Semi-desert settlement of nomadic herdsmen
Petra is located in the southern part of present-day Jordan, in a semi-arid upland area, which is part of the Jabal al-Shara massif. The former, ancient name of the Nabataean city was Rekem, meaning ‘multi-colored‘, which perfectly depicts the amazing colors of the rocks in which the famous rock city was carved. However, the name Petra itself is an Ancient Greek term and means ‘Stone’.
The Petra area was inhabited by various groups of nomadic or semi-nomadic herdsmen already in the Paleolithic times, long before the appearance of the Nabataeans. The first traces of settlement come from the Neolithic Age (from the 8th millennium BC). In the 13th century BC the plain of Petra was inhabited by the Edomites, known from the Bible. It is not sure exactly when, but probably around the 7th or 6th century BC the Edomites were gradually forced to leave by the Nabataeans, an Aramic-speaking people, consisting of caravan traders and nomadic herdsmen. Over time, Petra, thanks to its favorable position, both for commercial and defense reasons, grew into the capital of the emerging state.
Petra and the Nabataean Kingdom
The earliest historical records of the Nabataeans date to 312 BC when generals of Alexander the Great unsuccessfully attempted to conquer the city of Petra. The Nabataean Kingdom managed to maintain its independence throughout the Hellenistic period, from both Ptolemies in Egypt and Seleucids in Syria. Under Aretas III (85-62 BC), the Nabataean state reached its greatest territorial range, extending from Damascus in the north to the Red Sea in the south. When in 63 BC Pompey the Great conquered Syria for Rome, the Nabataeans once again managed to remain independent, losing only part of their northern territory. In addition, good relations with the Romans during the reign of successive rulers led to the flourishing of trade.
Petra lay at the intersection of two great trade routes, one leading from Egypt and Arabia to Mediterranean ports and the other leading caravans from the Far East. The main products that were traded were spices, precious stones, silk, myrrh, incense and asphalt from the Dead Sea. The heyday of the city came during the reign of Aretas IV (9 BC – 40 AD), when Herod ruled in neighboring Judea and Emperor Augustus ruled Rome. It was during this period that Petra’s largest buildings were built. At that time, large-scale hydraulic engineering works were also carried out to supply the growing city with water. New dams and cisterns for collecting water were built, new water channels were carved in the rock, and clay pipes were laid.
Capital of the Roman province of Arabia
The next ruler Malichus II supported the Romans during the conquest of Jerusalem in 70 AD. However, after the death of the last Nabataean king Rabbel II in 106, Petra came under Roman rule and was established the capital of a new province – Arabia. Nonetheless, this did not stop the city’s development. On the contrary, trade flourished, which was due to the improvement of the ancient road leading from Syria to the Dead Sea – Via Nova Traiana (during the reign of Emperor Trajan), as well as raising Petra’s status to the rank of a Roman city.
Byzantine period and Arab invasion
In 325, after the Council of Nicaea, Christianity began to dominate in Petra, new churches were built. Unfortunately in May 363, the city was devastated by an earthquake, after which, for example, the theater or the Qasr el-Bint temple were never rebuilt. Nevertheless, subsequent dwellings and the conversion of some of the rock-cut tombs into churches indicate a relatively good standard of living in Petra during the Byzantine period. After another earthquake in 551 and an Arab conquest in 636, the city was destroyed, fell into ruin and eventually deserted.
Rediscovery of ancient Petra
Except for a short period in the Middle Ages, during the Crusades, when the Crusaders built there their citadels, Petra fell into oblivion. It was not until 1812 that the Swiss explorer J. L. Burckhardt, who stayed in the Middle East under the cover of an Arab traveler, found the ancient city and thanks to his diary, published only after his death, Petra was presented to the Western society.
And finally in 2007 Petra was voted one of New 7 Wonders of the World.
Due to the huge area of Petra and the distance to be covered, visiting it takes a really long time. You can also take numerous trails up the ancient stairs, carved out by Nabataeans 🙂. But about this in subsequent posts 🙂.