By Philip Hammond
Adjunct Professor of Anthropology
at Arizona State University
and Emeritus Professor of Anthropology
at the University of Utah
Petra lies deep within the desert, east of the Jordan river, halfway between Jordan's modern capital Amman and the Gulf of Aqaba. Pictured as the "Rose-Red City, half as old as time" by one of England's prize-winning poets, the site's natural beauty is unsurpassed and her history goes back to prehistoric times.
Neolithic occupation has been found in the Petra basin, but little is known of either the inhabitants or their daily life during that period. It is in the Iron Age that Petra apparently was occupied as a major southern outpost of the people known as the "Edomites." Reference is made in the Old Testament to the fact that King Amaziah defeated the Edomites and ultimately massacred some 10,000 of them by casting them off the top of a mountain called "Sela." Although modern scholars are somewhat divided on the issue, the towering mountain today known as "Umm El-Biyara," which has obvious Edomite settlement remains on its peak and which would seem to fit the geographical location mentioned in the biblical account, is the mountain in question.
It is not until the Hellenistic period that Petra emerges again in an historic reference. The scholar known as Diodorus Sicculus, using earlier sources, describes a military confrontation between the people of Petra and the army of the Seleucid King Antigonus, which occurred in the 4th century B.C. It is Diodorus who also introduces the name "Nabataean" as the name of the inhabitants at that time. This group represents a coming together of the Edomites and a pastoral nomadic confederation which had migrated northward from the western coast of Saudi Arabia.
The Iron Age technology of the Edomites was now joined to the commercial acumen brought in by the newcomers. By the 1st century, any reference to the "Edomites" at Petra is completely lost under the "Nabataean" title. By the 1st century, the Roman geographer Strabo depicts Petra as having become a bustling city. Archaeological information has confirmed that fact, with Petra having become urbanized, presumably under the rule of Aretas IV (9 B.C. - A.D. 40). By this point, the Nabataean social structure had also evolved from a probable sheikdom to the monarchial pattern seen throughout the Middle East at that time. The city could now boast a main theater, a series of magnificent royal rock-cut tombs, some 800 other rock-cut funerary monuments scattered throughout the Petra basin, along with private villas and other public buildings. Petra's water system brought water through a system of gravity-fed ceramic pipes from a spring some miles away in the town of El-Ji into the city. Other technology exhibited by the Nabataeans appears in their achievements in high quality ceramics, metallurgy, and other specialized areas.
Most spectacular, however, was Petra's commercial stature as the capital city of the Nabataeans, ruling over 1000 known sites, spread from Damascus in the north to Medain Selah in the south and throughout the southern area of Palestine. Nabataean trade routes stretched from North to South along the ancient Kings' Highway and into Wadi Tumilat in Egypt, spreading from there to the western world. Frankincense, myrrh, spices, gems, and other luxury items passed through Nabataean hands.
Although the Roman general Pompey had ostensibly conquered Syro-Palestine in 64 B.C., bringing that area under the control of the Roman Empire, Petra remained unscathed. Various attempts from that point on to conquer the Nabataeans failed until A.D. 106 when the army of Trajan entered the city and it became an official part of the Empire. In spite of the belief that Petra dwindled in importance under Roman control, modern archaeological data clearly indicate continued imports and a continuous luxurious lifestyle. Years later, even the rich Chinese silk industry made itself felt in Nabataean territory, reflected even today in the word for open woven fabrics called "gauze" named after the city of Gaza where the re-weaving of silk was done.
All went well with Petra and the Nabataeans until late in the evening of the 19th of May A.D. 363. A disastrous earthquake, stretching from Paneas in the north and 170 kilometers south to the Araba valley, utterly destroyed the Nabataean capital. It appears probable that the majority of the inhabitants found their way to other sites throughout the Empire. Some sporadic occupation continued through the early Christian period onward, as the mid-5th century red-painted consecration inscription in the "Palace Tomb" notes. Likewise, documentary evidence from the 6th century A.D. also exists from the excavations of newly discovered churches. Such occupation also comes from the Early Crusader Period in a plea for succor against "Saracens" by the "Monks of St. Aaron," in A.D. 1101. Crusader military visits to Petra continued for some time in this period. The site regained a certain amount of stature during the Crusader Period when a major Frankish fort was built on the outskirts of the Basin and a minor police post was constructed inside.
