Undoubtedly the most famous attraction in Jordan is the Nabatean city of Petra, nestled away in the mountains south of the Dead Sea. Petra, which means "stone" in Greek, is perhaps the most spectacular ancient city remaining in the modern world, and certainly a must-see for visitors to Jordan and the Middle East. The city was the capital of the Nabateans -Arabs who dominated the lands of Jordan during pre-Roman times- and they carved this wonderland of temples, tombs and elaborate buildings out of solid rock. The Victorian traveler and poet Dean Burgon gave Petra a description which holds to this day -"Match me such a marvel save in Eastern clime, a rose-red city half as old as time." Yet words can hardly do justice to the magnificence that is Petra. In order to best savor the atmosphere of this ancient wonder, visit in the quiet of the early morning or late afternoon when the sandstone rock glows red with quiet grandeur.For seven centuries, Petra fell into the mists of legend, its existence a guarded secret known only to the local Bedouins and Arab tradesmen. Finally, in 1812, a young Swiss explorer and convert to Islam named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt heard locals speaking of a "lost city" hidden in the mountains of Wadi Mousa. In order to find the site without arousing local suspicions, Burckhardt disguised himself as a pilgrim seeking to make a sacrifice at the tomb of Aaron, a mission which would provide him a glimpse of the legendary city. He managed to bluff his way through successfully, and the secret of Petra was revealed to the modern Western world.
Much of Petra's fascination comes from its setting on the edge of Wadi Araba. The rugged sandstone hills form a deep canyon easily protected from all directions. The easiest access to Petra is through the Siq, a winding cleft in the rock that varies from between five to 200 meters wide. Petra's excellent state of preservation can be attributed to the fact that almost all of its hundreds of "buildings" have been hewn out of solid rock: there are only a few free-standing buildings in the city. Until 1984, many of these caves were home to the local Bedouins. Out of concern for the monuments, however, the government outlawed this and relocated the Bedouins to housing near the adjacent town of Wadi Mousa.
Petra is located just outside the town of Wadi Mousa in southern Jordan. It is 260 kilometers from Amman via the Desert Highway and 280 kilometers via the King's Highway. There are numerous and varied accommodations available in Wadi Mousa, as well as a few hotels on the panoramic drive between Wadi Mousa and the nearby (15 kilometers) village of Taybet. Camping is now illegal inside Petra.
Archaeologists believe that Petra has been inhabited from prehistoric times. Just north of the city at Beidha, the remains of a 9000-year-old city have been discovered, putting it in the same league as Jericho as one of the earliest known settlements in the Middle East. Between that time and the Iron Age (circa 1200 BCE), when it was the home of the Edomites, virtually nothing is known. The Bible tells of how King David subdued the Edomites, probably around 1000 BCE. According to this story, the Edomites were enslaved, but eventually won their freedom. A series of great battles were then fought between the Judeans and the people of Edom. In one of these, the Judean King Amaziah, who ruled from 796 to 781 BCE, "defeated ten thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt, and captured Sela in battle" (2 Kings 14: 25). The summit of Umm al-Biyara mountain, in central Petra, is often identified as the Sela of the Bible. However, Sela is also sometimes identified as the mountaintop stronghold of Sele', near Buseirah, one of the Edomite capitals north of Petra.
The area's principle water source, Ain Mousa (Spring of Moses), is thought by some to be one of the many places where the Prophet Musa (Moses) struck a rock with his staff to extract water (Numbers 20: 10-13). Prophet Aaron, brother of Moses and Miriam, died in the Petra area and was buried atop Mount Hor, now known as Jabal Haroun (Mount Aaron).
Sometime during the sixth century BCE, a nomadic tribe known as the Nabateans migrated from western Arabia and settled in the area. It appears as though the Nabatean migration was gradual and there were few hostilities between them and the Edomites. As the Nabateans forsook their nomadic lifestyle and settled in Petra, they grew rich by levying taxes on travelers to ensure safe passage through their lands. The easily defensible valley city of Petra allowed the Nabateans to grow strong.
From its origins as a fortress city, Petra became a wealthy commercial crossroads between the Arabian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures. Control of this crucial trade route between the upland areas of Jordan, the Red Sea, Damascus and southern Arabia was the lifeblood of the Nabatean Empire and brought Petra its fortune. The riches the Nabateans accrued allowed them to carve monumental temples, tombs and administrative centers out of their valley stronghold.
