Once considered the nexus of the Near East, Petra was an economic powerhouse located in the mountains of Jordan. This ancient city was ruled by the
Nabateans, who harnessed the power of water in a desolate landscape and thrived to a population well over 20,000. As time went on trading routes
changed, political agendas evolved, and this once vibrant city was lost to history. For nearly two thousand years, this ancient wonder of the world
lay in ruins holding precious secrets. Archaeologist have uncovered new splendors, and magnificent objects, that would bring this once desert city
back to life!
Al-Muheisen, who has been excavating in Petra since 1979 and specializes in the Nabataean period, says no one has yet found any archaeological
evidence dating back to the fourth century B.C. The earliest findings thus far date back only to the second and first centuries B.C.
But more clues remain beneath the surface. "We have uncovered just 15 percent of the city," he says. "The vast majority—85 percent—is still
underground and untouched."
Discovery of a Lifetime
In 1812, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt decided to take a job that would send him on a dangerous and rewarding journey. Under a disguise, he traveled to
Cairo and came across information telling of an ancient ruins that was only a days travel away. Of course admitting to go see this place would raise
susipicion of him not being an Arab, Burckhardt requested to make a sacrifice at the tomb of Haroun at the other end of the valley from these ruins.
As Burckhardt and his guide approached the ruins the rock walls along the path closed in to form a tiny, twisting canyon at some points only 15 feet
wide and hundreds of feet deep. The caverns got so tight that darkness was all that was seen. Navigating the narrow pathway, Burckhardt and his
guide eventually saw daylight pierce the darkness. What he saw next was nothing less than breath taking.
Who couldn't stand in awe at these ruins carved into the mountain? Moving along and trying not to blow his disguise, Burckhardt witnessed other
structures protruding into the mountains. His guide growing ever more suspicious finally saw through his disguise and said:
"I see clearly now that you are an infidel. Who has some particular business amongst the ruins of your forefathers; but depend on it that we
shall not suffer you to take out a single coin of all the treasures hidden therein!"
The Sand People
The story of Petra starts with a nomadic people called the Nabataeans who settled the area in the 4th century BC. Although Archaeology is having
trouble finding any artifacts to prove this conclusively.
In the early first century B.C. the desert nomads moved around selling spices and incense; never really staying in one place for too long. Their
early history is shrouded in mystery. Why would successful desert traders feel the need to abandon their enterprise and settle down and follow a
lifestyle similar to what Rome and other properous cities were doing at the time.
Petra began as a gathering site for Nabataean traders carrying incense, spice and perfume along two major ancient caravan routes. Commercial traffic
to and from Petra steadily increased from the first century BC to the mid-first century AD, to keep up with the growing demand for luxury goods in
Rome, Greece and Egypt.
So who were the Nabateans? Very little is actually known about them. They spoke a dialect of Arabic and later adopted Aramaic (the language that Jesus
spoke). They worshipped many different gods. The city was governed by a royal family, and it does not appear to have had any kind of army, though it
did have a location that provided a strong natural defense.
The Nabataean were very wealthy and powerful. Taxing traders and caravans along the route that passed through Petra caught the unwanted eye of Rome.
Rome felt that if Petra was allowed to tax and raise the price of commercial goods, then they felt entitled to that profit. In AD 106, Emperor Trajan
laid claim to all of Nabataea, calling his prize Arabia Petraea.
Visitors today can see varying blends of Nabataean and Greco-Roman architectural styles in the city's tombs, many of which were looted by thieves and
their treasures thus lost. Some of the caravans started moving through Bostra, a city about 165 miles north of Petra in present-day Syria and the
Romans eventually made that city the colonial capital. In the 4th century AD, Constantine I became Rome's first Christian emperor. This brought
change all across the Roman Empire as the pagan gods were displaced by Christianity. By 350 AD, Petra had its own Christain bishop. Some of the tombs
were remodeled as churches and a new cathedral, which boosted colorful mosaics on the walls, floor and ceilings, was built.
The Petra Theater; it looks Greco-Roman doesn't it?
If you have see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, chances are you have seen Petra. Unless you live under a rock of course. In the Hollywood movie,
Harrison Ford reaches the Canyon of the Crescent Moon; the location of the Holy Grail.
Here we have Indy traveling through the Siq, the narrow tunnel to Petra.
Hollywood being Hollywood
In reality, the Treasury is nothing more than a facade with a relatively small hall once used as a royal tomb.
"You can't really say that anything in Indiana Jones is accurate," Haifa University archaeologist Ronny Reich said. "I was once asked in the
United States if one of the responsibilities of Israeli archaeologists is to chase down Nazis. I told them, 'Not any more. Now we just chase down
Petra never really was "lost" to begin with. The Bedouin tribes just referred to Petra as a different name. Archaeologist are still hard at work
unearthing this lost wonder of the world.
Our knowledge of Petra changes every day. With less than one-twentieth of the ancient city unearthed, new wonders constantly emerge at the hands of
Jordanian, French, Swiss and American archaeologists. Excavators found an immense pool complex near the Great Temple in 1998; in 2000, a Nabataean
villa outside the Siq. In a stunning 2003 discovery, rock-cut tombs came to light beneath the Treasury, challenging old ideas about this iconic
building. Now as in the past, Petra has the capacity to astonish.
But this ancient metropolis exists in today's world. Two thousand years of wind and water have taken a toll on its fragile stone. Visitors have
increased ten-fold since 1990. The city must be protected from the elements—and its admirers. Scientists and engineers from around the world are
rebuilding Nabataean dams and planning restoration of the ancient water supply system, marveling as they work at the genius of Petra's original
The Obelisk Tomb, the first of the "big" tombs that you see when you make your way down towards Petra
The Urn Tomb, named for the "urn" at the top. It is sometimes called "the Court" from its utilisation under the Roman rule
The Monastery or "Ed Deir" in Arabic.
New York Times Article