Unknown to the Western world for hundreds of years, the ‘rose-red’ city of Petra was once a thriving centre for travellers along the ancient trade routes. Ringed by high mountains and approached through a narrow gorge, its remarkable carved buildings have remained virtually untouched. On a journey from Syria to Egypt in late August 1812, the young Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt came upon a group of Arab tribesmen just south of the Dead Sea who had an enthralling story to tell. They spoke of ‘antiquities’ in a nearby hidden valley called Wadi Mousa – the Valley of Moses.
Disguised as an Arab, Burckhardt followed his guide to a seemingly solid wall of rock which, as they approached, revealed a narrow, deep cleft. After walking for about 25 minutes through a winding, almost sunless gorge, knows as the Siq, he was suddenly confronted by the reddish-pink façade of an elaborately carved building standing more than 90ft (30cm) high. Stepping into the sunlight, Burckhardt found himself in the main street of ancient Petra – perhaps the most romantic of all ‘lost’ cities. It was a memorable moment, for he was the first European to set foot there since the Crusaders in the 12th century.
While the exteriors of many Petra’s buildings are elaborately carved with columns, friezes and scroll work, the interiors are less ornate. Here, the vivid colours and stratification of the local sandstone – which often has the appearance of watered silk – are the more usual decoration. Burckhardt himself, did not see any of Petra’s interiors, nor many of its grand buildings. He was in the city under false pretenses and, when his guide became suspicious, he was forced to leave. A colourful figure, Burckhardt had taught himself Arabic, studied the Koran and taken an Arab name in order to facilitate his exploration of this part of the Middle East. In Petra as elsewhere he had to jot down notes surreptitiously so that his local guide did not discover his true identity.
Petra’s inaccessibility has been its salvation. Today, it can still be approached by foot or on horseback, and the initial impact of the city is breathtaking, depending on the time of the day it appears red tangerine or apricot, deep crimson, grey or even chocolate brown. Archaeologists have now pieced together some of the city’s past and dispelled the 19th century belief that Petra was merely a necropolis – a city of the dead. Certainly there are some impressive tombs, such as the four Royal Tombs in the cliffs to the east of the city’s central area, and the Deir to the north-west, but firm evidence suggests that Petra was once a city of more than 20,00 people. The colonnaded main street – still visible today – ran parallel with the river bed of the Wadi Mousa, and was originally lined with shops; and the semicircular tiers of stone seats of the theatre, built by the Nabataeans but later refurbished by the Romans, could accommodate 4000 people.
The Deir boasts the largest façade in Petra. It is thought to have been the tomb of the Nabataean King Rabbel II, who died in AD 106, although it may have been a temple. The death of the king left the way clear for the Romans, who annexed the city in the same year. During the early Christian era – the middle of the fifth century AD – hermits made their homes here and the Deir became known colloquially as the ‘monastery tomb’.
The building most immediately associated with Petra is the Khazneh al Faroun, or Pharaoh’s Treasury. Bathed in a dusky red glow, its impressive rock-cut façade is the first sight to greet the visitor stepping out of the Siq. Its name derives from the ancient belief that a pharaoh’s treasure (probably that of Rameses III, who once owned mines at Petra) was hidden in the urn on top of the monument. It is said that local people used to fire bullets at the urn in an attempt to break it and release the treasure, but the container has remained intact.
Although the Khazneh probable dates from the second century AD, Petra’s history stretches back far and beyond that date. There are some unidentified prehistoric remains at Petra, but the first known people associated with the site are the Edomites, who lived there from around 1000 BC. According to the Bible they were descendants of Esau, and references in the Book of Genesis to a place called Sela almost certainly refer to Petra (the name means ‘rock’ in Greek). The Edomites were defeated by King Amaziah of Judah, who cast 10,000 captives from the top of a rock to their deaths. A tomb on a hill overlooking Petra is said to be that of Moses’ brother Aaron.
By the fourth century BC Petra was inhabited by the Nabataeans, an Arab tribe who cut many of the buildings out of the sandstone rock faces and lived in the numerous caves throughout the city. The site was a natural fortress; thanks to a network of channels and pipelines it had a constant supply of spring water, and it stood at the cross-roads of two major trade routes; north-south connecting the Red Sea with Damascus, and east-west joining the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. Originally shepherds, the Nabataeans, who became renowned for their honesty, readily adapted themselves to new roles as caravan guards and traders, and the taxes they levied on passing travelers helped them to prosper. Petra became a great commercial centre, and Greek traders took home accounts of its wealth and luxury.
In AD 106 the city was annexed by the Romans, and it continued to flourish as a commercial centre until around AD 300, when the stability of the Roman Empire was beginning to crumble. Records show that during the fifth century AD Petra became the seat of a Christian bishopric, but was captured by Muslims in the seventh century and subsequently sank into decline and oblivion as more accessible towns, such as Palymra to the north-east of Damascus, grew up along the trade routes.