Reconstructing Petra

Two thousand years ago, it was the capital of a powerful trading empire. Now archaeologists are piecing together a picture of Jordan’s compelling rock city

One of the few entryways into Petra is a narrow passage, the Siq, at the end of which Petrans carved elaborate monuments into the soft rock. (Lonely Planet Images)
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"Donkey, horse or camel?" The question from my Bedouin guide reminds me of a rental car agent asking, "Economy, full-size or SUV?" I choose economy, and we canter on our donkeys through the steep valleys that surround Petra, in Jordan, as the rock changes from red to ocher to orange and back to red. Two millennia ago our now deserted track was a well-engineered caravan route, bustling with itinerant traders on foot, Roman soldiers on horseback and rich merchants on camels.

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Directly ahead is a sheer cliff lined with elegant carvings reminiscent of Greek and Roman temples, a surreal vision in this remote mountain valley surrounded by desert. This is the back door to Petra, whose very name means rock in Greek. In its heyday, which began in the first century B.C. and lasted for about 400 years, Petra was one of the world's wealthiest, most eclectic and most remarkable cities. That was when the Nabatean people carved the most impressive of their monumental structures directly into the soft red stone. The facades were all that remained when 19th-century travelers arrived here and concluded that Petra was an eerie and puzzling city of tombs.

Now, however, archaeologists are discovering that ancient Petra was a sprawling city of lush gardens and pleasant fountains, enormous temples and luxurious Roman-style villas. An ingenious water supply system allowed Petrans not just to drink and bathe, but to grow wheat, cultivate fruit, make wine and stroll in the shade of tall trees. During the centuries just before and after Christ, Petra was the Middle East's premier emporium, a magnet for caravans traveling the roads from Egypt, Arabia and the Levant. And scholars now know that Petra thrived for nearly 1,000 years, far longer than previously suspected.

Our donkeys slow as we approach Petra's largest free-standing building, the Great Temple. Unlike the hollowed-out caves in the cliffs surrounding the site, this complex stood on solid ground and covered an area more than twice the size of a football field. My guide, Suleiman Mohammad, points to a cloud of dust on one side of the temple, where I find Martha Sharp Joukowsky deep in a pit with a dozen workers. The Brown University archaeologist—known as "Dottora (doctor) Marta" to three generations of Bedouin workers—has spent the past 15 years excavating and partially restoring the Great Temple complex. Constructed during the first century B.C. and the first century A.D., it included a 600-seat theater, a triple colonnade, an enormous paved courtyard and vaulted rooms underneath. Artifacts found at the site—from tiny Nabatean coins to chunks of statues—number in the hundreds of thousands.

As I climb down into the trench, it feels as if I'm entering a battlefield. Amid the heat and the dust, Joukowsky is commanding the excavators like a general, an impression reinforced by her khaki clothes and the gold insignias on the bill of her baseball cap. "Yalla, yalla!" she yells happily at the Bedouin workers in dig-Arabic. "Get to work, get to work!" This is Joukowsky's last season—at age 70, she's preparing to retire—and she has no time to waste. They've just stumbled on a bathing area built in the second and third centuries a.d., and the discovery is complicating her plans to wrap up the season's research. A worker hands her a piece of Roman glass and a tiny pottery rosette. She pauses to admire them, sets them aside for cataloging, then continues barking at the diggers as they pass rubber buckets filled with dirt out of the trench. It is nearing midafternoon, the sun is scorching, the dust choking and the workday almost over. "I wanted to finish this two days ago, but I'm still stuck in this mess," Joukowsky says in mock exasperation, pointing to dark piles of cinders from wood and other fuel burned to heat the bath water of Petra's elite. "I'm ending my career in a heap of ash."

Earlier archaeologists considered the Great Temple an unsalvageable pile of stones, but Joukowsky proved otherwise by attacking the project with a vigor she likely inherited from her parents. Her father, a Unitarian minister, and mother, a social worker, left Massachusetts to spend the years before, during and after World War II rescuing and resettling thousands of Jews and anti-Nazi dissidents. When the Gestapo shut down their operation in Prague, the couple barely escaped arrest. While they moved through war-ravaged Europe, their young daughter Martha lived with friends in the United States. Even after the war, her parents remained committed social activists. "They would be in Darfur were they here now," Joukowsky says. "Maybe as a result, I chose to concentrate on the past—I really find more comfort in the past than in the present."

She took up archaeology with gusto, working for three decades at various sites in the Near East and publishing the widely-used A Complete Manual of Field Archaeology, among other books. But Petra is her most ambitious project. Beginning in the early 1990s, she assembled a loyal team of Bedouin, students from Brown and donors from around the world and orchestrated the Herculean task of carefully mapping the site, raising fallen columns and walls and preserving the ancient culture's artifacts.

When she began her work, Petra was little more than an exotic tourist destination in a country too poor to finance excavations. Archaeologists had largely ignored the site—on the fringe of the Roman Empire—and only 2 percent of the ancient city had been uncovered. Since then, Joukowsky's team, along with a Swiss team and another American effort, have laid bare what once was the political, religious and social heart of the metropolis, putting to rest forever the idea that this was merely a city of tombs.

No one knows where the Nabateans came from. Around 400 B.C., the Arab tribe swept into the mountainous region nestled between the Sinai and Arabian peninsulas and the Mediterranean Sea. At first, they lived simple nomadic lives, eking out a living with flocks of sheep and goats and perhaps small-scale agriculture. They left little for future archaeologists—not even broken pottery.

The Nabateans developed a writing system—ultimately the basis of written Arabic—though the inscriptions they left in Petra and elsewhere are mostly names of people and places and are not particularly revealing of their beliefs, history or daily lives. Scholars have had to use Greek and Roman sources to fill in the picture. Greeks in the decades after Alexander the Great's death in 323 B.C. complained about Nabateans plundering ships and camel caravans. Scholars believe that such raids whetted the Nabateans' appetite for wealth. Eventually, instead of attacking caravans, the raiders began guarding them—for a price. By the second century B.C., Nabateans dominated the incense trade from southern Arabia. Within several decades, they had assembled a mercantile empire stretching for hundreds of miles. The people who a few generations earlier had been nomads were now producing eggshell-thin pottery, among the finest in the ancient world, as well as grand architecture.

About Andrew Lawler

Andrew Lawler is a contributing writer for Science magazine and author of Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and other publications. View Andrew Lawler's website.

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