Jordan’s Desert Slowly Reveals History of Petra

Treasury at Petra

I well remember the first photos I saw of the ruins of the rose city of Petra, reflecting a two thousand year old Nabataean culture in Jordan’s desert.  The most magnificent picture was of The Treasury, delicately carved into the sandstone, appearing to be the facade of a Greek temple.  It looked mysteriously deserted.  Directors of the movie, “Indian Jones and the Last Crusade”, filmed portions of the ruins and it was soon the major tourist destination in Jordan.

Around 312 BCE.,  Petra was selected as the capital of the Nabataeans, an Arab tribe that catered to caravans passing through the desert.    These early lumbering modes of transportation contained up to 100 people and 1,000 camels and carried the era’s most precious commodity – spices –  including the Biblical frankincense.  They  needed a “truck stop” that could protect the traders and water the animals.  To provide this,  the Nabataeans developed an hydraulic engineering system that diverted swollen winter waters, pumped water along stone pipes through the canyon and created areas of conservation.   Following the adage “if you build it, they will come”, the caravan routes soon included Petra on their maps and its residents became wealthy.

First glimpse of the Treasury from the siq

Petra’s history plays out in the entry siq, a narrow canyon that follows the flow of the water that created it, past carvings of camel caravans in the wavy red and brown sandstone walls,  and along chariot tracks from the  original Roman stones paving the pathway.  We first stumbled our way down this road by moonlight to the Treasury to enjoy an evening presentation of local Bedouin flute music amid candle-lit luminares – “a downright fairy-tale magical experience” as described in our itinerary.   Except for the ambulance tucked into one corner, the dark scene was ancient.

Carving of camel feet
Entry Siq

By daylight, the entry gorge was even more spectacular with twists and turns and overhanging canyon walls. It was first known as the “via sacra” or sacred way with no animal sacrifices allowed. Tombs were tucked into the walls, including one of a 27 year old with an inscription, “His death caused everlasting pain to his mother” – a pain we could still feel.  Wheels from horse drawn carriages loudly clanged by us over the stones carrying tourists deeper into the ruins.  Around the corner from the Treasury, the canyon opened up to a treasure trove of archaeological finds.

Roman temple

Roman columns

Theater cut in rock

In 64 BCE, the Roman General Pompey conquered the popular Petra.  Even Emperor Hadrian visited the site.  And since Romans built wherever they went, an open colonnaded street spread before us as we exited the siq.  Royal and common tombs were carved high above the valley floor.  An original Nebataean theater, cut in rock and enlarged by the Romans to 34 rows, had held 10,000 people – a significant chunk of the 35,000 who lived here.

Floor Mosaics from Byzantine Church

In 1990, the American Kenneth Russell uncovered the next layer of history, a Byzantine church dating to 400 CE.  After Christianity was established as Rome’s state religion,  Petra supported a bishop and as many as 12 churches.  At Russell’s church, perfectly intact floor mosaics gave glimpses of everyday life including animals, plants, and shepherds.  Stones from the Roman buildings were reused for the church – early recycling.  And a pile of 150 papyrus rolls found in the church brought that era to life with information on marriage and divorce contracts, references to tribes, and decisions about land ownership.

Our guide, a former archeologist, explained earthquakes caused the city to decline.  At its peek, the Petra area was 70 square miles but today, only 1% has been excavated.  Universities and countries around the world are funding and manning the search for more ruins.

“Roman Centurions”
Surveying rock movement

Jordan is trying to balance the need for tourist largesse and protecting the World Heritage Site.  Other than the entry fee, visitors can spend money on horse, camel or carriage rides, pictures with costumed Roman centurions, guides, food, drink, or post cards and jewelry sold by children and Bedouin women.  But we also saw archeological digs and a scientist monitoring the movement of an overhead rock in the siq to protect tourists below.  Petra is no longer deserted but the excitement now is in what remains to be discovered. – a ruin that just keeps on giving.

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