Petra (from πέτρα “petra”, rock in Greek; Arabic: البتراء, Al-Batrā) is an archaeological site in Arabah, Ma’an Governorate, Jordan, lying on the slope of Mount Hor in a basin among the mountains which form the eastern flank of Arabah (Wadi Araba), the large valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba.

It is truly one of the most amazing things I have ever seen with its renowned rock-cut architecture and “Lost City” allure. 

Petra is known throughout the world as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and to American audiences it is well known as the place where Indiana Jones finds the Holy Grail.

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The site remained unknown to the Western world until 1812, when it was discovered by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. It was famously described as “a rose-red city half as old as time” and UNESCO has described it as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage.”  In 1985, Petra was designated a World Heritage Site.

Rekem is an ancient name for Petra and appears in Dead Sea scrolls associated with Mount Seir.   The city was the capital of the Nabataeans, Aramaic-speaking Semites, and the center of their caravan trade. Enclosed by towering rocks and watered by a perennial stream, Petra not only possessed the advantages of a fortress but controlled the main commercial routes which passed through it to Gaza in the west, to Bosra and Damascus in the north, to Aqaba and Leuce Come on the Red Sea, and across the desert to the Persian Gulf.

Excavations have demonstrated that it was the ability of the Nabataeans to control the water supply that led to the rise of the desert city, in effect creating an artificial oasis. The area is visited by flash floods and archaeological evidence demonstrates the Nabataeans controlled these floods by the use of dams, cisterns and water conduits. These innovations stored water for prolonged periods of drought, and enabled the city to prosper from its sale.

Although in ancient times Petra might have been approached from the south (via Saudi Arabia on a track leading around Jabal Haroun, Aaron’s Mountain, on across the plain of Petra), or possibly from the high plateau to the north, most modern visitors approach the ancient site from the east. The impressive eastern entrance leads steeply down through a dark, narrow gorge (in places only 3–4 metres wide) called the Siq (“the shaft”), a natural geological feature formed from a deep split in the sandstone rocks and serving as a waterway flowing into Wadi Musa. At the end of the narrow gorge stands Petra’s most elaborate ruin, Al Khazneh (“the Treasury”), hewn into the sandstone cliff.  This is Petra’s most famous monument and appears dramatically at the end of the Siq and walking through the ruins reveals literally hundreds of buildings, facades , tombs, baths, funerary halls, temples and a 3,000 seat theater from the 1st century AD.

A little further from the Treasury, at the foot of the mountain called en-Nejr is a massive theatre, so placed as to bring the greatest number of tombs within view. At the point where the valley opens out into the plain, the site of the city is revealed with striking effect. The amphitheatre has actually been cut into the hillside and into several of the tombs during its construction. Rectangular gaps in the seating are still visible. Almost enclosing it on three sides are rose-colored mountain walls, divided into groups by deep fissures, and lined with knobs cut from the rock in the form of towers.

From their capital at Petra, the Nabataeans had established an elaborate network of caravan routes which brought spices, incense, myrrh, gold, silver and precious stones from India and Arabia, to be traded onto the west.  From the wealth they acquired, they adorned their city with palaces, temples and arches.  Many that were freestanding have largely disappeared but many were carved into the rock (e.g., The Treasury, the Monumental Tombs and the High Place of Sacrifice).  These still remain today in a condition of perfection so staggering it makes you feel like you’ve entered a time warp. The sheer size of the city and the quality of beautifully carved facades is staggering and leads one to reflect on the creativity and industry of the Nabataeans who made Petra their capital more than 2,000 years ago.

Incidentally, on the way to the Siq, we passed by a small white domed building in Wadi Musa.  This is the spring where Moses struck water from a rock for the Israelites as they passed through en route to the Promised Land.  Inside the rectangular room is the large rock from which the water gushed forth thousands of years ago. Today bricks have been built around it, and around most of the spring, allowing easier access to the water.   Walking across the brick floor, you can watch the water flow through the center of the room and out the building. In the middle of the room is an eight foot wide well where you can dip into the spring and drink the water. Don’t drink the water unless you are prepared for the Pharaoh’s Curse!


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