Petra is a historical and archaeological city in the southern Jordanian governorate of Ma’an that is famous for its rock-cut architecture and water medium system. It lies on the slope of Jebel al-Madhbah 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 was described as “a rose-red city half as old as time” in a Newdigate Prize-winning poem by John William Burgon. UNESCO has described it as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage”.
In ancient times, Petra might have been approached from the south on a track leading across the plain of Petra, around Jabal Haroun (“Aaron’s Mountain”), where the Tomb of Aaron, said to be the burial-place of Aaron, brother of Moses, is located. Another approach was possibly from the high plateau to the north.
Today, most modern visitors approach the site from the east. The impressive eastern entrance leads steeply down through a dark, narrow gorge 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.
Petra declined rapidly under Roman rule, in large part from the revision of sea-based trade routes. In 363 an earthquake destroyed many buildings, and crippled the vital water management system.
The last inhabitants abandoned the city (further weakened by another major earthquake in 551) when the Arabs conquered the region in 663. The ruins of Petra were an object of curiosity in the middle Ages and were visited by Sultan Baibars of Egypt towards the end of the 13th century.
In this period there is also striking archaeological and documentary evidence for accommodation between Christians and the pagan aristocracy. Thereafter one can read the archaeology of a fragmented middle Byzantine community living among and re-using the abandoned limestone and sandstone elements of its classical past.
The inhabitants during the Byzantine Period recycled many standing structures and rock-cut monuments, while also constructing their own buildings, including churches such as the recently excavated Petra Church with the extraordinary mosaics.
Among the rock-cut monuments they reused is the great tomb or the Ad-Dayr (known also as ‘The Monastery’), which was modified into a church.
In 1958, P. J. Parr and C. M. Bennett of the British School of Archaeology began an excavation of the city center which remains the most informative and scientific to date.
Recently, the Petra or Jerash Project, undertaken by the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, the University of Jordan, the University of Utah, and Swiss archaeologists, has excavated a number of monuments at these two sites.
The views over the Petra valley spread wide from thin ledge at a small park in Wadi Musa, Jordan, the deep shadows accentuating the towering height of the rocks. Just minutes into our Petra journey and already we’re confronted with one of the myths suffusing this ancient city.
Without written documents from the time, Petra remains a bit of a mystery and the Nabataean continue to closely guard their secrets for perhaps another millennium.