by Stan Griffin

Photos by Erika and Mike Perry

Petra was an ancient city site in the southern desert of Jordan about 95 miles southeast of Jerusalem, south of the Dead Sea, and today a three-hour drive south of the current capital of Amman. It was carved out of cliffs, and it stood at the crossroads of the international silk and spice trade routes.

Activity in the area can be traced back as far as Paleolithic times with many Semitic peoples residing there. It was a refuge for the Edomites in the days of Moses, and the Israelites ruled in the region after a successful 9th century B.C. attack.

From 2nd century B.C. to 2nd century A.D., the territory was governed by a nomadic Arabic tribe called the Nabataeans who made Petra their capital. These people were renowned for their skills in agriculture, hydraulic engineering, and architecture. They developed complicated water conservation systems and built dams to divert overflowing rivers. They were "absolute geniuses" at controlling rainwater to prevent flooding and avoid shortages during droughts. This group "transformed themselves from nomads to city dwellers" in a relatively short period of time and built one of the "great urban complexes of the ancient world."

At Petra they constructed handsome temples on a small plain and cut deeply into the cliffs to make their homes. It was often called the "rose-red city" because of the red stone buildings and the red sandstone cliffs surrounding it.

The Nabataeans spread out from Petra to control about 1,000 desert outposts. They were commercial overlords of the southern land trade routes linking India, Saudi-Arabia, China, Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Syria.

Their influence declined after they were conquered by the Romans in 106 A.D., although the Nabataeans continued to prosper for a number of years. Petra’s population was then estimated at 30,000. A heavy Greek influence can be detected in their artistic creations afterwards.

After 235 A.D. Petra became chiefly a religious center. A small Christian settlement is thought to have existed there (somewhere around 300 A.D.) although its name did not survive. Muslims captured what remained in the 600 A.D.s.

During the Crusades (1000 A.D.-1200 A.D.) Petra reappeared under a different name and became a major part of a Latin kingdom. It was then referred to as "Chateau de la Vallee de Moise." or "Wadi Musa" (Valley of Moses). After 1187 A.D. the area stopped being of any importance. Petra was abandoned and fell to ruin. For all intents and purposes, it disappeared. Buildings were buried by drifting sands that helped preserve them through the centuries. Today, with the large number of tourists, officials are becoming concerned about how to protect the city.

In 1812 the site was re-identified as Petra by a Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Archaeological excavations were carried on in earnest in the early 1900s. A British expedition in 1958 found a thriving city although only one percent of the city has been investigated so far. Its temples, tombs, theaters, and other buildings are spread over 400 square miles. Currently a Brown University professor is directing excavations in cooperation with Jordanian scholars.

Some of the places unearthed so far are: the Main Street and Markets; "The Monastery" (it had been modified into a church with the great tomb called "AD-Dayr"); "The Great Temple," one of the "major archaeological and architectural components of central Petra"; the "Temple of Winged Lions"; the Colonnaded Street; the Temenos Gate; the "Khazna" ("Treasury"), famous for its portrayal in the film "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"; parts of it have very colorful pictures on walls and ceilings--magenta, midnight blue, ocher-- only from the natural color of the sandstone. It is so named because at the top of the enormous structure is a carved stone object that looks like an urn. Legend has it that the urn contains treasure; chips on the unreachable urn are the results of unsuccessful attempts to break it with bullets and stones.

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