The Seleucid King Antigonus, who had come to power in Babylonia when Alexander the Great's empire was divided, rode against the Nabateans in 312 BCE. The Nabateans eventually repelled the invaders, and records indicate that they were eager to remain on good terms with the Seleucids in order to perpetuate their trading ambitions. While the Seleucids could not conquer the Nabateans militarily, their Hellenistic culture made a lasting impact upon the Nabateans. New ideas in art and architecture influenced the Nabateans at the same time that their flourishing empire was expanding northward into Syria, around 150 BCE. The term "empire" is used loosely here, for it was more a zone of influence. As the Nabateans expanded northward, more caravan routes and, consequently, trading riches, came under their control. It was primarily this, rather than territorial acquisition or cultural domination, that motivated them.
The growing economic and political power of the Nabateans began to worry the Romans, and in 63 BCE Pompey dispatched a force to cripple Petra. Nabatean King Aretas III either defeated the Roman Legions or paid a tribute to keep peace with them. Later, the Nabateans made a mistake by siding with the Parthians in their war with the Romans. After the Parthians' defeat, Petra had to pay tribute to Rome. When they fell behind in paying this tribute, they were invaded twice by the Roman vassal King Herod the Great. The second attack, in 31 BCE, saw him take control of a large swath of Nabatean territory, including the lucrative northern trading routes into Syria. With their trading empire reduced to a shell of its former glory, the Nabatean Empire staggered on for almost another century and a half. The last Nabatean monarch, Rabbel II, struck a deal with the Romans that as long as they did not attack during his lifetime, they would be allowed to move in after he died. Upon his death in 106 CE, the Romans claimed the Nabatean Kingdom and set about transforming it with the usual plan of a colonnaded street, baths, and the common trappings of modern Roman life.
Much of what is known about Nabatean culture comes from the writings of the Roman scholar Strabo. He recorded that their community was governed by a royal family, although a spirit of democracy prevailed. Strabo also notes the materialism of the Nabateans.
With its incorporation into the Roman Empire, Petra began to thrive once again. The city may have housed 20,000-30,000 people during its heyday. The fortunes of Petra began to decline with the shift in trade routes to Palmyra in Syria and the expansion of seaborne trade around Arabia. The city was struck another blow in 363 CE, when the free-standing structures of Petra were thrown to the ground in a violent earthquake. Fortunately, Petra's greatest constructions were preserved, carved as they are into the rock faces.
It is not known whether the inhabitants of Petra left the city before or after the fourth century earthquake. The fact that very few silver coins or valuable possessions have been unearthed at Petra indicates, however, that the withdrawal was an unhurried and organized process. One theory holds that the city of Petra was primarily a religious and administrative center, used occasionally as a fortress during times of war. The preponderance of temples and tombs supports this theory, which holds that as the dead began to consume more and more of Petra's space, the living relocated to other caves or tents outside the inner confines of the "holy" city.
It seems clear that by the time of the Muslim conquest in the seventh century CE, Petra had slipped into obscurity. The city was damaged again by the earthquake of 747 CE, and housed a small Crusader community during the 12th or 13th century. It then passed into obscurity and was forgotten until Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered it for the outside world in 1812.
Before the Nabataeans
Although most people associate Petra with the Nabataeans, in fact man lived in and around the area long before their arrival. Just to the north of Petra, near the site of "Little Petra", on the Siq Al-Barid, are found the remains of the farming village of Beidha, which was inhabited from 7000 to 6500 BC. This was the period when man was making the transition from a nomadic, hunting and gathering lifestyle to a sedentary one, in which he cultivated cereals and domesticated animals.
Beidha was an obvious site to choose; it occupied naturally defended ground and was plentifully supplied with water from the Beidha valley. Today one can still see the remains of walls of the early houses of these newly settled farmers, with their internal hearths and plastered floors. The site, which clearly demonstrates the evolution of different housing patterns, is regarded by archaeologists as being as important as the ancient remains of Jericho.
Making a huge leap through time we arrive at the era of the Edomites, the people who occupied Petra area in the Iron Age (1200-539 BC) immediately before the arrival of the Nabataeans. Edom was the most southerly of the three Kingdoms of Ammon, Moab and Edom, and appears also to have been the most prosperous.
The little we know of the Edomites comes from Biblical accounts and from the remains of their settlements, which would seem to have been situated in the hills surrounding Petra rather than on the actual site chosen by the Nabataeans for their magnificent city.
