Architectural Wonder Built on Trade


It is absurd to attempt to describe this place which is one of the great marvels of the world…. The whole valley is a great ruin – temples – foundations – arches – palaces – in inconceivable quantity and confusion; and on two sides … are great cliffs, all cut into millions of tombs … theatres etc. so that the whole place is like magic.


A Greek philosopher who stayed in Petra (today in the Kingdom of Jordan), in the late 1st century BC was greatly impressed with much that he saw. Athenodorus, a friend of the geographer Strabo, described the Nabataean capital as a cosmopolitan city, where ‘many Romans and many other foreigners’ lived among the Nabataean population. He noted that only foreigners ‘engaged in lawsuits, both with one another and with the natives, but none of the natives prosecuted one another, and they in every way kept peace with one another’. He attributed this lack of litigiousness to their being ‘exceedingly well governed’. He also approved of their positive attitude to wealth creation, their banquets with musical entertainment and the king’s ‘many drinking bouts in magnificent style’, where ‘no one drinks more than eleven cupfuls, each time using a different golden cup’.

Alone on a mountain top above Petra stands the huge façade of ad-Deir (the Monastery), dwarfed by the mountains into which it was carved. Named from its later Christian use, in Nabataean times it was a place for memorial celebrations, probably in honour of a deified 1st-century BC king, Obodas I.

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Given this lavish lifestyle, other Nabataean habits probably seemed a touch eccentric to a sophisticated Greek – for one thing they had very few slaves, which meant they took turns in serving others and themselves, a curious egalitarian practice that even extended to the king. Such ‘democratic’ tendencies included the king giving ‘an account of his kingship in the popular assembly’, and women being accorded a higher status than was the norm elsewhere – at the ruling level this was visible on coins, with the queen’s profile placed alongside that of the king.

If Athenodorus knew the near-contemporary Library of History of Diodorus of Sicily, which included a first-hand description of the Nabataeans in the late 4th century BC by one of Alexander the Great’s officers, he would have realized the sea-change that had overtaken this remarkable Arab people. Three centuries earlier, many Nabataeans were still nomadic pastoralists who moved with their flocks and herds from one water source to another in largely desert terrain. Their mastery of the desert and its scant resources, combined with their formidable camel cavalry, had kept them independent while other tribes had succumbed to more powerful settled peoples. But it was another element in their lives – involvement in the profitable trade in frankincense and myrrh – that had wrought the change, for their burgeoning wealth needed places of safekeeping and a settled lifestyle. As a more centralized state organization developed, this brought them into contact (and often conflict) with the neighbouring Judaeans, Seleucid Syria and Ptolemaic Egypt. It also brought them into confrontation with the new and acquisitive power of Rome.

The most elaborate of all Petra’s carved façades is al-Khazneh (the Treasury), at the end of the Siq, the long cleft in the rock that forms the main entrance to the city. Its name comes from local folklore, but the wealth of funerary symbols in its decoration associate it with the Nabataean cult of the dead.

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In 65 BC the active Nabataean king, Aretas III, was persuaded by Antipater, the adviser to the dispossessed Hasmonaean king in Jerusalem, Hyrcanus II, to support the latter’s attempt to regain the throne. When hostilities began, Antipater – whose wife was from the Nabataean royal family – sent his children to Petra for safety. They included the young Herod, 25 years later created king of Judaea, who thus had a personal preview of his future adversaries and their capital at a time when the Nabataeans were transforming it into one of the most beautiful and original cities of the ancient world. These erstwhile tent-dwellers were now skilled architectural designers, and their ancient facility with desert wells had evolved into ingenious hydraulic engineering on a grand scale – water was channelled to every corner of their desert capital, even in sufficient quantities to indulge in spectacular water features. It was a talent that Herod was also to develop.

Part of the 6th-century mosaic floor in the north aisle of the large Byzantine church in the heart of Petra. It is thought the mosaicist may have been trying to represent a giraffe, which he would never have seen, and the result was a spotted camel.

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Enclosed within sandstone mountains – a wild convolution of shapes, textures and infinite shades of russet – Petra’s main entrance was through the long natural cleft in the rock, today known as the Siq. This shadowy, numinous gorge surely inspired a level of trepidation in visitors that could only have heightened their awe as they emerged from its twilight, face to face with the glowing carved façade of al-Khazneh, the Treasury, whose iconography indicates funerary associations, though not necessarily as a tomb. Carved probably in the long reign of Aretas IV (9 BC–AD 40), the golden age of the Nabataean kingdom, its design inspired a number of other façades – most notably ad-Deir (the Monastery), though unlike the Treasury this was unadorned with human forms, and the Alexandrian-style elaboration was replaced by the more austere and distinctive Nabataean capitals.

Throughout the 1st centuries BC and AD, Petra must have resounded with the chink of picks and chisels as men levelled mountain tops to make open sanctuaries in which to worship their gods and cut grand processional stairways to reach these high places. They carved hauntingly beautiful architectural façades into the sandstone cliffs in a range of styles, most incorporating some form of stepped design, known as the Assyrian crowstep, while many also have classical features such as pediments, engaged columns, cornices, friezes and portals. In simple chambers behind these façades they buried their dead. Other masons cut building stones from quarries to construct temples, public buildings, palaces and private houses of varying degrees of grandeur. And through the middle of their city the once rough track was upgraded at various times to become a paved and colonnaded street, a splendid route to the main temple, today called Qasr al-Bint.

By the time of the last Nabataean king, Rabbel II, the Romans had mopped up the surrounding kingdoms – Syria to the north, Egypt to the southwest and Judaea to the west had all become provinces of the Roman empire. There is no record of Rabbel’s death, but it is assumed to have occurred in AD 106, the year in which Cornelius Palma, the Roman governor of Syria, took over this one remaining gap in the Roman map of the Middle East in the name of the emperor Trajan, incorporating it as the major part of the new province of Arabia. The transition was puzzlingly peaceful. The Nabataean people, now subjects of Rome, mostly stayed where they were and carried on with their daily lives much as they always had – but their taxes went to the new Roman authorities.

Earthquakes were a recurring problem in the region: one in AD 113/114 necessitated repairs to several buildings; in AD 363 another caused heavier destruction – while many toppled buildings were rebuilt, some only partially, others were abandoned or provided material for new building projects that continued throughout the city. As Christianity spread among the Nabataeans, these new projects included churches, several adorned with recycled Nabataean elements.

It was not until after the Islamic conquest in the 7th century that Petra went into serious decline. People with options to pursue elsewhere doubtless moved to more productive centres of trade or agriculture, and we know from some 6th-century papyrus scrolls, found in 1993, that some landowning families had settled in their country estates outside the city. Those with fewer options stayed on, eking out an existence as best they could in the crumbling city. Until its rediscovery in the early 19th century, to the western world Petra was terra incognita.

The Urn Tomb, one of the so-called Royal Tombs carved into the east cliff that overlooks Petra. No Nabataean inscription identifies its original owner, but a painted Greek inscription inside its vast rock-cut chamber records that it was converted into a church in 446/447. The Petra Bedouin call it ‘the law court’ and the supporting vaults below ‘the prison’.

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