Credit – Unsplash
At the core of the barren crimson desert resides the City of Petra, a legacy of a bygone era. This hidden city is covered with tales carried by desert winds and unfolds its secrets with the air of mystique. Its rose-red facades, masterfully carved into the living rock, stand as silent witnesses of an ancient civilization lost into the stack of time. Each façade is a canvas of stories of a forgotten empire and resonates with the whispers of a rich history. As we walk through the narrow Siq, the canyon guarding Petra’s entrance, the anticipation builds—we are set on a journey back in time, guided by the echoes of a lost civilization’s heartbeat.
Where Is Petra Located?
It sits approximately 150 miles south of Jerusalem and Amman, the capital of Jordan. Positioned midway between Damascus, Syria, and the Red Sea, it became a strategic hub for trade and commerce.
This historical site is notable for its stunning rock-cut architecture and pioneering water management system, a crucial innovation that transformed the otherwise waterless and mountainous surroundings into a habitable area.
It is known as the ‘Rose City’ due to the hues of its stone structures. It earned recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
An Enchanting History
The story begins with a tribe of Arabian nomads known as the Nabataeans. Originally, wanderers who thrived in the desert by herding animals. Over time, their expertise in desert survival transformed them into prosperous traders, dominating key routes for spices and incense from Arabia to Egypt and the Mediterranean. The Nabataeans, once nomadic, accumulated wealth as desert traders, transitioning from goat-skin tents to constructing impressive structures. The shift from nomadic life to settling down remains a mystery, shrouding Petra’s origins in intrigue.
In 312 B.C., the Greek Empire attacked, marking its first historical mention. The Nabateans cleverly defended their city against the Greeks, using the mountainous terrain as a natural barrier. However, in 106 A.D., the Romans invaded, leading to the Nabatean surrender. The Romans renamed the territory as Arabia Petraea and ruled for over 250 years. The city endured until an earthquake in the fourth century A.D. that damaged many structures. Later, the Byzantines assumed control, governing for approximately 300 years.
The Lost City
This ancient city experienced a decline in the eighth century A.D., losing its prominence in trade, politics, and culture. Despite this, it remains noteworthy for its unique architecture, especially the rock-cut structures crafted by the Nabatean Bedouins. Its early architecture emerged by carving structures directly into the surrounding stone.
Over time, Petra evolved, absorbing Roman and Byzantine influences, resulting in a fusion of cultural elements. Initially known for detailed Nabatean tombs, the city later featured Christian churches built by the Byzantines, who regarded it as the capital of the province of Palaestina. The Romans left their mark with the Roman Road, adorned with Roman-style gates.
Despite changing rulers, the Nabateans’ influence endured in Petra’s design. Resulting in a captivating blend of cultural contributions spanning centuries.
After the eighth century, this abandoned city, Petra became a refuge for nomadic shepherds for centuries. In 1812, Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered Petra and documented his findings. This revelation captivated the interest of the Western world, drawing architects and scholars. A formal excavation project commenced in 1929, led by British archaeologists Agnes Conway and George Horsfield, along with scholars Tawfiq Canaan and Ditlef Nielsen. Over the years, significant discoveries were made, including the Greek scrolls in 1993 and the recent identification of a buried monumental structure through satellite imaging.
Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, this lost city witnessed the forced relocation of Bedouin tribespeople by the Jordanian government. In the early 2000s, it earned recognition as one of the ‘Seven New Wonders of the World,’ resulting in a surge in tourism.
Inside Petra: Lesser Known Facts:
- Caravan City: Often known as the ‘Rose City,’ it was a caravan city strategically located at the crossroads of major trade routes. Its prosperity was built on trade, serving as a hub for caravans traveling between the Arabian Peninsula and the Mediterranean.
- Rock-Cut Architecture: One of the most distinctive features of this city is its rock-cut architecture. The structures were carved directly into the rose-red cliffs of southern Jordan, showcasing the remarkable engineering and artistic skills of the Nabataeans people.
- Nabataean Water Engineering: Its ability to thrive in a desert environment was facilitated by sophisticated water management systems. The Nabataeans constructed intricate trenches, cisterns, and channels to control and distribute water throughout the city.
- Hidden Monastery: While the iconic Al-Khazneh (The Treasury) and the Monastery are well-known, Petra is home to numerous lesser-explored sites. One such site is the ‘Ad Deir’ or the Monastery, located high in the mountains. Larger than The Treasury but sees fewer visitors due to its remote location.
- Mesmerizing Nights: Visitors have the unique opportunity to experience Petra by Night. The archaeological site is illuminated by thousands of candles, creating a magical atmosphere. The journey through the Siq to reach The Treasury under the soft glow of candlelight is a ravishing experience.
- Lost and Rediscovered: Essentially lost to the Western world after the 14th century. It became a forgotten city until the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered it in 1812. His accounts of the hidden city brought it back into the limelight.
- Amphitheater with Acoustics: This city boasts a well-preserved amphitheater with impressive acoustics. Despite its ancient origins, the theater can still seat thousands of spectators and is occasionally used for performances.
These lesser-known facts of Petra add layers to its historical and cultural significance.
How and When to Visit?
Don’t limit to just a day trip—it’s vast, covering over a hundred square miles, four times the size of Manhattan. While donkeys and camels can speed things up, most of its wonders are best explored on foot, involving some uphill treks.
Stay at least one night in town and plan your exploration through a series of hikes. Local guides, with their extensive knowledge, reveal hidden tombs and details you might miss.
This city welcomes visitors year-round. Opt for spring or fall for pleasant weather and stunning light. Summer is lovely but scorching. January and February are cooler, with occasional rain. Due to the high elevation, nights are chilly. Make the most of Petra’s changing hues by arriving early and staying late for sunrise and sunset.
Many mysteries of this long-lost city are still buried under the golden sand of the desert. Mysteries that hold a voice telling the story of the past. However, this mist of unknown stories is the very factor that makes this place more appealing. Once you leave Petra, you will leave with a perspective questioning the circle of time entangled with stories. And who knows, this adventure might help you with your own story.