Petra was chosen in 2007 as one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World" not just for the beauty of its rose-colored sandstone, or for its setting in the midst of about 100 ruggedly dramatic square kilometers of Wadi Araba, but because this area is a living museum of 10,000 years of human history.
Petra's history tells the story of many civilizations. A cross roads for trade, Petra's architecture shows Assyrian, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine influences. In fact, the word "Petra" is derived from the Greek word for rock.
Excavations tell us that nearby Al-Beidha was a prosperous village 9,000 years ago, contemporaneous with Jericho. The next residents in the area were the Edomites, biblical mountain-dwellers who battled for their freedom from the Judeans.
The Nabataeans, who were mainly comprised of nomadic herders and raiders from Western Arabia, settled in the area in about the 4th century BC to make their living from levying taxes and protection fees on travelers. Their strong belief in solving conflicts through diplomacy rather than war probably contributed to the longevity of their culture.
While there are historical records of discord with the Greeks, the Nabataeans were primarily focused on furthering their trading goals. There is also evidence of Hellenistic influence in Petra from about 150 BC, which coincides with the spread of Nabataean trade routes into Syria. By the 4th century BC, Petra had centered its commercial base on trade in bitumen, frankincense, salt, and copper. Between the 1st centuries BC and AD, Petra gained a reputation for its progressive and effective systems of commerce and justice.
Ironically, given the effort that the Nabataeans made to preserve their independence from Rome, most of the surviving records about Nabataean culture are from Strabo, a Roman scholar. According to his writings, while the Nabataeans had a humane monarchy, they also enjoyed a system of democracy, and were concerned, almost to the point of obsession, with accumulating both material wealth and water, which accounts for the many systems of cisterns and water harvesting still visible in modern Petra.
The Roman leader Pompey tried to annex Petra in 63 BC after he successfully conquered Syria and Palestine, but was bought off by the Nabataean leader Aretas III. The Romans eventually annexed Petra in 106 AD.
During the Byzantine period, a bishopric was created in Petra and some buildings were converted for Christian use. On the morning of May 19, 363 AD, a huge earthquake hit Petra and many of the free-standing buildings were destroyed. The region never entirely recovered from this, although Petra continued to be inhabited for centuries.
While the Crusaders built a town at Wu'eira, it was abandoned 60 years later. However, when J. L. Burckhardt, a Swiss explorer traveling under the name Ibrahim ibn Abdullah, entered Petra in 1812, he did so as the first Westerner in living memory.
Today, as in the Nabataeans' time, visitors enter through the Siq, the great crack in the rock that leads into the heart of the area. Before the mouth of the Siq, visitors pass by the Djinn blocks, huge carved blocks of stone that may represent the Nabataean god Betyl. The name comes from the local Bedouin, who long ago believed that the blocks were inhabited by djinn, or spirits.
Close by is the Obelisk Tomb, thought to have been built in the 1st century BC, with its crown of four obelisks. At the entrance to the Siq are six obelisk-shaped carvings and inscriptions, the most important of which tells the story of a resident of Requem, an archaic name for Petra, who had been returned to the area after dying in Jerash.
The Siq was carved, not by human hands, but by tectonic forces during a long-forgotten earthquake. Ranging from 50 meters wide to only about 5, the Siq follows a meandering, 1.25 kilometer path, bounded by walls about 100 meters tall. In the Siq, it is still possible to see sections of the paved Nabataean road, water channels, niches that previously held statues of various gods, and weathered carvings, as well as where the grain of the sandstone on one wall matches exactly the grain on the other wall.
The narrowness of the Siq, and its tall stone walls, made it a safe entry for the camel trains carrying incense, cloth and spices from places like Oman, Syria and India. Trade and the accumulation of wealth were so important to the Nabataeans that merchants who suffered a loss during a year were fined.
The Siq ends directly in front of the Treasury (Al-Khazneh), the most well known of Petra's monuments, which has been immortalized in countless photographs and in the film, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade". The building, 43 meters by 30 meters, was deeply carved out of the living rock. As is the case with much of Petra, there are more stories than facts regarding the Treasury.
Although the story goes that a Pharaoh hid his fortune in the great urn at the top of the façade, thus providing the name, the building is actually believed to be the tomb of the Nabataean King Aretas III. The bullet holes that mar the urn bear testimony of the number of people who have searched for the riches. Iconoclasts defaced the figures on the façade, thought to be Victories, or possibly depictions of Nabataean goddesses, and now their true identities may never be known.
The niches carved into the rock halfway up the edges of the façade leave scope for the imagination to wonder about their use. The sun plays with the color of the stone, making this a sight to enjoy at any time of day, and more than once during a visit.
Leading into the center of the city are over 40 rock-cut tombs and houses, known as the Street of Facades. Some of them are merely the tops of doorways, as the outer siq has slowly filled with sand over the intervening centuries. This is the easiest place to explore. Many tombs were destroyed when the Romans enlarged the Nabataean-built theater to about 7000 seats sometime after 106 AD. As sections of the theater were constructed, rather than carved, it was badly damaged in the earthquake of 363 AD. Eventually, some of the damaged pieces were recycled and used in constructions in other parts of Petra.
