The classical name Petra, and the early name Sela both mean the same thing, ” Rock “; and surely no city was ever more aptly named. But ” Rock ” only conveys half the picture of the city: the wild, fantastic shapes of the hills, the great chasms which cleave them, the brilliant colouring–all these must be seen to be believed. Petra is unique alike in its antiquities, its natural setting, and its approach.
The track winds down the hill from the little village of Wadi Musa, with its neatly terraced gardens and vineyards looking more like a model than reality, and the first glimpse of the wildness. the first impression of the strangeness of the place is felt on entering the valley at the foot. Rocks weathered by time into rounded masses like domed towers, the facade of an occasional tomb showing unexpectedly in some side valley–all is so different from what has just been left behind that there is the sensation of having wandered into another world. The valley narrows, and a sheer cliff in front seems to offer little promise of further progress. Rounding a corner, a great dam built of carefully dressed blocks of stone fills the valley from side to side and confirms this impression, but there is a narrow cleft in the cliff- face just by the wall. This is the road to Petra, and a handful of men could hold it against an army.
Entering this great ravine, the path runs along the dry torrent bed, and the sheer cliffs on either side rise higher and higher as it penetrates deeper into the heart of the mountain. Here is perpetual twilight, with an occasional glint of sun on the cliff face high above. In some parts the road is 20 feet wide, in others the rock almost touches overhead; and no sound is heard except the rattling of pebbles under the horses’ hoofs and the sighing of the wind through an occasional oleander bush. Along one side is a channel cut in the rock, now fallen or choked with soil in most places, which originally carried water to the inhabitants of Petra from the springs at Wadi Musa. The road twists and turns, and can seldom be seen for more than a few yards ahead: it seems to be going on for ever in a rather grim, hopeless kind of way.
Suddenly, startlingly, the end of the chasm is seen, and framed in the cleft is part of the rock- cut facade of a great tomb, dazzlingly bright in the sunlight. The change from the gloom of the Siq, as the road is called, is so sudden that for a moment the traveler is dazed and bewildered. Then gradually the consciousness absorbs the glowing beauty and perfect proportions of the sculpture, the subtle colouring of the rock itself and the soft green foreground of oleanders. This tomb is called the Khazneh or Treasury, and the Urn at the top carries the marks of many bullets which have been fired at it in the hope of shattering it and releasing the treasure which local tradition says is hidden there. The rock face in which it is carved is sheltered from winds and rain, and the Khazneh is in consequence the best preserved of all the monuments. Most others are badly weathered, for the soft sandstone quickly submits to the battering of wind- driven sand and rain, and the sharp lines of the sculpture are reduced to a vague outline. Even here the bases of the columns, where is a softer strata of stone, have weathered somewhat.
Beyond this clearing the gorge narrows again, with great tombs on either side. and a little further on is a theatre cut out of the living rock. In the course of cutting this theatre many tombs were sliced in half, and their inner chambers now gape open to the sunlight.
Soon the hills fall back on either side and leave an open space about a mile long and three- quarters of a mile wide. Here, on the slopes, was the actual city, its temples, palaces, baths and private houses, with a fine paved street following the line of the stream, and bridges reaching across at intervals. This was the great capital of the Nabataeans, from which, at the height of their power, they ruled the country as far north as Damascus. There was an earlier Edomite town on the site, but of that practically no traces now remain. The city was extensively occupied from about the fifth century B.C. to the fifth century A.D., and was at its heyday during the fifth centuries B.C. and A.D.
There are Biblical references to the city of Sela, and as this name has the same meaning as Petra, the one may, perhaps, be identified with the other. All the monuments and buildings now visible belong, however, to the Nabataean and Roman periods. The extreme softness of the sandstone prevented any finely detailed work being done, and the sculptors had to devise a style to suit their material. This they did very effectively, and it is a tribute to their skill in design that none of the tombs, however small, seems dwarfed by the great cliffs which tower above them. They all fit perfectly into the general picture, and do not in any way detract from the natural beauties of the site.
