Abandoned and forgotten for centuries, by all but the local Bedouins, until little more than 200 years ago, the ancient city of Petra is among the most extensive and best-preserved archaeological sites in the world. Hewn out of the surrounding rock, the ‘rose-red city, half as old as time’ was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985, recognising the ‘unique artistic achievement’ of the ancient people who created this monumental landscape. Named as one of the ‘New 7 Wonders of the World,’ today it is Jordan’s most popular visitor attraction and a proud national symbol.
Two millennia ago, Petra flourished as one of the ancient Middle East’s most important commercial centres, strategically located at the crossroads of highly lucrative caravan trade routes carrying frankincense and myrrh from the wilds of southern Arabia, precious lapis lazuli from the hills of Afghanistan and silks and spices from far-off India and China to the Mediterranean world to the west. Petra’s rulers also enjoyed a money-spinning monopoly on the trade in bitumen to Egypt – an essential ingredient used in mummification.
Petra was founded by the Nabataeans, a nomadic Arabic people, sometime in the fourth century BC, although most of what we see today, the unique complex of temples and tombs carved directly from the pink-hued sandstone cliffs, dates largely from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and stands testament to the wealth and sophisticated lifestyle enjoyed by the Nabataeans 2000 years ago. It has been estimated that Petra’s population at this time was around 20,000, but they left few written records, and we know surprisingly little about these people.
However the Greek geographer Strabo paints a pleasing picture of a wealthy and cosmopolitan society with few slaves, where the natives enjoyed lavish communal meals and never drank more than eleven cups of wine at one sitting. The location of this impressive ancient city was rediscovered by the intrepid Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812, who was posing as a Muslim pilgrim searching for the nearby tomb of the prophet Aaron. Thanks to the blankets of sand and the region’s arid climate, the city was remarkably well preserved, although as much as 85% of ancient Petra still remains buried beneath the desert, waiting to be excavated.
Dating from the 1st century AD, the most famous image of Petra is the carved façade known as ‘The Treasury,’ although nobody knows for sure what the original purpose of this structure was, and the relatively rough space inside is rather small by comparison. Most likely, it was intended as an especially ornate royal mausoleum, possibly belonging to the Nabataean king, Aretas IV, but the mystery remains. The Treasury is revealed dramatically at the end of a narrow and twisting 1km-long gorge called the Siq, or ‘Shaft,’ hemmed in by the solid rock face rising 80 metres above, and emerging from this dim pathway into the wider, sun-filled opening dominated by the elaborate, and incongruous, frontage of this architectural wonder, carved out of the sheer rock-face, is a thrilling experience.
Images from classical mythology adorn the façade, including figures of the divine twins Castor and Pollux, indicating the influence of Hellenistic culture in the city, and emphasising the wealthy tomb owner’s cosmopolitan learning and sophistication. There is also evidence that the Treasury, as well as other façade tombs at Petra, was once painted; no doubt a sensational sight in its day.
The Treasury is the most photographed of Petra’s monuments and has been used as a backdrop in several films, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger but this is only one part of a vast archaeological site, which includes hundreds of rock-cut tombs, temples, paved streets and an impressive Greekstyle theatre, again chiselled straight out of the rock-face, which could accommodate 3,000 people. Extremely rare and beautiful wall paintings have also been uncovered at a cave complex around 5km from the main site. Now painstakingly restored, they depict foliage, flowers and birds, and putti – cherub-like figures – harvesting grapes.
Dating from the 1st century AD, or even earlier, they are some of the oldest and most important examples of Hellenistic painting still surviving. The rock-hewn structure known as the Deir, or the ‘Monastery’ is another example of Petra’s unique blend of Nabataean and Hellenistic styles. With a soaring façade similar to the Treasury, but much larger and less ornate, it was created on an enormous scale and even today its sheer size has the power to inspire awe in the visitors who make it to this less accessible corner of the Petra site; the doorway alone is a staggering 8 metres in height. Like the Treasury, its modern name is misleading; originally it was probably a temple, although it may well have been used as a hermitage during the early Christian period. It is thought that large crowds of worshippers once gathered on the flat courtyard area in front of the Deir, perhaps at a ceremony to honour one of their deified kings or some long-forgotten deity who once exerted great influence in the daily lives of Petra’s inhabitants. One day we may learn more about these mysterious people, but in the meantime Petra remains enigmatic and magnificent, offering an unforgettable encounter with the past.