Petra, Jordan continues to be a city puzzling archeologists and enticing tourists. First of all, it has been entirely carved out of sandstone. Second of all, it shows the evidence of once being a large luxurious metropolis in the middle of the desert. How did its citizens manage to salvage water? Why was the city carved, not built? These are just a few questions posed incessantly by the avid researchers of the city of Petra. Here are some totally unbelievable facts about the „rose-red city half as old as time”.
1. Petra was established as a city in 312 BC by the Nabateans.
The Nabateans are a people which lived in the Middle East, in the Biblical times of Jesus Christ. They are also mentioned in the Bible, which in this respect is treated as a reliable historic source. The kingdom of the Nabateans spread wide across the territory of modern day Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. In the beginning, the Nabateans were a nomad, i.e. a traveling nation, dwelling in tents and crossing the dessert on camel’s back. However, as their frankincense and myrrh trading brought them more money, they decided to settle.
2. The Nabateans knew extremely advanced methods of collecting water.
While excavating the ruins of Petra, numerous teams of archeologists have found evidence for large irrigation systems, analogous to those used by the peoples of Egypt and Mesopotamia. This shattered the view of Petra being a tomb or supply storage city. We now know that in its glory days Petra was a luxury oasis in the middle of the great Wadi Sihran desert. The researchers found even traces of decorative aquatic structures, such as pools and fountains, which all point to an abundance of water in the city.
3. Petra is situated on Jebel al-Madhbah, said to be the biblical Mount Sinai.
The name of the slope in Hebrew literally means „mountain of the altar”. It is over a thousand meters high and a staircase carved out of rock leads the way from the top of the mountain all the say down to the valley below. This valley, where Petra is located, is known as the Wadi Musa, The Valley of Moses. The city is entered by a narrow passage called Siq. This is where the Ain Musa, the spring of Moses can be found. Biblical sources say that the spring was created when Moses struck the sandstone rock with his rod. Archeologists suspect that this is the spring which supplied water to the vast area of the city of Petra.
4. Petra has long remained totally unknown to the western world.
It was only in 1812, when the site was discovered by a Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Johann was a traveler, geographer and orientalist, who was employed by the African Association to solve hydro-engineering issues concerning the Niger River. It was only by accident that he discovered the remnants of the ancient city, during a business expedition from Cairo to Timbuktu. He adopted the moniker Sheik Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah to avoid being recognized by fellow Europeans, to be able to continue his research on The Lost City.
5. Petra’s focal point is The Treasury, also known as Al-Khazneh in Arabic.
The structure was originally erected as a mausoleum and crypt. It is estimated that the building works ended some time around 1st century AD. The facade of the Treasury points to Nabatean’s associations with many other South East nations, as both Greek, Egyptian and Mesopotamian elements can be found incorporated into the design (column, ledges, ornaments). The Treasury is also one of the best preserved buildings of Petra, eluding two thousand years of stone erosion.
Legend has it that it may have functioned as a treasury of the Egyptian Pharaoh at the time of Moses (Khaznet Far’oun). It is visible at the very Entrance to Petra via the Siq passage.
6. The site currently faces many threats of extinction.
These include first and foremost sandstone erosion, which could ultimately lead to the collapse of the elaborate carved structures. Then there is also the danger of the so called flash floods, which occur during every rainy season in Petra. The archeologists are now fixing the original dam systems to prevent Petra from being washed away by the flood waters. But, the third threat that still remains is that of unsustainable tourism, which has especially increased since 1997, when Petra became one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
7. Before Petra, there was a small pre-pottery settlement just north of the Stone City.
In 2010 BC there were rumors of some farming people settling in Beidha, near the present day Petra. We do not exactly know what happened to this tribe, or their city, but sure enough Petra started first appearing in the Egyptian military accounts under the name Pel, Sela, or Seir. The scholars also estimate that stations 19 to 26 mentioned in the Biblical Exodus are destinations closely associated with Petra. In the Egyptian, or Biblical times, the citizens of Pel were called Horites, and later Edomites. It is only much later that the Nabateans appeared, possibly assimilating more than a few customs of the precious tribes, like burying the dead in caves.
8. Rekem could have been the native name for Petra.
As Josephus asserts in „ Antiquities of the Jews”, Rekem could have been the native name of the city, used by its inhabitants. The name also appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which mention a proud Edomite city, surprisingly resembling Petra. But the Aramaic accounts suggest that the name of the city was in fact Kadesh. As we know, Kadesh is yet another city, so the accounts lose much of their credibility. The Semitic name for the city remains unknown, unless it was Sela, just like the Egyptians wrote.
9. In 106 AD, Petra became part of the Roman Empire.
When Cornelius Palma took seat as the governor of Syria, Petra became incorporated into the Roman Empire as part of a Roman district called Arabia Petraea. The city changed dramatically under the Roman rule. Roman settlers were introduced, commerce continued to flourish, the Petra Roman Road has been built. But from some time around the reign of Alexander Severus, Petra has been slowly on the decline. First, the minting of the coins got stopped, and then the trading routes were retraced away from the Rose-Red City. Also, in 363 an earthquake hit Petra, destroying many buildings and demolishing the municipal water irrigation system.
10. Petra’s position was eventually taken over by the city of Palmyra.
After the natural disaster struck Petra and the city’s water supply effectively collapsed, Palmyra started to be a new obligatory stop for trade caravans from all over the Middle East, especially those traveling along the Silk Road. Palmyra’s increasing wealth soon enabled the construction of many extra-ordinary buildings, such as the Great Colonnade, the Temple of Bel, and the famous tower tombs. The population of the city of Palmyra was quite mixed, with the inclusion of Amorites, Arameans, and Arabs. Palmyra was largely influenced by the Greco-Roman customs and rites, as well as art and architecture. The city’s golden era was in the 260s AD.