From the open space of the town site, valleys go off in all directions, and hours could be spent wandering up and down these narrow ravines. They are lined on both sides with houses and tombs, of infinite variety and size, and at every turn fresh beauties, natural and man made, greet the eye. Occasionally flights of steps will be seen winding their way up the sides of the mountains, paths up which the worshipers climbed on their way to the high places of sacrifice.
Many of the tombs are occupied by Arabs, and during the day the cliffs echo to the strange cries with which they herd and control their flocks of goats. After sunset their fires make tiny points of light in the enveloping darkness, and snatches of song may occasionally be heard, pitched in a high, quavering tone, and sounding unnaturally loud in the utter stillness.
Some of the largest and most elaborate of the tombs are cut in the rock- face to the north- east of the city area. The facade of one is cut in imitation of a three- story Roman palace. The rock at this point was not high enough to accommodate the top story, so it was built up with blocks of stone. Another, known as the Tomb of the Urn, has massive substructures consisting of two stories of vaults, built to extend the length of the platform, or courtyard, in front of it. The interior of this tomb is wonderfully preserved; every corner is as sharp as the day it was finished, and the evenness of walls and ceiling is astonishing. It is, perhaps, one of the finest examples to be seen of the unadorned stone- cutters’ art. These must have been the tombs of the kings of Petra, and near them is the tomb of a Roman Governor, whose name, Sextus Florentinus, is given in a Latin inscription above the portico.
High up on the mountains to the west is the great building known to the Arabs as the Deir, or Convent. Judging from its elevated position, this may have been a temple rather than a tomb, and a small altar set in a niche at the back of its one room seems to confirm this. From here a truly wonderful view is obtained down to the Wadi Arabah, some 4000 feet below, and on a clear day the mountains of Palestine and Sinai can be seen to the west and south, and on top of a peak to the southeast is the tomb of Aaron.
The great number of the tombs, their huge size and variety of form, stagger the imagination, and evoke wonder and admiration for the minds and wills of the people who could conceive and bring into being such great and beautiful monuments.
Little is known of the early history of the Nabataeans, but they probably started as a wandering Arab tribe that grew rich on the plunder of caravans coming from Arabia; they are sometimes identified with the Nabaioth of the Old Testament, and may perhaps be referred to by Obadiah in his tirade against the Edomites. The first definite historical mention of them is in 312 B.C., when Petra was captured by Antigonus and a great treasure taken away. At that time it was probably no more than a storage place for their plunder. They soon found, however, that it paid them better to extract toll from the caravans and guarantee them safe conduct through their land, and gradually. under a series of able kings, they obtained control of more and more country and consequently more and more caravan routes. Contact with the outside world showed them the glories of Greek culture, which they eagerly adopted They began to build and settle in Petra, and lavished on it all the wealth they possessed. A style of architecture of their own was developed, founded on Greek and Assyrian lines, the characteristic feature of which is a kind of stepped pinnacle. clearly seen in many of the photographs. Rock faces were cut and smoothed, great numbers of tombs ( suggesting a cult of the dead ) were carved out of the mountains, and on the very tops of the hills the rock was leveled off and made into the “High Places” where sacrifices were offered up. Houses also were cut in the rock, sometimes of two or three stories, connected by rock staircases, and tiers of streets can be distinguished on some cliff faces.
A highly specialized and distinctive type of pottery was evolved, of astonishing thinness and hardness, decorated with quaint patterns in black. This pottery can be recognized in whatever part of the country it is found, it is so individual.
