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Volume 12, Number 10December 1961

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The City Carved From Stone

In its high, rock-bound valley, rose-hued Petra served as host to caravans from East and West carvan trails.

Standing on the roof of his stone palace, Aretas IV, king of Arahia Petraea, surveyed the twilight beauty of a spring night. Craggy sandstone peaks circled the valley except to the north, where the rounded slopes of Ayun Aghrayeh shone like beryl against the pale gold sky. Here, half way between Gaza and the Gulf of Akaba, not far from the Mediterranean, rested the city of Petra, almost 2,000 years ago.

Aretas' kingdom ran south from Damascus, 600 miles to the shores of the Red Sea, but it was in this central mountain fastness, the rock-carved city of Petra, that he had his capital and felt most at home. He stepped to the edge of the roof and peered into the bustling street.

"Forty-eight years," he murmured, "have I ruled in Petra in peace and prosperity and been known as 'Rahem-anneh,' lover of the people. Never have we been threatened as Tiberius' legions threaten us now!"

The city below him occupied a circular valley some two miles wide and 2,800 feet above the sea. Through its center, from east to west, flowed Wady Moussa, a river that was said to have had its source in the spring created at the touch of Moses' rod. Other streams joined it, and a paved street ran along each side of the walled channel. The palace, a temple and the market place rose on the south bank. Beyond the city lay the little fields, the baked clay cottages and reed huts of the poor, But the real glory of Petra—temples, tombs, warehouses, dwelling places and workshops—stood aloof in the surrounding crags, carved from the dull rose and russet face of the living stone.

Aretas stepped back to the center of the roof and examined the beaten gold altar he had reared to the god, Dusares, to make sure everything was in order for evening prayer. In his mind he visited every corner of his city. Now he was among the multi-colored cliffs, and everywhere rose up carved facades and columned doorways with spacious chambers behind them. Some of the carvings were Grecian and others showed the savage strength of Assyria. He saw the Nubian guard lounging on the steps of the Khazneh, a temple treasure house exquisitely wrought in tapestry colors, crimson and indigo, veined with blue, yellow and white. He heard the hum of turning wheels and many voices from the low, gray caves of the potters, weavers and metal-workers. Here, close to the narrow entrance gorge called the Syk, the masons were just leaving the unfinished arc of the new amphitheatre that would seat a full tenth of Petra's 30,000 citizens when it was completed. Higher up stood the Ridge of Obelisks, the row of squared black stones sacred to Dusares, who would allow no graven images to be worshipped in his name. And along the windy ledges of the High Place, little groups were straggling toward the altar for prayer.

It was the supper hour, and the clamor in the street had died away except for the occasional snort of a camel or the strange babble of foreign voices from some newly-arrived caravan. Aretas' nostrils had long been plagued with the odor of camel dung fires, frying lamb fat and sesame oil, but now he caught the delicate scent of white broom. It made him wish he could stray along the watercourses as he had done in his boyhood, gather pink oleander and dwarf iris, and shake down the figs from the little wild trees that grew in the stony hills. He wanted to make friends again with peacock-colored lizards, tame gazelle and ibis and watch the white Egyptian vultures swooping overhead. But he was an old man now and a king, and rumor had it that Vitellius would soon march from Rome with two legions to attack his people. He must consult his advisers.

Petra had once belonged to the Kenites, children of Cain, iron-workers and tillers of the ground; then to the Horites and the Edomites. But Aretas was a Nabatean, and his people, a Semitic tribe, had come up from Babylon in the fourth century B.C. and begun the wonderful stone carvings that gave the city its name. They wrote in Aramaic and spoke a dialect of Aramaic and Arabic. They were skilled in astronomy, medicine and magic, and had a great reputation for wisdom, but they soon grew to be master merchants in the caravan trade.

The high, rock-bound valley had always been used as a refuge when men went to wars or far-off trading fairs. Women and children, treasures of gold, silver, silks and spices could be safely hidden behind its crags. And as trade increased, the great caravans made it their favorite stopping place, since they could always find safety and fresh water there. Springs and streams rose everywhere in the fertile soil of Petra, and tall stone cisterns were built to collect the overflow against times of drought. Under the honesty and thrift of the Nabateans, Petra became the commercial meeting place of the ancient Orient and all of the Mediterranean world.

