This sobriquet alone is sufficient to identify Petra, the capital city of the Nabataeans, in southern Jordan. While not the earliest inhabitants, the Nabataeans—a nomadic Arab tribe recognized the area as a critical crossroads for trade and took over the region around the 6th century BCE. The wealth from control of trade through the region saw the city flourish, reaching its peak between 8 BCE and 40 CE. Having sided against Rome in the Parthian wars, its empire was subsequently weakened by heavy tribute payments and losses of territory to neighboring rulers. Palmyra became the new trade entrepot and Petra ultimately fell to Rome and over time faded into the desert. Although known in the region, it was not brought to western attention until visited by Johann Ludwig “Jean Louis” Burckhardt, the intrepid Swiss explorer and nascent archaeologist, in 1812.
The sole entrance to the city is through the famous siq, a steep-sided gorge, which provides the famous view of the rock-hewn “Treasury” building gleaming in the sun framed by the shadow of the siq. The latter is just sufficiently sinuous to permit taking “the money shot” without others in sight, but a few people might just add a bit of scale. The Treasury is, in fact, a tomb; the absence of logic in placing one’s wealth right at the entrance was lost on Napoleon’s troops who decided its purpose and also that a decorative urn on the façade must contain coins and did considerable damage shooting at it. Beyond this point the city spreads out with related sites and structures covering over 100 square miles. The area open to the public is the core of the city with roads and a colonnaded avenue as well as walking paths running its length, from the siq to the Nabataean Museum. The sites and structures on both sides of the avenue are well worth exploring and include rock-cut tombs, the sites of pools and gardens as well as temples and other great public buildings. The tombs, especially, show off the amazing geology of Petra. The native sandstone is indeed varying shades of pink and red, but cross-bedding, concretions, quartz veins, and other inclusions combine to produce stripes and swirls from the palest pinks to deep purples in the same rock face. A snack and rest at the museum provide time to decide whether to proceed, as it becomes an upward climb; not terribly difficult but with little shade. The reward is what might be described as a chunkier version of the Treasury; a broad structure called the Monastery, as well as lookout points over the surrounding hills.
A few handy hints and tips to enhance a visit include taking the time to observe the vestiges of the sophisticated water supply system built into the sides of the siq. Today there can be problems with flash flooding in some of the wadis in the area during the rainy season, but the Nabataeans had excellent hydrological engineers who created a system of dams and water pipes that not only kept the city supplied with drinking water, but was adequate to build gardens and pools. Some evenings there are musical performances in the plaza between the siq and the Treasury by candlelight under the stars or, with luck, a full moon. The entire city is very open with little shade, so it is critical to take water, sunscreen, and a hat, or perhaps this is the opportunity to acquire a keffiyeh, the red and white (or black and white) square scarf. These can be worn by men or women without giving offense or indicating any political stance; traditionally red is worn by nomads—the Bedouin—and black by the more sedentary groups. Everyone from guides to waiters are happy to teach diverse ways to wear them and other handy uses even back home. (Buy one with the decorative balls on the corners as these are tucked under folds and make the wearing more secure.) The B’doul, the largest tribe of the Bedouin, lived in the caves of Petra for 170 years before being resettled after it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. Their cultural heritage and traditional skills were recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2005. While there is no dearth of people selling all manner of souvenirs of every quality along every path, there are usually a couple of larger tents—one on the main site and one at the Monastery site—as well as the Museum that sell high quality jewelry, such as a series of designs by Queen Noor which she contributed to raise funds to assist nomadic people struggling to become settled, and other striking designs and gems. It is somewhat surreal to be sitting in a tent on a mountain top having a jeweler calling in your credit card on his cell phone. It is also possible to find more unusual tokens such as myrrh and frankincense (if your jewelry is gold, you’re set for Christmas!).
In 2016, a satellite and drone survey resulted in the discovery of a monumental structure believed to date to 150 BCE and comparable in size to the Monastery complex. It is south of the city center and not yet open to the public. A silver lining to the current pandemic is that with no visitors (there were more than a million in 2019), archaeologists have been given permission to excavate in the plaza in front of the Treasury and staff can undertake other maintenance and repairs that are difficult or impossible when the site is open. So, there will be even more to look forward to if you are joining us for Crossroads of Empires next fall and plan to stay on for the fabulous Petra & Dead Sea post-extension.
Click here to read interesting interviews with B’doul people of Petra.
Married to a Bedouin. Marguerite van Geldermalsen.* 2006. (2010 later edition).
*The author was a nurse from New Zealand backpacking through Jordan when she met her B’doul husband in 1976 and they married in 1978. They raised three children while living in the caves of Petra until they had to move in the 1985. After her husband died, she went back to New Zealand but felt she had to return to Petra and she wrote the book after her return. When I first visited Petra, with Zegrahm in 2008, I was asking Bedouin women selling souvenirs in the caves if I might be able to buy a drop spindle from one of them. I had read they spun the black goat hair that is used to make the tents. They couldn’t understand what I wanted so they took me to this woman who explained that it wasn’t the right season and to be honest the goat hair was taken to factories to have the tents made now. It was only a little later that I saw her book and made the connection and bought a couple of copies but wasn’t able to find her again before we left. It is an interesting read. According to this Facebook Page, which I just discovered, https://www.facebook.com/petrapieces/, she still sells jewelry in Petra; the name of the shop is Petra Pieces although there are also references to Umm Raami’s Shop (which translates as Mother of Raami’s Shop).