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The Desert Mountains and canyons to the South-West of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan form one of the most formidable landscapes known to man. The sandstones here are hundreds of feet high forming some of the steepest cliffs ever. Millions of years of wind and water erosion from winter flash floods have carved an intricate network of deep canyons into the ragged desert sandstone. Couple that with the hot desert sun and the unavailability of water you get one efficient death trap for any life-form unlucky enough to find itself lost in this fantastical landscape. It would only be logical to conclude that this part of the planet is inhabitable. Or would it?

Despite these life-threatening conditions this area was settled as early as 7000 BC. Why is that? Trade! The trade of frankincense and myrrh in particular and although other goods like silks, china and spices were part of the trade, frankincense and myrrh were amongst the most valuable. After all they are among the gifts given to baby Jesus by the wise men. These goods were very important for the elite citizens of the Roman Empire who consumed nothing but the best of the best from around the world which effectively meant that this area was the trade gateway to the Roman Empire. And since this was before sea routes became cheaper and more efficient, it meant that goods had to be transported the old fashioned way; in caravans on the backs of camels and donkeys. And the Nabataeans found themselves smack in the middle of this golden trade


The Rise Of Petra

The Nabataeans were a nomadic Arab community who had vast knowledge of this area. The canyons were their roads; they knew where to find water and what areas to venture or not to venture into. So if you were a trader back in the day with your caravan of precious cargo and wanted to make it across the desert alive, you were better off with one of these knowledgeable nomads leading that caravan. The Nabataeans were effectively in total control of this trade; and it made them very wealthy. And when you control a gold mine the only thing you can really do is live like the king you are. A king needs a palace to make a statement, and thriving city to go with it. The Romans had Constantinople and Rome, the Egyptians had Cairo and Alexandria; so the Nabataeans of the Nabataean Kingdom built the Rose City of Petra (Greek for “rock”) as their capital in 4th century BC. And boy was it a spectacle!

The Nabataeans were master stone carvers. Most of the buildings in Petra were carved right into the desert sandstone. Sandstone is soft because it’s mainly compressed layers of sand and minerals. For this reason, it is easy to work with. The results of what the city looked like are best shown by one of the most popular and magnificently sculpted building in the city ruins today; the Al-Khazneh (the Treasury). It was (and still is) the first building to welcome you to Petra. After days of traversing the hostile desert you’d arrive at the Al Siq, a 1.2 kilometer canyon that served as the entry to the city. Flanked by cliffs to each side almost 600 feet tall, the curves and bends of the canyon finally deposited you in front of the Khazneh. 80 feet wide and 100 feet tall it is twice the height of Mt. Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills in Keystone, South Dakota. Massive columns, intricate sculptures and decorations adorn its walls taking full advantage of the light bouncing off the natural rose color of the sandstone. Al-Khazneh was effectively a statement of wealth and grandeur to anyone who came to Petra. Then ‘awesome’ just kept coming from here into the heart of the city.

Al-Khazneh; source Madain Project

Walking down from the Khazneh to the center of Petra the gorge widens and one found themselves in a part now known as the Street of Facades. Here, more than 40 tombs line the hillside. Now you’d think that it would be a bad sight to have tombs right at the entrance to the city; and may be it would be in any other city but not in Petra. The Nabataeans did it with style. Again curved into the sandstone, the tombs have high beautifully and intricately sculpted facades. One of the most captivating tombs here is the Tomb BD 70 which is a free standing tower of over 15 meters high and carved on three sides (North, East and West). The Palace Tomb which is situated among the Royal Tombs however easily takes first place. At an astonishing 49 meters wide and 46 meters tall, it is one of the largest carved facades in Petra. In all, there are over 800 tombs in the rocks of Petra. You have to agree though; it was rather poetic for a community that had tamed these wild rocks to end their journey of life in them.

