There are hundreds of magnificent ancient cities around the world but none is similar to Petra. This amazing city was developed by Nabateans in the labyrinth of narrow cliff canyons and some of the most beautiful structures were directly cut in the sandstone cliff.
Name in Arabic
UNESCO World Heritage status
Map of the site
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Petra is a wonderful and highly unusual ancient city which was built in narrow canyons of Jebel al-Madhbah some 800 – 1500 m above sea level.
Here over the area of some 20 km² have been discovered remnants of approximately 1000 structures. Only a fifth of these buildings has been explored thus far.
City was located at the crossroads of important trade routes – caravan paths between Egypt and Syria as well as Arabia and Mediterranean (the legendary Incense Route). Thus Petra developed as a rich trade city.
In ancient times the city, most likely, was approached from the south. Nowadays tourists enter from the east, through impressive, narrow canyon – Siq. This canyon is approximately 1.5 km long, some 70 m deep and in the narrowest places just 2 m wide.
Numerous inhabitants of Petra needed much water and in the desert-like climate this was a major challenge.
Nabateans created an ingenious irrigation system and as a result, the city had a perennial stream and a sufficient amount of water to create a desert oasis. This sophisticated system included water tunnels, pipes, and more than 200 cisterns. Nabateans managed to collect in the city water from all surroundings up to 25 km far.
Rather often these desert mountains received sudden gushes of rain and flash floods endangered the city in its narrow canyons. Also, this problem was solved – Nabateans built a series of dams and cisterns which stopped the excess water and provided water during the droughts.
Now, as many centuries without proper maintenance have passed, the water management system has gradually degraded and Petra again is endangered by floods.
- Mountainous area around Petra has been inhabited for many millenia – already at 7000 BC nearby existed a settlement, now named Beidha. Petra though is much younger.
- Little is known about the beginnings of Petra, even its ancient name is not known.
- Current name – Petra – was given by Ancient Greeks. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus mentions some place named Petra – capital of Nabateans in 312 BC, although there are some doubts whether this is the current Petra.
- It is possible that Petra developed around an important shrine since the 6th or 5th century BC.
- Around this time or somewhat later Petra became the main centre of Nabateans (an ancient Aramaic culture).
- Site is linked to events mentioned in the Bible. Some specialists consider that Jebel al-Madhbah is the fabulous Mount Sinai and thus the valley with the ancient Petra is named also Wadi Musa – Valley of Moses.
- Fast development of Petra started in the 1st century BC. At this time here were built many structures in a distinct Hellenistic style.
- Petra and lands around it were included into the Roman Empire in 106 AD and Petra was capital of the Roman province Arabia Petraea.
- In Roman times Petra flourished and had some 30 – 40 thousand inhabitants.
- Approximately at 235 AD the construction activity in Petra came to a halt, most likely due to some catastrophe or conflicts. This contrasts with the comparatively near Palmyra which in this time continued to flourish and in a way attracted the lost importance of Petra.
- After the decline Petra continued to serve as comparatively important religious centre.
Christianity was introduced in the 4th century AD, several churches were built here.
- In 363 AD many buildings in the city were destroyed by an earthquake, there was damaged also the sophisticated water supply system.
- Another devastating earthquake took place in 551 AD.
- Islam was introduced here in 629 – 632 when the area was conquered by Arabs.
- Last inhabitants left Petra in 663.
- During the Crusades Petra for a while was under the control of Christians. Since these times in Petra are found also ruins of the castle of Crusaders.
- Ruins of Petra were well known to the people in the Near East and it was a tourist attraction.
- Europeans learned about this site only in 1812, when Johann Ludwig Burckhardt visited and described it.
- Today Petra has turned into a site of mass tourism, it is also a beloved place for the movie industry.
Al Khazneh – the Treasury
When tourists enter Petra through the narrow canyon – Siq, they are greeted by one of the best structures in this ancient city – Al Khazneh. This is the most photographed landmark in Petra.
This giant structure has been cut in rock and is some 40 m tall and 25 m wide. This is an elaborate tomb which most likely was created in the 1st century BC.
Local Bedouins believed that bandits were storing treasure in an unaccessible stone urn of Al Khazneh (The Treasury in Arabic). They tried to get it – there are multiple bullet holes around this urn. In fact there can not be any treasure – urn is not hollowed out.
Further, behind Al Khazneh in the cliff is cut enormous theater. This impressive work was done in Roman times in the 1st century AD, destroying previous rock-cut tombs. Theater had some 5 – 10 thousand seats and was divided from the street with 25 m tall wall.
Earthquake destroyed the theater in 363 and it was rediscovered only in 1961.
Rock-cut tombs belong to most ancient structures in Petra. There are distinguished several types of these structures – Nabatean and Greco-Roman and diverse interim stages. The oldest Nabatean rock-cut tombs here are from the 6th century BC. Many of these tombs have elaborate facades, especially the later ones which copy the Roman style in architecture.
Most impressive ones (besides Al Khazneh and Ad Deir) are 13 enormous rock-cut grave temples north from the theater. The largest among these tombs is the majestic Palace Tomb which has 49 m wide and 45 m tall facade. Another unusual grave temple is Urn Tomb with impressive arcades. It was turned into a church in 447 AD.
Ad Deir (The Monastery)
Ad Deir is a Nabatean temple devoted to Obodas I – deified Nabatean king who ruled in 96 – 85 BC.
It is another rock-cut structure with 39 m tall and 47 m wide facade. Ad Deir was built in the middle of the 1st century AD. In the 4th century it was used as a Christian monastery.
High Place of Sacrifice
On the summit of Jabal Attuf is located one of sacred Nabatean places – High Place of Sacrifice. It is artificially levelled summit of a mountain with a low sacrifice altar in the middle and two more than 6 m tall obelisks which are carved from solid rock. It is considered that obelisks represent Nabatean gods Dushara and Al Uzza. There are other similar shrines around the town.
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