Excavations have revealed Edomite settlements in nearby Tawilan and on the summit of the mountain of Umm Biyara. Most of the Old Testament accounts of the Edomites stress the constant state of hostility between them and the Israelites. The Edomites appear to have been poor masons when it came to working with rock but to have excelled in pottery making, an art which they may have passed on to the Nabataeans.
The Nabataeans, a nomadic Arab people from north Arabia, began to settle in the Petra area from the late 7th century BC. They seem to have arrived slowly and integrated peacefully with the settled Edomites, who were, at that time, themselves in the process of migrating to a new homeland in southern Palestine.
They were no doubt attracted initially, as previous occupants had been, by the plentiful water supply and the natural defensive position of the land surrounded by mountains. By the late 4th century BC the Nabataeans were firmly established in the Petra area, though with their nomadic traditions it is unlikely that they began building until they had been settled for some time.
However, by the 2nd century BC, Petra has become the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, encompassing an area which today covers approximately 102 kilometers. For many years, it remained the only large Nabataean city, although in the late 1st century AD, Bosra (in present day Syria) seems to have been developed as an alternative capital.
The inhabitants of Petra supported themselves by agriculture and raising livestock. They built terraces, the walls of which are still to be found in what is now desert, in order to cultivate vines and olive trees and bred camels, sheep, goats and horses.
Climate and conditions including rainfall, did not differ significantly from today, but the Nabataeans were extremely skilled in water management, storing this precious resource in great rock-cut cisterns or channeling the plentiful natural supply from its source, Uyon Mosa ( Moses Springs), some kilometers away to the heart of the city. Remains of pipes, channels and cisterns can still be seen throughout Petra.
The Nabataeans growing prosperity came from Petra's location at an important junction on the incense, spice and silk trade routes, which linked China, India and Southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome.
As a caravan city, Petra provided a perfect stopping place with a plentiful supply of water and became a vast entrept for exotic goods from all over the World. Its inhabitants grew wealthy by imposing taxes on goods which passed through the city and in return offered protection from marauding tribes. There is a certain irony in this, as no doubt in their earlier nomadic days, the Nabataeans themselves would have been caravan raiders.
Once settled, the Nabataeans realized that trade required peace and security, so they adopted a policy of avoiding confrontation wherever possible with neighbors jealous of their wealth. An interesting local product in which the Nabataeans traded was bitumen from the Dead Sea. This was used for caulking ships and by the Egyptians for embalming the dead.
The Nabataean Language
The Nabataeans spoke a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ, and wrote with a distinctive Nabataean calligraphy, the fine brush strokes which were perhaps influenced by the soft sandstone of Petra on which it was often written.
Unfortunately, although various rock-carved inscriptions (usually marking the passage of a shepherd or invoking a God) have been found, not only in Petra but also throughout the Nabataean Kingdom, so far no archives have been discovered. Such archives must have existed, as both the important trading and building activities of the Nabataeans would have required them.
Although many of the remains of Petra, its tombs, temples, high places, stone God-blocks (betyles) and cultic niches clearly had a religious function, we know relatively little about the beliefs of the Nabataeans.
They seem to have had a comparatively small pantheon of Gods, the chief two being Dushara, who was male and whom they probably adopted from the Edomites, and his female counterpart Al-Uzza, whom they no doubt brought with them from Arabia under her original name of Allat.
Al-Uzza was a deity of springs and water and both she and Dushara appear to have been fertility Gods. In later times Dushara became assimilated to Dionysus, the Greek God of wine. It is easy to see how this came about, as one of the Nabataean rites associated with the dead was the celebration of funerary banquets at which wine was served, often in rock-cut dining rooms, known as "triclinia" which were situated near to tombs.
Similarly, Al-Uzza later became assimilated to the Greek Goddess Aphrodite and the Egyptian Goddess Isis. The existence of several High Places indicates that animal sacrifice to the Gods was common practice. These sacrifices would have been regarded as renewing man's relationship with the Gods, with blood as the symbol of life. The dead seem to have been buried in family tombs with few funerary offerings.
Little is known of Nabataean domestic architecture. In Petra there were certainly houses carved, like the tombs, into the rock. Excavations have also revealed houses built of limestone blocks with roofs made of stone slabs supported by arches. What is certain is that the Nabataeans were originally much better at building in stone. Building was an art they learnt relatively late in the development of their civilization.
