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The ancient city of Petra, Jordan

Petra, Jordan: Gorgeous Rose-Red City and Wonder of the World

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Petra, Jordan is one of the world's most famous archaeological sites, where ancient Eastern traditions blend with Hellenistic architecture. The lost city of Petra - named as one of the new 7 Wonders of the World - is a majestic place that is thousands of years old, yet it still holds hidden secrets waiting to be unveiled.

The magnificent site has been recognized by UNESCO for its immense historical significance and outstanding cultural value. It is half-built, half-carved into the rose-red sandstone, and is surrounded by mountains dotted with passages and gorges.

Petra, Jordan. ( Sam /Adobe Stock)

Features of the Rose-Red City

The name of the site is ‘Petra’, a Greek word meaning ‘Rock’, a nod to the way the city was built into the sandstone. In 1812 Petra was re-discovered by the first European, Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt , who had spent many years studying Arabic and the history of Islam.

The city of Petra is comprised of hundreds of tombs, houses, a theatre that could fit more than 3000 people, temples, obelisks, and altars where animals were sacrificed to calm the angry gods or ask them for favors. Only 15% of the city has been uncovered to date, the other 85% remains untouched, underground.

The entrance to the Jordanian city of Petra is through a very narrow path about 1 km (0.62 miles) wide with a cliff on each side, and the first thing you see when you enter is the carved Treasury (Al Khazneh). Scholars disagree with that title - pointing out that the “Treasury” is actually a ceremonial tomb.

The first thing you see when you enter the site is the carved Treasury (Al Khazneh). ( truba71 /Adobe Stock)

Another of the interesting features at Petra is the Ad Deir Monastery. During the winter solstice, the light of the setting sun enters through the gate of the Ad Deir Monastery and illuminates the sacred motab, a podium where some stone blocks representing divinities, such as the god Dushara, are placed.

Visitors to Petra are also often drawn to taking photos of the carvings on slabs of stone which are called ‘betyls.’ These are known colloquially as ‘eye idols’ due to their simple carved faces with prominent eyes. Scholars believe that these ‘eye idols’ are actually a representation of Al-‘Uzza, a water goddess and important figure in the Nabataean religion.

Al-‘Uzza goddess - Her image has been found throughout Petra in carvings on slabs of stone called ‘betyls’. (Zcmetallica / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Who Built Petra?

Archaeological excavations in the area have shown that the area was first occupied more than 9000 years ago. This mysterious site was occupied by many different tribes over its history. Based on traditional stories, the first known tribe to occupy the area was the Edomites, of which very little is known. Later, at about 300 BC, an Arab polytheistic tribe named the Nabataeans (Nabateans) migrated to the area.

Soon after, Petra flourished and became the capital of the Nabataean kingdom. Although others may have been in the area before them, the Nabataeans are considered the real builders of Petra . They were a tribe that was so famous they were mentioned by many different civilizations at the time, and records containing references to them were found in ancient Greece, China, and the Roman Empire.

However, little is known about the Nabataeans and their society, and most of what we know comes from archaeological studies and the scholar Strabo, who was apparently fascinated by the  "abundant springs of water both for domestic purposes and for watering gardens" (Geography, XVI.4.2 1), he saw when he visited the site in the 1st century AD.

Ancient writers and the archaeological record show that as well as their agricultural activities, the Nabateans developed political systems, arts, engineering, astronomy, stonemasonry, and, as noted by Strabo, they demonstrated astonishing hydraulic expertise , including the construction of wells, cisterns, and aqueducts in their settlements. They expanded their trading routes, creating more than 2,000 sites in total in the areas that today are Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.

Petra, for example, has been described as a Nabataean ‘caravan-city’ because its location, situated between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, made it an important crossroads between Arabia, Egypt, and Syria-Phoenicia.

Corinthian and Palace tombs at Petra, Jordan. ( dudlajzov /Adobe Stock)

Myths and Legends About Petra

Petra is the city in which Indiana Jones hunted for the Holy Grail in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade . One of the myths concerning Petra originates from the Crusaders and states that it was somewhere in this area that Moses struck a rock to bring water to the Israelites when they fled Egypt. The Knights Templar also claimed that they found the Ark of the Covenant while they were stationed at the ancient city of Petra in Jordan.

Another myth about Petra has to do with the belief that there are remarkable treasures hidden in the building known as the Treasury. Many treasure hunters have shot upon the façade in search of this supposed fortune, the scars of which can still be seen.

Recent Discoveries at Petra, Jordan

Excavations are on-going , and more secrets of different phases in the history of Petra are being revealed. For example, one of the excavations in 2010 uncovered a 2000-year-old Hellenistic style artwork depicting a child with wings playing the flute.

In 2016, archaeologists found a residence with two “absolutely exquisite” statues of the goddess Aphrodite dating to the time Rome annexed Nabataea in 106 AD. During that excavation, another residence and three rock-cut shaft tombs were unearthed containing pottery, animal bones, ceramic oil lamps, an iron sword, and human remains that were buried with decorative items such as jewelry.

Speaking on these finds, bioarchaeologist and co-director of the dig Megan Perry said : "The human remains and mortuary artifacts from Petra provide perspectives not only on Nabataean concepts of death, but also their biological histories while alive.”

Another discovery, also made in 2016 , revealed a massive ceremonial platform measuring 184 ft. (56 meters) by 161 ft. (49 meters), which ‘has no parallels’ in the ancient city. It was discovered just half a mile from the city center using high-tech satellite scanners.

One of the unanswered questions about Petra, Jordan is if it was really possible for such a magnificent, famous city to have been built by the ‘primitive’ Nabataean tribe more than 2000 years ago without some kind of help. Hopefully the unexcavated 85% of the city will someday answer that question.

The theater in the ancient city of Petra, Jordan. ( gatsi /Adobe Stock)

Top Image: Monumental building of Ad Deir carved into the rock at the ancient city of Petra, Jordan. Source: zinaidasopina112 /Adobe Stock

By Joanna Gillan

Updated on August 27, 2020.

References

Alberge, D. (2010) ‘Discovery of ancient cave paintings in Petra stuns art scholars.’ The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/aug/22/hellenistic-wall-paintings-petra

Aquiziam (2017) ‘Lost City of Petra.’ Aquiziam. Available at: https://www.aquiziam.com/lost-city-of-petra/

Augé, C. & Dentzer, J-M. (2000) Petra: The Rose-Red City. (New Horizons). Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Brown University (1999) ‘Petra: The Great Temple Excavation.’ Brown University. Available at: https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/Petra/excavations/history.html

Hammond, P.C. (1991) ‘Petra – Myth and reality.’ Aramco World Magazine. Available at: https://almashriq.hiof.no/jordan/900/930/petra/myth/

Levy, U. (1999) The Lost Civilization of Petra. Floris Books.

Milstein, M. (n.d.) ‘Petra.’ National Geographic. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/archaeology/lost-city-petra/

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