Petra history

Setting

The ancient city of Petra is east of Wadi Araba in Jordan in a beautiful landscape of curved, red sandstone mountains.

More than two thousand years old, Petra was built by the Nabataeans and it prospered in the first centuries BC and AD. Today some of the intricate facades sculpted into the sandstone cliffs of the area can still be seen, along with other remarkably preserved structures and monuments of this fascinating civilization.

The town of Wadi Mousa, which means ‘Moses’ Valley’ in Arabic, has developed near the site of Petra and several hotels, restaurants, shops and other services and facilities are available here. The Souk, or Siq, the Arabic name for the downtown area or marketplace, is the epicenter of Wadi Mousa. The Shaheed roundabout is the main circle in the Souk, and a common reference point. The Souk is located uphill, away from the Petra Park. On the hills that enclose the valley are primarily residential areas.

In addition to the wealth of antiquities that can be found in Petra, the area also has a unique topography that offers spectacular views and great hiking trails.

History

It is not known when exactly Petra was built, but the city began to prosper as the capital of the Nabataean Empire from the first century BC, which grew rich through trade in frankincense and myrrh, along with spices from Yemen. Petra was later annexed to the Roman Empire and continued to thrive until a large earthquake in 363 AD destroyed much of the city in the fourth century AD. Many buildings were never rebuilt after this, although not long after that event Petra was designated the seat of a Byzantine bishop. However, the earthquake combined with changes in trade routes, eventually led to the downfall of the city which was ultimately abandoned; by the middle of the seventh century Petra appears to have been largely deserted and it was then lost to all except local Bedouin from the area. 

In 1812 a Swiss explorer named Johannes Burckhardt set out to ‘rediscover’ Petra; he dressed up as an Arab and convinced his Bedouin guide to take him to the lost city. After this, Petra became increasingly known in the West as a fascinating and beautiful ancient city, and it began attracting visitors and continues to do so today.

Petra is also known as the rose-red city, a name it gets from the wonderful colour of the rock from which many of the city’s structures were carved. The Nabataeans buried their dead in intricate tombs that were cut out of the mountain sides and the city also had temples, a theater, and following the Roman annexation and later the Byzantine influence, a colonnaded street and churches.

In addition to the magnificent remains of the Nabataean city, human settlement and land use for over 10,000 years can be traced in Petra, where great natural, cultural, archaeological and geological features merge.                                  

While Petra is known mainly as an ancient city built by the Nabataeans, and later annexed to the Roman Empire, the areas roots run deeper than the 2000-year old history of this early Arab civilization. Beida, which is an archaeological site close to Petra, is an example of one of the earliest settled communities. It is a Neolithic, pre-pottery settlement from about 6,500 B.C. Examples of masonry construction, a squared plan, and other signs of settlement at this early date can be seen there. An excavated village at nearby Umm al-Biyara was inhabited by the Edomites (who feature in Christian, Islamic, and Jewish histories) during the Iron Age, around the seventh century B.C. A visit to the High Place of Sacrifice inside Petra, which may date to a time before the area was occupied by the Nabataeans and re-used by them, provides an experience that resonates with accounts of rituals as they appear in these histories; it is one of the best preserved of all such ritual complexes.