Apart from the magnificent architecture of the tombs and temples, the great artistic achievements of the Nabataeans lies in their pottery, produced in large quantities, shreds of which are to be found all over the area.
As we saw, the manufacture of pottery may be a skill the nomadic Nabataeans learned from the Edomites. Apart from the coarse everyday ware, Nabataean pottery is distinguished by the thinness of its walls, which were sometimes only 1.5 mm thick. It was a pinkish/red color, often decorated by hand with dark brown flower and leaf designs.
The typical egg-shell, shallow open bowls they produced are very difficult to make on the potters wheel, demonstrating how skilled their craftsmen were. A kiln was recently excavated at Wadi Mosa indicating that Petra itself was a center of production. The quality of this pottery declined from the late 3rd century AD onwards, maybe as a result of larger scale production.
Prosperity and Decline
The Nabataean Kingdom was at its peek in the 1st centuries BC and AD. In this period, the Nabataeans helds way as far north as Damascus in Syria, as far south as Northern Arabia and also over parts of the Sinai and Negev deserts.
In 64 BC, Pompey arrived in the area with his Roman legions. He established the Roman province of Syria and encouraged the formation of the Decapolis league of city-states, which contained any further expansion by the Nabataeans.
The Nabataean Kings seem to have ruled as first among equals. The greatest of them was perhaps Aretas IV who ruled from 9 BC to 40 AD, when Petra boasted a population of some 30,000 people (if we include its outlying areas). However, Rome could not forever ignore the challenge to its power and influence and no doubt coveted the wealth of the city.
In 106 AD the Romans annexed the Nabataean Kingdom which became part of the Roman province of Arabia. Nabataean culture and language obviously did not disappear overnight, but it was around this time that many Roman-style improvements were made to the amenities in Petra. The Theater for example, was enlarged and the Colonnaded Street paved.
Throughout the 2nd century AD, Petra continued to flourish and there was an obvious synthesis of Greco-Roman and Nabataean elements in the buildings. However, once the Romans took control of the trade routes, diverting them away from Petra, the Nabataeans slowly but surely declined in wealth, power and creativity.
Christianity and After
In the 4th century AD, with the spread of Christianity from Constantinople throughout the Byzantine Empire, Petra became the seat of a Bishopric and some of the former pagan buildings were converted into churches.
The Urn Tomb was converted into a church in 446 AD and Al-Deir (The Monastery) has crosses on its interior walls, which may be consecration marks. The city gradually contracted and buildings were divided up and used for different purposes. No Nabataean inscriptions date from after the late 4th century AD. Subsequently a series of strong earthquakes damaged the city and one in the mid 8th century AD may have dealt the deathblow.
Certainly when the Muslim Umayyad dynasty established its capital in Damascus in 661 AD, Petra found itself far from the center of power. The Crusaders built some fortifications in Petra in the 12th century AD on the top of the hill of Al-Habees as an outpost to their large castle at Shobak, 30 kilometers north of Petra. After once again becoming a stopping place for caravans in the 13th to 15th centuries AD, albeit without its former wealth and glory, the city lost its commercial importance.
In subsequent centuries, it was inhabited only by local Bedouins and their animals. The fabled Nabataeans capital was forgotten by Europeans until Burckhardt's arrival on the scene in 1812.
Since Burkhart's discovery early this century, many archaeological teams from Jordan and various other countries have carried out excavations in Petra. It is obvious however, even to the most casual observer that much more still remains to be discovered by future generations.
Aaron's Tomb Petra
Of the mountains that encircle the great bowl of Petra, none is more commanding than Aaron's Mountain (Jabal Harun). At 1350 meters above sea-level it is the highest peak in the area; and it is a place of great sanctity to the local people for here, it is believed, Moses' brother Aaron (pbut) died and was buried. A 14th century mosque stands here with its white dome visible from most areas in and around Petra.
Biblical scholars and archaeologists may question whether Jabal Harun is the Mount Hor of the Old Testament, but the story of Aaron's death fits potently with this mountain. Around it lies the turbulent beauty of the eastern escarpment of the rift valley, and from it we look westwards across Wadi Araba to the pitiless Negev Desert and the biblical Wilderness of Zin.
Any expedition to Jabal Harun must be undertaken in the spirit of a pilgrimage, for this is holy ground to the people of Petra. Past the enigmatic Snake Monument, the path crosses open, rolling and slightly rising ground. This was as far as Burckhardt was able to come, and here he sacrificed his goat in sight of the prophet's shrine, just after sunset.
