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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)

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

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By 100 B.C., the tribe had a king, vast wealth and a rapidly expanding capital city. Camels lumbered into Petra with boxes of frankincense and myrrh from Oman, sacks of spices from India and bolts of cloth from Syria. Such wealth would have attracted raiders, but Petra's mountains and high walls protected the traders once they arrived in the city. The Siq, a twisting 1,000-yard-long canyon that in places is just wide enough for two camels to pass, made the eastern part of the city impregnable. Today it serves as Petra's main entryway. It may be the most dramatic entrance to an urban space ever devised. In ancient times, though, the primary entrance into Petra was likely the road by which I came by donkey.

Writing early in the first century A.D., the Greek historian Strabo reported that while foreigners in Petra are "frequently engaged in litigation," the locals "had never any dispute among themselves, and lived together in perfect harmony." Dubious as that may sound, we do know that the Nabateans were unusual in the ancient world for their abhorrence of slavery, for the prominent role women played in political life and for an egalitarian approach to governing. Joukowsky suggests that the large theater in the Great Temple that she partially restored may have been used for council meetings accommodating hundreds of citizens.

Strabo, however, scorns the Nabateans as poor soldiers and as "hucksters and merchants" who are "fond of accumulating property" through the trade of gold, silver, incense, brass, iron, saffron, sculpture, paintings and purple garments. And they took their prosperity seriously: he notes that those merchants whose income dropped may have been fined by the government. All that wealth eventually caught the attention of Rome, a major consumer of incense for religious rites and spices for medicinal purposes and food preparation. Rome annexed Nabatea in A.D. 106, apparently without a fight.

In its prime, Petra was one of the most lavish cities in history—more Las Vegas than Athens. Accustomed to tents, the early Nabateans had no significant building traditions, so with their sudden disposable income they drew on styles ranging from Greek to Egyptian to Mesopotamian to Indian—hence the columns at the Great Temple topped with Asian elephant heads. "They borrowed from everybody," says Christopher A. Tuttle, a Brown graduate student working with Joukowsky.

One of Petra's mysteries is why the Nabateans plowed so much of their wealth into carving their remarkable facades and caves, which lasted long after the city's free-standing buildings collapsed from earthquakes and neglect. The soft stone cliffs made it possible to hollow out caves and sculpt elaborate porticoes, which the Nabateans painted, presumably in garish colors. Some caves, Tuttle says, were tombs—more than 800 have been identified—and others were places for family members to gather periodically for a meal memorializing the dead; still others were used for escaping the summer's heat.

At its peak, Petra's population was about 30,000, an astonishing density made possible in the arid climate by clever engineering. Petrans carved channels through solid rock, gathering winter rains into hundreds of vast cisterns for use in the dry summers. Many are still used today by the Bedouin. Tuttle leads me up the hill above the temple and points out one such cistern, a massive hand-hewn affair that could hold a small beach cottage. Channels dug into the rock on either side of the canyon, then covered with stone, sent water hurtling to cisterns near the center of town. "There are abundant springs of water both for domestic purposes and for watering gardens," Strabo wrote circa A.D. 22. Steep hillsides were converted to terraced vineyards, and irrigated orchards provided fresh fruits, probably pomegranates, figs and dates.

The pricier real estate was on the hill behind the temple, well above the hubbub of the main thoroughfare and with sweeping views to the north and south. Tuttle points out piles of rubble that once were free-standing houses, shops and neighborhood temples. A Swiss team recently uncovered, near the crest, an impressive Roman-style villa complete with an elaborate bath, an olive press and frescoes in the style of Pompeii. At the base of the hill, adjacent to the Great Temple, Leigh-Ann Bedal, a former student of Joukowsky's now at Pennsylvania State University in Erie, uncovered the remains of a large garden. Complete with pools, shade trees, bridges and a lavish pavilion, the lush space—possibly a public park—is thought to have been unique in the southern part of the Middle East. It resembles the private ornamental gardens built to the north in Judea by Herod the Great, who lived until 4 B.C. Herod's mother, in fact, was Nabatean, and he spent his early years in Petra.

By the fourth century A.D., Petra was entering its decline. Joukowsky takes me on a tour of the newfound spa, which includes marble-lined walls and floors, lead pipes and odd-shaped stalls that might have been toilets, all indications of prosperity. But the growing sea trade to the south had sucked away business, while rival caravan cities to the north such as Palmyra challenged Petra's dominance by land. Then, on May 19, A.D. 363, a massive earthquake and a powerful aftershock rumbled through the area. A Jerusalem bishop noted in a letter that "nearly half" of Petra was destroyed by the seismic shock.

Scholars long assumed the catastrophe marked the end of the city, but archaeologists have found abundant evidence that Petra remained inhabited, and even prospered, for another three centuries or so. Almost 100 years after the earthquake, local Christians built a basilica now famed for its beautiful and intact mosaics of animals—including the camel, which made Petra's wealth possible—just across the main street from the Great Temple. Some 150 scrolls—discovered when the church was excavated in 1993—reveal a vibrant community well into the seventh century A.D., after which the church and, apparently, most of the city was finally abandoned.

Forgotten for a millennium in its desert fastness, Petra reemerged in the 19th century as an exotic destination for Western travelers. The first, Swiss adventurer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, visited in 1812 when it was still dangerous to be a foreign Christian deep within the Ottoman Empire. Disguised as a Persian pilgrim, he marveled at Petra's wonders but could not linger, since his curiosity aroused the suspicions of his local guides. "Great must have been the opulence of a city which could dedicate such monuments to the memory of its rulers," he wrote. "Future travelers may visit the spot under the protection of an armed force; the inhabitants will become more accustomed to the researches of strangers, and then antiquities...will then be found to rank among the most curious remains of ancient art."

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