From the Outer Siq a steep path runs up to the High Place of Sacrifice, one of the oldest standing cultic altars. The path winds past several unusual sites. The Lion Monument is a fountain that once channeled water to the city center. The Garden Temple Complex boasts two free-standing colonnades outside a shrine. The Roman Soldier's Tomb still has three statues in military dress on the façade. Inside, the stone has weathered magnificently.
The High Place of Sacrifice, oral-Madbah, is located at the top of Jabal Madbah, 200 meters above the theater. This site may have been inherited from their Edomite predecessors. The isolation of this site, with its magnificent views, would have made this a perfect place for religious ceremonies. The two obelisks are dedicated to the Nabataean gods Dushara and Al-'Uzza.
The Royal Tombs are carved into the face of Jabal al-Khubtha. The Urn Tomb, which carries both Nabataean and Roman architectural details, was redesigned as a Christian church around 447 AD. About 150 rolls of papyri from the 6th century AD were discovered in the church during an excavation.
Next to this is the Silk Tomb, badly eroded but brilliantly colored. The Corinthian Tomb, possibly the resting place of the ruler who built the Treasury, boasts a replica of it on the upper story.
The Palace Tomb was the most ambitious of the Royal Tombs; when the builders ran out of rock to carve, they built the top of the façade. It is one of the more recent constructions and also one of the most ornamental. The final tomb is the Sextius Florentinus Tomb, which dates from 130 AD, and was built for the Roman governor of Arabia, with its faint inscriptions and carvings around the entrance.
The Colonnaded Street is a remnant from the Romans, built in 106 AD over an existing Nabataean street. This area was once filled with market sand shops and there is evidence that this was a popular area well into the 6th century BC. Overlooking the area are a Byzantine church with mosaic floors and the Temple of the Winged Lions, which was sacred to Atargatis, the Nabataean fertility goddess who was Dushara's consort.
The Nymphaeum, a public fountain dedicated to water nymphs, was at one end. At the other end was the Temenos Gate, built in the 2nd century AD, which led to the sacred precinct around the Qasr al-Bint.
This free-standing Nabataean building was one of the few left standing after the earthquakes of the 4th and 8th centuries. Enough still stands to demonstrate how impressive it must have been. There is evidence that the Romans set the Palace on fire, and the two earth quakes then wreaked their own havoc.
While the name means "Castle of the Daughter", it is believed to actually have been built in 30 BC for Dushara, and was one of the most important temples. In fact, there is evidence that Dushara's name (He of Sharra) came from the Sharra Mountains, which the Palace faces.
Other structures here include the Great Temple and the Petra Church. The Great Temple was built as a Nabataean temple in the 1st century BC. Records show that it was used for different religious purposes until late in the Byzantine period.
It was once an impressive structure, with white and red stucco inside. It housed a 600-seat theater, a paved courtyard, and a triple colonnade. Adjacent to the Great Temple, archeologists have recently uncovered a garden that may have served as a public park. Complete with pools, bridges and shade trees, the area resembles gardens built by Herod the Great in Judea. Herod's mother was Nabataean and he spent much of his childhood in Petra.
The Petra Church was first built by the Nabataeans, redesigned by the Romans, and then burned down. However, it has recently been restored and the mosaics are lovely. At the top of Al-Habis, behind the Great Temple, is a small Crusader fort, perhaps built as a lookout post for the larger castle at Wu'eira.
On the same hill are the self-described Unfinished Tomb and the Columbarium, which was perhaps used to keep messengers pigeons. Overlooking al-Habis is Umm al-Biyara. While its face is carved with Nabataean tombs, at the summit are the remains of an Edomite village of Sela, dating from the 7th century BC.
For sheer exhilarations, there are two sites that cannot be matched in Petra. The Monastery (Al-Deir), is similar to the Treasury, but larger, measuring over 46 meters by 40 meters, and faces an enormous flat plain. Its name comes from the crosses etched onto the back wall of the large interior chamber.
From the Monastery, it is possible to see the other boggling site, the shrine and 14th century mosque of Nabi (Prophet) Haroun, where Moses's brother Aaron is said to have died and been buried.
J.L. Burckhardt told the local Bedouin, who were uncomfortable with him visiting Petra, that he had a vow to sacrifice a goat at this tomb, and it was only this story that persuaded them to lead him in. This is the highest site in Petra, at 1,350 meters.
Other sites in the area include the 12th century Crusader castle at Wu'eira, the Siq Al-Barid, which became a "bedroom community" of Petra, the Neolithic village of Beidha, the Roman fortress ruins of Udruh and Daajaniyya, and the renovated Ottoman era village of Taybeh.
This microcosm of human history can take the visitor on a trip through time, back as far as 10,000 years. Visitors can be dazzled not only by the historical grandeur, but also by the natural beauty of the effects of sun, wind and weather on colorful stone.
What is even more stunning is that excavations continue in the area. Most of Petra still lies beneath the sand. Who knows what treasures will be uncovered in the future, to further grace one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.