Reconstructing Petra

Two thousand years ago, it was the capital of a powerful trading empire. Now archaeologists are piecing together a more complete 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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Petra has lately fulfilled that prophesy. It is now Jordan's top tourist destination, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. Hollywood's Indiana Jones sought the Holy Grail in one of Petra's caves in a 1989 film, dramatizing the site for a worldwide audience. The 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel made mass tourism possible. Foreigners began coming to Petra, and devout Jews began making pilgrimages to nearby Jebel Haroun, which, according to tradition, is the site of the prophet Aaron's tomb. The nearby village of Wadi Musa has been transformed from a straggling collection of run-down mud-brick houses into a boomtown of hotels (the Cleopetra) and stores (the Indiana Jones Gift Shop). Petra is also a top contender in an international contest to name the New Seven Wonders of the World. Candidates were nominated by a panel of experts, and winners will be chosen by votes. (You can vote online at Winners are scheduled to be announced next month.

Despite all the publicity and the parade of tourists, much of Petra remains untouched by archaeologists, hidden under thick layers of debris and sand built up over the centuries. No one has found the sites of the busy marketplaces that must have dotted Petra. And although local inscriptions indicate that the Nabateans worshiped a main god, sometimes called Dushara, and a main goddess, the Nabateans' religion otherwise remains mysterious.

So while the work by Joukowsky's team has revealed much about ancient Petra, it will be up to a new generation of researchers like Tuttle to tackle the many rubble piles—and mysteries—that still dot the city's landscape. "We really know next to nothing about the Nabateans," says Tuttle as he surveys the forbidding landscape. "I hope to spend most of my professional life here."

Tuttle and his colleagues will be assisted by Bedouin skilled in uncovering and reassembling the past. Bedouins lived in Nabatean caves for at least a century, until the 1980s when the government pressured most to move to a concrete settlement outside the ancient city to make way for visitors who come to explore the site. My guide, Suleiman Mohammad—who worked at the Great Temple before switching to the more lucrative tourist trade and who married a Swiss tourist—tells me he is grateful to have so many foreign visitors. But not all Bedouin are so lucky, he says. In the harsh country outside Petra, he points to a group far out in the desert: "They have no shoes, wear tattered clothes, and just have goats—there are no tourists out there!"

Suleiman invited the excavation team and me to dinner at his home that night. He greeted us warmly, and we climbed to the roof to enjoy the sunset. The red sun softens the ugly concrete village. Returning downstairs, we sat on cushions and ate from a large platter of traditional maglouba, clumping the rice into lumps with our hands and relishing the warm chicken. It was Thursday night, the start of the Arab weekend, and after dinner a young American and a Bedouin arm-wrestled to great laughter and shouting. Outside, the large waning moon rose and, far below, the red rock of Petra turned to silver in the soft desert night.

Andrew Lawler wrote about the archaeology of Alexandria in the April issue of Smithsonian. He avoids riding camels.

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