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Volume 17, Number 3May/June 1966

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Petra The Unique

Written by Jan Van Os
Photographed by T. F. Walters

When young John Lewis Burckhardt, the Swiss-born explorer, was on his long and adventurous way from Cairo to Damascus in the fall of 1812 he made what was to become the greatest discovery of his life: Petra, the ancient capital of the Kingdom of the Nabateans, Burkhardt's discovery—actually a rediscovery—roused tremendous interest. He was the first man from the Western world to pass through the narrow canyon in Petra since the Crusaders had returned to Europe roughly 600 years before.

Since then archeologists and historians from many lands have traveled to Petra and explored what the poet Burgon named, in his famous phrase, the "rose-red city half as old as time." But although they came to the conclusion that the area was inhabited as far back as 10,000 B.C., they have been unable to learn much more. Even in recorded history very little is known. The first settlers were called Hortites and for centuries after they made their appearance in history, they apparently lived in the mountains around Petra, which is today part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The Hortites were driven out by the Edomites who in turn were ousted by the Nabateans, a people believed to have originated in Northwest Arabia. It was the Nabateans who created the city of Petra, made it the capital of what was then an impressive empire and hacked out of living rocks the monuments that, gloriously, have survived the ages.

The Nabateans were a remarkable people; they were not only great traders and entrepreneurs, but prolific architects and craftsmen as well. They started creating their great city about 300 years B.C. Petra, which is Greek for "The Rock," was called Rekem in Aramaic and is referred to in the Bible as Sela, soon became a vital link in the flourishing caravan trade between the Arabian Peninsula on one side and present-day Syria and the countries of the Mediterranean on the other. The Nabatean Empire stretched from Damascus to Aqaba to Mada'rn Salih and achieved a sufficient level of power and wealth to attract the attention of Rome. In the year A.D. 106 Petra was conquered by the Roman legions and became a province of the Roman Empire. This had no immediate effect on its prosperity—which lasted for another century—but eventually, when one of its main competitors, Palmyra (Tadmor) in present-day Syria, gradually started to emerge as an important caravan trade center, Petra's prominence began to dwindle. The end came when the Romans, using ships to bring the merchandise from South Arabia north through the Red Sea, made caravan traffic so much slower and riskier that it became superfluous. Some inhabitants, of course, stayed on, becoming first Christians, later Muslims. In the 12th century the Crusaders captured the area and built a castle, the remains of which can still be seen. But they went away too and Petra vanished.

Today Petra is considered one of the wonders of the world and tourists from all over the globe have added it to their lists of "musts." This is possible because nowadays Petra has become accessible. From the Desert Highway from Amman in the north, or from Aqaba in the south, visitors can drive as far as the village of Elji where the Wadi Mussa, which leads right into Petra, begins.

There is a new hotel at Elji, built by the Jordan government, but one of the attractions of Petra is that right in the heart of the valley is a resthouse. This rest-house, "Nazzal's Camp," has an annex which is vinique in the world: comfortably furnished genuine Nabatean cave dwellings.

Although a few trucks do make the trip now and then—to carry workers, food and supplies to the resthouse—there is no regular motor traffic from Elji to Petra. Thus most visitors go on horseback. Mounts, along with donkeys to carry luggage, can be rented at the police post. It is a leisurely 45-minute ride, but it is also a dramatic experience. First there are the Nabatean temples and tombs to the left and right of the wadi at the unforgettable—and only—entrance to the Siq—a gorge that winds about a mile and a quarter through sheer cliffs rising up hundreds of feet on each side, widening just enough now and then to allow the tourists and their little caravan a glimpse of the sky. The Siq is so narrow—less than six feet in places—that a relatively small force of Nabateans was able to hold out more than once against a superior enemy.

At the end of this amazing gorge, framed in the narrow sunlit slit in the cliffs, the visitor is confronted with one of the most spectacular sights he will ever see: Al-Khazna—"the Treasury"—Petra's most splendid monument, a gigantic temple towering 90 feet in the air and hewn in its entirety out of solid rock that is, without question, rose-red. Most visitors to Petra stop here with an instinctive gasp, especially when they arrive at mid-morning when the Treasury, in all its beauty, is bathed in sunlight.

From the Treasury a road leads to the right. There are temples, tombs and caves everywhere. Farther on, to the left, is a fine Roman amphitheater with a seating capacity of 3,000. It is also cut out of the rocks and many cave dwellings had to be sacrificed to make its creation possible.

There are more magnificent tombs high on the right—including the two-storied and very impressive Urn Tomb, the Corinthian Tomb, the Palace Tomb and the Florentinus Tomb and on the left is the Roman city, or what's left of it—which is very little. There is a road, the remains of a market place and a triumphal arch. Behind the arch, on the left, are the ruins of a large Roman temple and, just behind, the resthouse, where caves serve as extra bedrooms. Another enormous temple, some 130 feet high and larger though less beautiful than the Treasury, is al-Deir, "the Monastery," a strenuous hour's climb up from the resthouse along the original Nabatean mountain path. Energetic sightseers can climb to the High Place (of sacrifice) which can be reached from a spot not far from the theater. Here the Edomites conducted their religious ceremonies and here the Nabateans worshipped a deity called Dushara.

These are but a few of the important sights of Petra and it is small wonder that the number of visitors, now about 150 per day during the peak season, is growing from year to year. Some "do" Petra in a day, recording the grand sights through their camera lenses, thinking hard back home, when the films are developed, what it was exactly they went all the way to Petra for. Others, blessed with more time and patience and with an eye for the grandeur of nature and the efforts of man, can spend many days there and still not be satisfied.

Petra, the rock city which once probably housed a community of 30,000 people, is one gigantic and wondrous museum through which one can roam, walking or riding, at any time one likes. And where, unlike any orthodox museum, anything may be touched and photographed.

Though Petra delights most visitors there are some who find the gigantic, overwhelming monuments and mountains awe-inspiring to such an extent that they are relieved to return to what could truly be called the outside world. Because, as G. Lankester Harding writes in his book The Antiquities of Jordan, "Petra is one of those places which you find either incredibly attractive and beautiful, or depressing and sinister; most people find the former, but even so broad-minded a traveller as Doughty obviously disliked the place intensely. But whether you like or dislike it, it is something which should be seen, for there is nothing else like it in the world."

Jan van Os is Assistant Editor of Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 8-12 of the May/June 1966 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1966 images.