How do you describe the beauty of this lost city, or the aura that surrounds it? Although much has been written about Petra, nothing really prepares you for this amazing place. It has to be seen to be believed. Entering via the Siq only heightens the anticipation of what lies ahead. Magnificent buildings carved from the rock faces by skilled craftsmen are but one aspect of Petra. As you wander through the city, marvel at the size and height of the pillars at the Great Temple, the intricate mosaics on the floor of the Byzantine Church, the beautiful colours in the rocks.
Petra means ” Rock” – a very apt name indeed. There are Biblical references to the city of Sela and as this name has the same meaning as Petra, it seems they be one and the same. Although originally an Edomite settlement, the majority of buildings visible today are from the Nabataean and Roman periods.
The Nabataean Arabs were nomadic Bedouins who migrated north out of Arabia over 2,000 years ago. Originally engaged in transporting frankincense and myrrh – two extremely rare and valuable commodities – from their source in south-west Arabia through to Gaza, they gained power through the control of the silk, spice and other trade routes that linked southern Arabia with the Far East, Egypt, Syria, Rome and Greece.
The first mention of Petra was in 312BC when it was captured by Antigonus and “a great treasure taken away”. At that time, however, it was probably no more than a storage place or a relatively safe location to stop en route. It was not until the 1st Century BC that the Nabataeans began to settle at Petra and to build and carve the magnificent city. With just simple hand tools, these master craftsmen created superb temples and tombs in honour of their dead. The soft sandstone was the perfect medium to carve staircases to the high grounds where the Nabataeans worshipped their gods – sections of many staircases can be seen today.
The Nabataean Empire was large and at the height of its power, extended as far north as Damascus. The first king to rule the Nabataeans was Aretas I in 169BC with the final king Rabbel II ceding the empire to Trajan in 106 AD, at which time it became the Roman province of Arabia Petraea.
Petra was chosen as the capital of their Empire due to its strategic location on the major trade routes and also because the surrounding mountains provided a natural barrier from invaders. The main entrance, the Siq, a narrow chasm winding for over 1 kilometre through the mountains, was easy to protect and defend against invaders.
One reason for the Nabataeans success was their ability to create sophisticated water supply systems with channels and cisterns. As the city of Petra expanded, the demand for fresh water increased exponentially. The two natural springs within the city could not provide sufficient water for everyday use by the inhabitants, supplying the public baths as well as in the construction of the buildings. A channel was cut from the springs at the top of Wadi Musa bringing a steady supply of water to the city. Large cisterns, lined with plaster, were cut into the rocks surrounding the city to store excess water. Even today many of these channels can still be seen, especially as you walk through the Siq. The springs seem to have been holy places, for many have traces of buildings close by which could have been shrines to the goddess Allat.
Whilst they developed their own style of architecture it is clearly evident that they adopted many Greek and Assyrian designs as a result of contact with the outside world. However once Petra was absorbed into the Roman Empire, they adapted their architecture accordingly although still maintaining their own individuality. The city continued to prosper until the 3rd Century AD when the easier Red Sea trade route became more popular than the overland route through Arabia. Sometime during the 4th or 5th Century Christianity came to Petra Some of the largest tombs, in particular the Urn Tomb, were cleared out and converted into churches, and one part of the city is referred to today as Haret el Nasara, or Christian quarter, because of the crosses carved on the tombs. But as the number of caravans passing through Petra declined so, too, the city’s prosperity and many inhabitants moved. In 363 an earthquake destroyed many buildings. By the time of the Arab conquest in the 7th Century, very few people remained and following another massive earthquake in 747 AD, Petra was abandoned.
Petra became a forgotten city and a legend of mystery. Although explorers sought to locate Petra, the few inhabitants in the surrounding districts protected its location until 1812 when Swizz explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, under the guise of wanting to visit Aaron’s tomb, tricked some local Bedouins into revealing the city’s location. From the moment you enter Petra Archaeological Park, you will be mesmerized by this city and the people who built and inhabited it. But the main street is only part of Petra. All the valleys leading away from the city were inhabited and there are a myriad of houses, etc built into the rock faces to explore.
Make sure you don’t miss the High Place of Sacrifice with its fantastic views over the city, and Ad-Deir (the Monastery) from where you can see Wadi Araba. Although both require climbing many steps, take your time and enjoy the fabulous vistas along the way.
For those interested in hiking, we offer guided tours on trails over the mountains providing extraordinary views from above the city and entrances few people know exist. We also provide one-day hikes to Jebal Haroun (Aaron’s tomb). Some hiking trails even provide participants with the opportunity of sleeping within Petra.
What an extraordinary place this must have been when created by the Nabataeans and enhanced by the Romans. This UNESCO site is now justifiably listed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. There is so much to see that one day is really not enough. Do yourself a favor and allow at least 2 full days to discover this amazing destination. Any of our offered itineraries can be adjusted to include extra days in Petra.
PETRA BY NIGHT – JORDAN
Operating Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays throughout the year, “Petra by Night” provides a hauntingly beautiful sight of Al Khazneh (The Treasury) lit purely by candles. Participants follow a candlelit pathway through the Siq where they will be offered a cup of Jordanian tea before sitting down to hear musicians and a story-teller. Tickets may be purchased through your hotel Reception desk or directly at the entrance gates.
PETRA KITCHEN – JORDAN
A very popular pastime when in Wadi Musa (Petra) is to attend a cooking class at “Petra Kitchen”. Under the guidance of local Jordanian women and professional chefs, learn the secrets of cooking great Arabian food such as you have been enjoying throughout your time in Jordan. After the 3-course meal is cooked, sit down with your fellow chefs to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Bookings are necessary.