THE ancient of Petra lies in a semi-arid region of south-west Jordan that dominates the desert of the Arabah depression, dropping down more than 1,000 metres to the west. The massif forms a natural fortress, where once was built a strange city, the capital of a kingdom that dared to resist the might of Rome.
Today, Petra is one of the most beautiful historic sites of the Middle East, a testimonial, unique in size, to cave architecture, or what one might almost call troglodytic urbanism. Its 45 square kilometres house a succession of over 500 great monuments, hewn from the rock by astonishingly gifted Bedouin architect-sculptors more than 2,000 years ago.
The road to Petra snakes through grey, stony desert on a high, arid plateau. It is difficult to believe that once, in ancient times, an oak forest grew here. Then the road descends into a small valley. Suddenly, at a bend in the road, the magnificent site of Petra comes into view below, a rocky chaos to which the city owes its name, for "petros" means rock in Greek.
Coming down from the plateau, the traveller is plunged into a lunar landscape of yellowy-white sandstone carved into thousands of sugar-loaf or whaleback-shaped domes, an expanse of humps and protuberances whose contours are thrown into relief by the harsh light of dawn. Already the first cave monuments of the city can be made out, among them the Obelisk Tomb. Gradually the whiter rock gives way to steep slopes of rose-red sandstone, which give the Petra massif its dominant colouring.
The road into the massif passes through the Sik, a narrow gorge about 3 kilometres long, 100 metres deep and narrowing in places to a width of a bare 3 metres. Straight stretches are punctuated by sudden bends until the gorge gradually opens out on a huge depression ringed by flat-topped mountains whose sheer slopes are dotted with magnificent monuments.
The spectacle is overwhelming. In places, patches of black, white and yellow alternate with the dominant red of the multi-coloured stone, which erosion has shaped into a natural work of art, a ruined landscape of cliffs and ravines pitted with grooves and cavities in which sumptuous forms have been carved by the hand of man.
The Valley of Moses
Everything in Petra speaks of history. Before it even reaches the massif, the road runs through the Wadi Musa ("the valley of Moses"), at the entrance to which, under a white dome, rises a spring reputed to be the one the patriarch caused to flow from the rock during his crossing of the desert.
Local tradition also claims the Moses' brother Aaron is buried under the Djebel Horoun ("Mount of Aaron"), where a small white mosque supposedly shelters his tomb. Charming in its rustic simplicity, it is a place of annual pilgrimage.
Other legends have built up around the Khazna Firaoun ("Pharaoh's Treasury"), an astonishing cliff monument facing the mouth of the Sik. It is topped by an urn that Bedouins used to shoot at with their rifles in the hope that from it would spill out the gold of the Pharaohs. The entire facade bears the scars of their treasure-hunting.
Who were the sculptors and architects of Petra? The Nabataeans, who probably originated in southern Arabia, appeared in the Middle East around the fourth century BC. Strabo and Diodorus Siculus, two historians of the Augustan era, tell us that the tribe consisted of some 10,000 nomadic Bedouins who used to trade between Arabia and the Mediterranean. These caravaneers, "determined to preserve their liberty . . . calling the desert their homeland", who "have no vineyard or field or seed, and have no built houses to dwell in" (Jeremiah 35), nonetheless built an empire with Petra as its capital. Diodorus Siculus wrote of them: "They surpass other Arabs in wealth, even though there are only 10,000 of them."
Petra benefited from a site that guaranteed the security of its inhabitants and had its own water source, the Ain Musa--an element of prime importance in the desert. Its location at the crossroads of the trade routes linking Syria to the Red Sea and India to the Gulf and the Mediterranean gave them control of the principal caravan routes with their traffic in gold, precious stones, myrrh, incense, spices, Phoenician purple, wood and exotic animals.
King Obodas I, one of the great figures of the Nabataean dynasty, ruled Petra during the first century BC. Around the year 93, he defeated Alexander Jannaeus, the king of the Jews, in Golan, taking from him the lands of Gilead and Moab. In 85, he killed the Syrian king Antiochus XII in the Negev. These events earned him divine status and he took the title of Ilaha, meaning "God". The Nabataean kingdom was now a power in the Middle East and under Aretas III (84-62 BC) it stretched from northern Arabia to the Sinai peninsula and Damascus.
The Nabataean people underwent an astonishing metamorphosis, the former nomads becoming sedentary city-builders. Many archaeological remains bear witness to their urbanizing activities, of which Petra remains the most spectacular example. The city was to play a frequent part in the history of the region in the days of Cleopatra, Herod and John the Baptist.
In 64, Pompey created the Roman province of Syria and, in 106, Trajan ordered its governor to annex the Nabataean kingdom and to turn it into the Roman province of Arabia. The new territory was governed by an envoy sent from Rome, and Petra itself was given metropolitan status.
The region was gradually Romanized and, little by little, its Nabataean character faded. The desert fortress was unable to compete with the economic might of the Roman giant and, in the third century, bypassed by the new trade routes, Petra went into a gradual decline. Under Byzantine rule, a cave temple was transformed into a cathedral, a bishopric was installed and Petra became a Byzantine administrative centre. In 636, after the battle of the River Yarmuk, the Muslims took control of the region, but since it was not on the pilgrimage route to Mecca, Petra sank still further into decline and neglect.
At the time of the Crusades, the city, by then in ruins, was occupied by the armies of Baldwin I. In 1127, the crusaders built three small forts there, the remains of which can still be seen. The crusaders, however, did not stay there long.
The last mention of Petra, in connection with the Crusaders, dates from 1276, during the Syrian campaign of the Mamluk Sultan Baybars against the crusaders. Subsequently, Petra was lost in oblivion surviving, like Troy, only as a legend.
A city reborn
In 1812, a Swiss traveller, Ludwig Burckhardt (1784-1817), caught a glimpse of the rock-hewn city while making a journey to Mecca disguised under the pseudonym of Sheik Ibrahim. "I regret not being able to give a full report on the antiquities of Sik", he wrote later, "but ... I was unprotected in the midst of the desert where no traveller had previously gone. . . . The inhabitants will grow used to the enquiries of foreigners and then the antiquities of Wadi Musa will be recognized as worthy to figure among the most curious remains of ancient art."
Burckhardt was soon followed by other travelers - in 1818, the British naval officers Irby and Manglesi; in 1828, the Frenchmen L. de Laborde and M.A. de Linant de Bellefonds. In 1839, David Roberts made some fine engravings of the site. From that time onwards, a stream of scientific expeditions followed. Petra was slowly reborn to become today one of the principal tourist attractions of the Middle East.
The erosion that originally sculpted the wonderful landscape of Petra has begun to cause serious damage to some of the cliff monuments. Because they are carved from the rock, they are relatively fragile. Like the mountain that shelters them, they are alive. There are many eroding agents--the capillary action of water, saline outgrowths, sandstorms--and their effects are cumulative, a factor that complicates every attempt to counteract them. Controlling the tourist influx also poses problems, for people can in some ways be a supplementary agent of erosion.
In Jordan, the Department of Tourism and Antiquities, Yarmuk Univerity, and the Higher Council for Science and Technology are co-operating to analyze the evolution of the site and to determine the measures that need to be taken to protect it and to prevent further damage. These interdisciplinary studies, involving specialists from such countries as France, Germany, the United States and Italy, are beginning to produce results. There are plans to establish a Petra Natural and Archaeological Park.
The rose-red capital of a forgotten people
Jacek Rewecki & T. S. Akasheh