Petra sights are at their best in early morning and late afternoon when the sun warms its multicolored stones. Prepare yourself to enjoy the most majestic and imposing ancient site still-standing nowadays.
- Allow 1 to 3 days to tour Petra, bring water and some candies with you.
- Guided Tours are available, and staff at the Petra Visitor's Center at entrance of the site are at your service to answer your questions and provide assistance. Maps and excellent guidebooks are on hand.
- We suggest that you walk the one-kilometer-long Siq, or hire a horse-drawn carriage to enter the site. You can hire a donkey, horse, or camel inside the site (the donkey is very useful for climbing!). In all cases, its better to hire a horse when leaving the site through the Siq.
- Remember to pace yourself, as the site is large and can involve some fairly steep climbs. The way to Al-Deir takes about an hour with approximately 800 steps, and it takes about 35 minutes to the High Place of Sacrifice with approximately 1050 steps.
Day 1: Al-Siq, The Treasury, Street of Facades, The Theater, The Royal Tombs, The City Center, Qasr Al-Bint Temple, Al-Habees Museum, Petra Archeological Museum, Al-Deir, and back.
Day 2: Al-Siq, The Treasury, High Place of Sacrifice, The Lion Monument, The Garden Temple Complex, The Triclinium, The Renaissance Tomb, The Broken Pediment Tomb, The Roman Soldier Tomb, and back.
What to Wear
Sportswear, baggy pants, and walking shoes are advisable. Keep in mind the relative conservatism of Middle Eastern societies. Summer evenings can be quite cool, so one should be prepared to wear a shawl or sweater. Winters are cold, windy and rainy.
Daily: 6 AM to 6 PM
Adults: 1 Day JD 11 (US$ 16) - 2 Days JD 13.5 (US$ 20) - 3 Days JD 16 (US$ 23) - Students and Children under 12 years: 1 Day JD 6 (US$ 8.5) - 2 Days JD 7.25 (US$ 10.25) - 3 Days JD 8.5 (US$ 12)
Petra Archeological Museum is located inside the site (see Petra Map & Monuments), which houses a wide variety of finds from Petra (Hours 8:00-16:00)
Another small but interesting museum is to be found in an unusual Nabataean structure set into the hillside of Al-Habees (Hours 8:00-16:00).
Local Restaurants and American Style Restaurants like Pizza Hut are to be found nearby the entrance and in Wadi Mosa town. Petra also, boasts a number of hotels to suit every taste and budget where you can enjoy delicious food (e.g. Al-Iwan in Movenpick Resort and Taybet Zaman).
WHERE TO EAT & STAY
Petra boasts a number of hotels to suit every taste and budget. Advance reservation isrecommended for all.
***** Phone(03) Fax(03)
Grand View 2156871 2156984
Movenpick Resort Petra 2157111 2157112
Nabataean Castle 2157201 2157209
Petra Marriott 2156407 2156407
**** Phone(03) Fax(03)
Crowne Plaza Resort 2156266 2156977
Golden Tulip Kingsway 2156799 2156796
Petra Panorama 2157398 2157389
Sofitel Petra Taybet Zaman 2150111 2150101
*** Phone(03) Fax(03)
Edom 2156995 2156994
Petra Palace 2156723 2156724
Petra Rest House 2156266 2156977
Silk Road 2157222 2157244
Pizza Hut 5512620
HOW TO GET THERE
The best time to see Petra is in the early morning or late afternoon, so plan for an early start, or arrive the evening before and stay in one of the comfortable hotels near the site.
By bus: JETT, tel. (06) 5664146, operates a modern fleet of air conditioned coaches from Amman to Wadi Musa (Petra), 3 days a week, Sunday, Tuesday and Friday departing 06:30h and back at 16:00h, arriving in Amman at 19:30h. JETT departs from Abdali Station in Amman.
By car: Petra is a 3-hour drive from Amman on the modern Desert Highway, or 5 hours on the more scenic King's Highway. Leave Amman from the 7th Circle and follow the brown signs, which are designed for tourists.
By taxi: You can hire a taxi in Amman. The fare should be approximately 50 JD.
Combine your visit to Petra with a trip to Dana, a bird's nest-like mountain village in a fascinating nature reserve (on the way to Petra, best seen the day before), or take in the unspoiled desert vastness of Wadi Rum - only an hour's drive south. (For details see the Dana and Wadi Rum sections in this brochure).