Map of Petra; source Wikipedia

Tombs on the Street of Facades; source Smart History

Tomb BD 70; source Universes in Universe

Place tomb; Source Wikipedia

The tombs are amazing, but they are not the most spectacular thing to see in the Street of Facades. For to the left is the Petra Theatre. With a substantial part of it carved out of solid rock like almost everything else, it was positioned in such a way that the audience had the best possible view of the ornate tombs across the gorge. And as a leader in Petra that would be your goal considering that the theater could hold an estimated 8,500 people. As a visitor over 2000 years ago sitting in the audience watching whatever show that was on with the superior acoustics giving you that TruSurround experience, that must have been a wonder not even amnesia could take from you. 600 hundred meters from this wonder you’d find yourself at the city center of Petra which was right in the middle of a valley. This is where most people lived with suburbs to the North and South of the valley. One of the most noticeable buildings here is the Great Temple which occupies a prime spot where you can see the most prominent features of the city and covered an area of 7,560 m2.

Petra Theater; source Sonia Hillday Photo Library

At its height Petra was home to 30,000 people. You need a lot of water to sustain a population this big and for a city located in the desert with no rivers in sight one wonders, where did the Nabataeans source their water from; especially because there was open consumption of this rare commodity? The plumbers of Petra had to work overtime to make sure that there was a steady supply of water to the city and that meant that they had to take advantage of every single drop of water that came their way including the most dangerous sources.

Five miles East of Petra is Ain Musa; the spring Moses. The origins of this oasis have been traced back to the legend of Moses and the Israelites during the Exodus. When the Israelites got thirsty in the wilderness, they cried to Moses who struck a rock with his rod and forth came water from the rock. Today at Ain Musa you can see the supposed rock that Moses struck. The Nabataean plumbers needed to get this water to Petra. So they build a pipeline in form of enclosed ceramic pipes from the spring all the way to the city. The remains of this plumbing system can be seen today running along Al-Siq. This provided clean drinking water to the city. During winter, the area in Petra is prone to flash floods that can be very dangerous. In 1963 a flash flood hit Petra and took the lives of 22 French tourists and one local guide. This annual danger was not lost to the Nabataeans and so they turned it into a resource for the city. Dams to contain this flash floods were built across gorges making Petra safe and collecting more water for the city to use. Evidence of the dams can be seen in gorges where massive dam walls were braced in the sandstone.

Ain Musa and the alleged rock Moses struck; source Pinterest

In all, Petra had 8 natural springs that provided fresh drinking water, 36 dams that collected flash flood water, over 100 cisterns that collected rain water and an impressive 125 miles of pipeline that connected the city to one water system. Calculated, every person in the city had 8 liters of water a day. This might not seem like a lot but remember these were desert dwellers that were used to harsh desert conditions so this was more than enough for them. Petra was a modern city of the era and it had modern plumbing to go with it. The surplus water went to make ornamental pools that irrigated a garden at the center of the city. Evidence of fountains and canals has been found too. The Nabataeans had effectively converted a barren landscape into an oasis and that was the ultimate symbol of their wealth and power. Reminds you of a city in the Nevada Desert, right? Today the dams that have been destroyed by millennia of the harsh desert elements are being repaired. This will help make the city safer for tourists, protect it from further erosion and also give a fuller experience of what Petra once was.

Reconstructed photo of Petra; source History of Yesterday

Ultimately the emergence of new sea routes marked the end of the golden age and the start of the decline of Petra. More and more goods were transported by sea and for a city that was thriving primarily because of trade, this was a critical blow. Gradually people moved from Petra in search of greener pastures as the stream revenue in the city was not what it once was. The Galilee Earthquake of May 18th and 19th 363 dealt a devastating blow to the city’s free-standing structures like the Great Temple which crumbled to the ground. Numerous groups of people tried to resettle in the city and during the byzantine era a couple churches were built. Eventually the city was completely abandoned and lost to the western world until 1812 when it was brought back to life again by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt who disguised himself as an Arab pilgrim to gain access to the area. In 1985 Petra was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2007 it was named one of the seven new wonders of the world.

With modern cities today and the modern technology that goes into building them it is easy to forget just how innovative ancient civilizations were. With their modest tools and unwavering resolve they have given us some of the most magnificent sights there are in the world. More than 2000 years on, Petra still stands as a testament of a people who endeavored to make a home of the most unlikely of places and succeeded so spectacularly, it inspires awe and fascination even now when it lies in a state of ruin and disrepair.

By: Kyule Muthiani. 

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