguised himself as a bedouin and smuggled himself into the ancient city in 1812, and Petra’s wonders were known to the world at large once more.

The Nabateans were a nomadic people who ranged between Syria and Arabia before the 7th Century, B.C.E., but who migrated further south during the late 7th and early 6th Century B.C.E. As they gained in strength and numbers they displaced the Edomites from what is today southern Jordan, and forced them further west. At the crossroads of the Eastern spice and silk trades, between the production of India and China, and the lucrative Mediterranean markets, beginning by charging caravans for safe passage through their lands, they eventually built a trade network which was nearly the size of the Roman Empire. Petra, easily defensible by her location, was designated the capital of the trading empire of the Nabataeans in roughly 300 B.C.E. and remained so for the majority of Nabataean rule. King Rabbel II is purported to have moved the capital farming before his death in 106 C.E. from Petra to Bostra, indicating a possible economic shift away from trade.

Water in the Middle East has always been a primary resource, and part of the success of Petra was because the Nabateans were excellent hydrological engineers. They constructed an intricate matrix of dams, cisterns and clay pipes to not only supply the city with water, but also to provide the city with protection from the flash floods which are common in a semi-arid environment during the rainy season. Ultimately, their expertise would also be their downfall, as it was by capturing their sole water source on which the city was dependent at the Spring of Moses and holding the water supply hostage that the Romans finally conquered the city. Ironically, part of the early Nabatean success was due to the greater trade opportunities which existed by the stabilization of the eastern Mediterranean region brought about by the Pax Romana.

Initially, Petra flourished under Roman rule, allowed to keep their religion and most of the profit from the Near East trade the city grew to over 30,000 occupants, and was transformed into a Roman city pattern with the addition of a colonnaded street, and expansion of the theatre and baths. Roman control of the area, however, slowly shifted trade routes more to the north and south to Palmyra and Aqaba, and Petra began to decline.

The Byzantines conquered the area 200 years later and ruled for nearly 400 years, adding their own constructions during their tenure. But regional political instability increased with Persian invasions coupled with tribal sorties, and the distant government was unable to protect the inhabitants. This instability coupled with the tectonic activities which created the Siq, drove most of those who would dwell in the city proper from Petra in 363 C.E.

It remained a trade stopover after Saladin had ousted the second Crusaders, but the Third Crusade would again capture the city and use it as an encampment in the 12th Century, building two fortresses north of the city, and during this time Petra would briefly regain some strategic importance. But once the area came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in the early 16th Century, knowledge of it was all but lost to all but those bedouin tribes who would take shelter and trade within the ruins, when they found themselves in the area.

The Nabateans left little evidence of their existence other than the structures of rock. They left virtually no written evidence left behind from any period, even after they came under Roman and Byzantine rule. In 1992 a number of burnt scrolls were discovered by ACOR during their excavations of the Byzantine churches on site. These nearly 450 scrolls make up the largest written record of the Nabataens although later under Christian rule. This very small written record is a great find to shed light on Nabatean society, yet still the majority of what is known of them in earlier times can only be drawn from archaeological evidence, and inferred from others writers references throughout time, although we do know that the technologically advanced people created the ‘semi-ligatured’ script which evolved into the Arabic written language as its used today. It is thought that Biblical references to the cities of Selah, Sela, Batra, Al Batra probably speak of Petra. There are a number of different names as well for the Nabateans, they are referred to intermittently by ancient Greek writers. The magnificent rock-cut architecture of the Nabateans, also contains evidence of prehistoric habitation nearly 100,000 years ago.

Past Excavations
Archaeological excavations began in earnest at the turn of the century, with the earliest scientific expedition being published in Arabia Petraea in 1907, by A. Musil. In the 1920’s R. E. Br?nnow and A. von Domaszewski surveyed the site and published an ambitious mapping project in their Die Provincia Arabia. This survey has since undergone many necessary revisions, the most recent of which was published by Judith McKenzie in 1990.

Modern excavations continue to increase our understanding of the site and correct the work of earlier scholars. In 1958, P. J. Parr and C. M. Bennett of the British School of Archaeology began an excavation of the city center which remains the most informative and scientific to date. Recently, the Petra/Jerash Project, undertaken by the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, the University of Jordan, the University of Utah, and Swiss archaeologists, have excavated a number of monuments at these two sites. Architectural remains now visible at Petra indicate a thriving city, however, despite almost 100 years of excavation, only one-percent of the city been investigated.

The Great Temple was first explored by Br?nnow and von Domaszewski, but it was Bachmann, in his revision of the Petra city plan, who postulated the existence of a ?Great Temple,? aligned with the Colonnade Street, lying on the hillside to the south. He speculated that the temple was approached through a monumental Propylaeum with a grand staircase leading into a colonnaded, terraced Lower Temenos, or sacred precinct. Another broad monumental stairway led to a second, Upper Temenos. At its center was the temple, with yet another flight of stairs leading into the temple proper. While no standing structures were revealed before these excavations, the site is littered with architectural fragments, including column drums, probably toppled by one of the earthquakes which rocked the site. Given the promise of the Great Temple precinct and its importance in understanding Petra?s architectural and intercultural history, it is remarkable that it remained unexcavated until 1993 when the Brown University investigations began.

Reference:
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Quantrill, Malcolm. An architecture of particular inclination: some notes on the Nabataean monuments at Petra, Art International; vol.26 no.1: 1983; pp 38-45.
Rewerski, Jack. Petra: the rose-red capital of a forgotten people, UNESCO Courier vol.45 no.1: 1992; pp46-48.
UNESCO, Bureau of the World Heritage Committee. Item 5.2 of the Provisional Agenda: State of Conservation of Properties inscribed on the World Heritage List: Reports. Agenda for Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, Twenty-second session, 22-27 June 1998. UNESCO document number: WHC-98/CONF.201/3B. Paris: 30 April 1998.