A coinage was introduced, and the names of the kings given on the coins clearly show their Arab origin, such as Aretas, the Hellenised form of Harith, a pure Arab name
One of the problems which was faced and overcome with great ingenuity was that of the water supply. The two springs in the city itself soon became insufficient to supply the constantly increasing demands of the population. The quantity required rose in proportion to the wealth of the community, from the bare sufficiency to keep body and soul together to the luxury requirements of great public baths, to say nothing of the amount consumed in the mixing of mortar and plaster for building. From the springs at Wadi Musa a channel was cut in the rock to the heart of the city, bringing a continuous supplv of beautiful water, which was, however, liable to be cut off in time of siege. To overcome this, vast cisterns were cut in the rock and lined with plaster, and channels were cut in every hill- side, which collected the rain- water as it poured over the rock- face, and conducted it to the cisterns. Everywhere you look you will see these channels, evidence of the care and forethought of the rulers of the city.
This care for water was general all over their domains, and was no doubt largely responsible for their success. Furthermore, springs seem to have been holy places, for at many of them are found traces of buildings like shrines, with inscriptions and dedications to the goddess Allat, who, perhaps, lived in the springs.
During the period of the break- up of the Greek Empire and the beginning of the Roman, many countries round about them were plunged into unrest. The Nabataeans, however, continued their way unchecked, safe in their hid den, secret city. They took advantage of the weakness of the surrounding states, and in the first century B.C., under King Aretas III extended their empire to Damascus.
But the coming of the Roman Empire to the neighbouring countries brought with it a change: as eagerly as they had absorbed the Greek culture so they now took to the Roman, and this change is reflected chiefly in the style of architecture. Tomb facades became larger and more imposing, rows of columns were introduced, and the triangular pediment took the place of the stepped pinnacle, which gradually dropped out of use. They still retained some individuality, seen in the style of some of the capitals to the columns.
Stories of the great wealth of Petra soon caused the Romans to cast covetous eyes in that direction. Two or three attempts to capture the city failed completely, though the Nabataeans as a nation were made to pay tribute. But with all its inaccessibility, it could not hold out against the might of Rome, and in A.D. 106 Petra with all its territory became a Roman Province. The Emperor Trajan built a great road. which passed through Petra, connecting Syria with the Red Sea. Under Roman rule Petra prospered greatly, and some of the finest monuments date from this period. The one surviving built structure, the Temple, was erected under Roman supervision. More and more wealth was lavished on the city, foreign craftsmen were brought in to embellish and beautiful it, and it became one of the wonders of the world.
This prosperity was, however, short lived, and in the third century A.D., a decline set in. This was chiefly caused by the gradual abandonment of the land route of the Arabian caravans in favour of the easier route by the Red Sea, and by the rise of a rival city, Palmyra, in the North.
The city continued to be occupied, though in decreasing numbers, and some time during the fourth or fifth century Christianity came to Petra. Some of the largest tombs, in particular the Urn Tomb, were cleared out and converted into churches, and one part of the city is called to- day Haret el Nasara, or Christian quarter, on account of the crosses carved on the tombs. Meanwhile, the number of caravans passing through grew less and less, and slowly but surely the lifeblood of Petra was drained away, so that by the time of the Arab conquest in the seventh century nothing remained but an empty shell.
One brief further glimpse we have of it when the Crusaders erected a fortress on top of the rock immediately behind the Roman Temple. and then the place returns to its original silence. Birds and beasts of prey hunt through the once busy streets, the water- channels silt up, and nature proceeds slowly but inexorably to eradicate the works of Man.
The very memory of the great and mighty city was lost, its situation completely forgotten, and it became a legend of mystery and wonder. Explorers tried in vain to find its fabled glories, but the utter inaccessibility of the rocky fastness, and the wildness of the few inhabitants of the surrounding district, kept for centuries the secret of its entrance. Mysterious and elusive, it excited the imagination of all early travelers, and finally in 1812 Burckhardt succeeded in penetrating the veil. He was the first European to look upon the fallen glory that was Petra, or, at least, the first to return and tell an astonished world about it:
The highway to Ma’an has made Petra more accessible than ever before. It is three hour drive from Amman, therefore you can do it in one day if you want to glance this unique, unsurpassed site.
The giant red mountains and vast mausoleums of a departed race have nothing in common with modern civilisation, and ask nothing of it except to be appreciated at their true value – as one of the greatest wonders ever wrought by Nature and Man.