A Majestic City Carved into Rock, Thousands of Years Ago
Carved into soft stone cliffs, the ancient sandstone city of Petra was built in the 3rd century BC by the Nabataeans. These people were a nomadic Arab tribe–Bedouins–who roamed the Arabian Desert in search of pasture and water for their herds.
During the 4th and 2nd centuries BCE, the Nabataeans became a distinct civilization and political entity, and their kingdom revolved around a trading network that brought them considerable wealth and influence throughout the ancient world.
They were so advanced that one historian described them as “one of the most gifted peoples of the ancient world”.
Top of Petra Monastery at Sunset, Petra, Jordan, in the ancient nabbatean city of Petra in Jordan at sunset with a view of the city of Wadi Musa.
And Petra was their hauntingly beautiful rock-carved capital. Next to the mountain of Jebel al-Madhbah–which translates as “mountain of the altar”, where Nabataeans used to perform rituals–Petra is located in a basin that is surrounded by mountains. It is believed that the Nabataeans picked this location due to its proximity to the incense trading routes, an ancient network of routes across land and sea that linked the Mediterranean world with northeastern Africa, Arabia, India, and beyond, where incense, spices, gold, animal skins, slaves and other goods would be ferried from one region of the world to the other.
Petra became the main focus of the Nabataeans, who were used to living in barren deserts, and was particularly skillful at harvesting rainwater, agriculture, and stone carving.
Access to the city is through a gorge called the Siq, which is three-quarters of a mile in length, and was shaped by a fault that was split apart by tectonic plates and worn smooth by water.
Voyagers to the stunning city must pass through the magnificent, imposing rocks that block out the sky. Then, they catch a glimpse of the Treasury, also known as Al Khazneh, a breathtakingly elaborate 39 meters high mausoleum hewn out of rock. The name originates from legends that said an Egyptian pharaoh had hidden his treasure in an urn at the top of the temple. The structure is Petra’s jewel, intricately decorated with Corinthian capitals, friezes, and figures, held up by Greek-style pillars and comprising three chambers.
From the Treasury, the area broadens into the Outer Siq, containing more than 40 tombs, which are known as the Street of Facades. There’s also a 7000-seat theater, as well as a set of steps leading up to the High Place of Sacrifice, a hilltop altar that sits above the tombs and temples, and a steep 45-minute climb into the heavens. But it’s not the only sacred spot in the skies; the plateau above the Royal Tombs gives a stunning aerial view of the splendor of Petra and is accessed via steps that lie tucked away behind the three-story Palace Tomb.
The main gods who were worshiped at Petra were Dushara and Al-’Uzzá. Dushara was the supreme deity of the Nabataeans, while Al-’Uzzá was a chief goddess, the mistress of heaven, and the star Goddess.
Whatever your reason for visiting Petra, whether it’s to learn about history, architecture, or culture or to simply bask in one of the new wonders of the world, you will be left in awe at what mankind could accomplish so many years ago.