Up its narrow gorges and into its marketplace and cave-like warehouses, the laden camels brought their splendid merchandise: Tyrian purple, jewels, apes and peacocks, sweet cane from a far land, brocades, henna, frankincense, coral, orpiment, silk gauze, embroidery, carpets, slaves, perfumes, ginger, pepper and exotic little trees favored for their fruit or bloom. The Petreans themselves sold finely woven fabrics and unglazed pottery with painted designs of red and black. They supplied candles and lamps, bronze and copper utensils, molten mirrors, bread, meal, grain, cheese, curds, butter, oil and wine, large brawny cattle and black sheep.

As he entered the banquet room Aretas found his advisers, known as the "Brothers," already awaiting him. In spite of the rich hangings and carpets, low music and the fine foods set before them, their faces looked stern for they knew why they had been summoned here. According to the custom of Petra, the king moved about in his purple girdle and sandals, his Grecian ringlets flung back, serving his guests. Each man could drink only eleven cupfuls, and each drink must be taken from a separate golden cup. They were chatting among themselves about various aspects of the city's laws, and good laws they were, he thought. Women were respectfully treated and allowed to hold property. A man was fined for diminishing his substance and rewarded when he increased it. Householders did much of their own work, with the aid of a few slaves to take care of sanitation and the aqueducts. Even the king could be called to account for his private behavior, just the same as any common man.

When the food and drink were consumed and the musicians had stolen away, Aretas rose in the midst of them.

"Brothers," he said, "You know we are met here tonight to go to my rooftop altar and offer prayers to Dusares to protect us from the legions of Rome. Queen Shaquilath will repair to the High Place at sunrise and sacrifice a white lamb to our mother-goddess, Al Uzza, with a like request."

The Brothers bowed their heads and followed him up the stone stairway to the roof. Below them shone the lamps and hearth-fires of Petra. Perfumed smoke from other rooftop altars sweetened all the night, and the great bright stars burned overhead. Suddenly his son and heir, Obodat, spoke.

"Father," he said, "can we not take courage from what the soothsayers tell us? They have cast down the twigs and sheaves of arrows and noted the way they fell. They predict that this threat shall come to naught because of the death of a king."

Aretas smiled at his son as the group approached the golden altar with its squared black shaft of stone, the dwelling place of the god.

"Soothsayers are well enough," he answered, "but I had rather that Dusares told me so."

He raised his hand, and the Brothers knelt on the roof tiles while Aretas himself lifted a painted vessel from a silver tray. Solemnly he lighted the brazier of frankincense and began to sprinkle ram's blood over the tall stone, chanting the ancient ritual prescribed to save a city by prayer.

Apparently the ancient ritual was acceptable to Dusares, and in time the soothsayers' words were confirmed. Emperor Tiberius died in the year 37 A.D., and his threats against Petra came to naught. Rome made no move to subjugate Petra during King Aretas' reign. But in 106 A.D., several generations after Aretas' death, Roman emperor-soldier Trajan brought the rock city under the sweep of the Pax Romana. Petra's great days were over. Travel became safer and, with no need for a mountain refuge, caravans made their rendezvous at Palmyra as trade shifted to a more northerly route.

One of Petra's large tomb temples became a Christian church in 447 A.D. Later the Crusaders built their Frankish fortresses there. Then the Muslims held it for a time. But it is a deserted and empty ruin now, alone in the biting wind and burning sunshine, except when occasional desert shepherds come creeping back.

A tradition still persists that one day the ancient folk of Petra found a door in a rock leading to a rich and fertile subterranean land. The glimpse of it pleased them so much that, like the children who followed the Pied Piper, they entered and closed the door and made their dwelling there forever. But wherever they have gone, they have left the mark of their genius here, carved in the ruddy cliffs of eternal stone.

This article appeared on pages 13-15 of the December 1961 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for December 1961 images.