Jordan / Petra: A city cut into rock by the Nabataeans, 2200 years ago

Map of Petra - Click on the image for a larger view
Map of Petra - Click on the image for a larger view

This is the first in a series of posts on Petra in Jordan.

One of the Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Petra is Jordan’s greatest visitor attraction. It is an endless ancient city, carved into rock faces by the Nabataeans, highly gifted Arab tribes, who settled in southern Jordan more than 2,200 years ago.

They established Petra as an important trading junction linking China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome. The Nabataeans levied tolls, and in turn offered protection to caravans laden with Arabian Frankincense and Myrrh, Indian spices and silks, African ivory and animal hides and other commodities. This business enabled them to establish a powerful kingdom stretching to Damascus and included parts of the Sinai and Negev deserts, effectively ruling the greater part of Arabia.

The Nabataeans were a very open race, open to external cultural and social influences and merging with their own. The architecture in Petra is a mix of classical (Greco-Roman), Egyptian, Mesopotamian and local styles. They developed a vibrant city, crisscrossed by paved roads, agricultural terraces, water harvesting systems, artwork, temples and theatres.

Fierce warriors and cunning diplomats, the Nabataeans managed to retain their independence in a region successively dominated by the Greeks, the Hasmonaeans and the Romans. But good times did not last forever; Petra was annexed to the Roman empire in 106 A.D.

It eventually fell to ruin gradually. A massive earthquake in 363 A.D. destroyed much of the city. Change of trade routes caused a further decline, and it was mostly deserted by the 7th century. It was totally lost to the outside world after the 14th century until being rediscovered by Swiss traveler Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. Petra is thus often referred to as the ‘Lost City.’

Not that Ludwig’s job was easy when he set out to look for the rumoured lost city. Secretly making notes and sketches, he figured that the ruins of Wadi Musa (also spelt Mousa) could well be those of the ancient city of Petra. He had to trick his way into the heavily guarded place, pretending to be an Arab from India wishing to make a sacrifice at the tomb of the Prophet Aaron (brother of Moses; a modest shrine commemorating his death was built in the 13th century by the Mameluke Sultan).

Useful Info
* Petra is a 3 hour drive drive from capital Amman on the modern desert highway or 5 hours on the more scenic Kings Highway. There are regular bus services or you can hire a taxi.
* Timings: Summer 6:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.; Winter: 6:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
* All human settlement and visitor facilities including hotels and markets are located in the town of Wadi Musa adjoining Petra.
* Web: www.petrapark.com, www.tourism.jo , www.visitjordan.com

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