By this point, Petra had become associated with the Mosaic tradition of the escape of the children of Israel from Egypt. The spring in nearby El-Ji was known as the "Spring of Moses;" the entrance to Petra now called the "Siq" was identified with the rock which Moses struck to bring forth water. The entire basin was referred to as the "Valley of Moses" and various monuments were associated with folklore stories of the Exodus.
With the coming of the Islamic Period, Petra's commercial and strategic importance both ceased to be of value and the site disappeared into obscurity.
The name of the site has varied between its Greek form, "Petra," and its Semitic form, "RQM," the former being the one most commonly found in external records. The Greek form, simply meaning "rock" and probably referring to Umm El-Biyara, is that used by the Romans; Semitic sources tended to use the latter name. It has been suggested that the Semitic form spread as far as China where a reference is made to a site called "Li-Kan." Passing reference is made to the Nabataeans in some classical sources in addition to those made by Diodorus and Strabo, but not necessarily mentioning Petra by name.
Strangely enough, although Petra was the capital city of the most vigorous commercial group in the Middle East as well as having attracted attention throughout the Roman Empire and was immediately adjacent to the Jewish State, it was virtually unnoticed in any direct reference either in the Old Testament or in the New Testament.
In the case of the Old Testament, the only reference made pertains to the victory of King Amaziah as noted above.
The New Testament reference to Petra is likewise scanty and oblique. St. Paul states that he suffered travail "in the wilderness." This is generally construed to be a reference to desert areas to the East, and although this reference does not name Petra by name, Paul was later forced to flee from Damascus to avoid arrest by the Ethnarch of the Nabataeans. Knowing the relation between Petra and Damascus at that time as well as Paul's proclivity to proselytize in major cities throughout the Empire, Petra would seem to have been a prime missionary target. Such activity would have irritated the Nabateaean King because of Paul's suspect Jewish background and his attempts at Christian conversions.
It is also probable that the story of the "jar of ointment," broken and its contents poured over the head of Jesus, was in reality a Nabataean unguentarium, the usual container for luxury ointments which were primarily manufactured by the Nabataeans and which were so manufactured that they had to be broken in order to use the contents.
Far more common references appear in the Intertestimental Book, II Maccabees, and in the works of the Jewish historian Josephus.
The author of the Book of Maccabees traces Nabataean relations with Jonathan-the-Maccabee. These relate specifically to Jonathan's forcible conversion of the Idumeans to Judaism and the Nabataean reaction thereto.
Josephus associates the Nabataeans with various events in later Jewish history. Most interesting are the relationships between the Nabataeans and Herod the Great. Herod was the son of a Nabatean mother and an Idumean father and apparently even spent part of his boyhood in Petra. Since the Idumeans were said to be disgruntled Edomites who left Petra with the coming of the Nabataean confederacy, the relation between Idumeans and Nabataeans was extremely close. Josephus notes various incidents linking Herod and his Nabataean relatives even without mentioning Petra by name. When Herod was forced to flee Jerusalem and sought to secure help from Rome, he is said to have attempted to find asylum in Petra but was repulsed by the king of the Nabataeans. When Herod received the kingship of the Jewish State from the Roman Senate and returned to Jerusalem, various political relations existed between him and the Nabataeans.
After Cleopatra secured the balsam groves in the Dead Sea Valley, which had belonged to the Nabataeans, they were rented back to Herod and the king of the Nabataeans. When the military actions between Anthony and Cleopatra and Octavius Caesar began, Herod offered his services to the former couple. They refused his help and urged him to make war with the Nabataeans. A disastrous defeat took place in 31 B.C. in the Dead Sea Valley. An earthquake was seen to be a sign from Heaven, and Herod rallied his forces and drove the Nabataeans back to their own area. Herod also had dealings with Syllaeus the envoy of the king of Petra; this culminated in bad blood between them. It was not until much later that the siege of Jerusalem by Trajan allowed the Nabataeans to emerge in Josephus' works. Their tactics horrified the Roman general and Nabataeans troops were sent back home.
As noted above, the importance of Petra following the defeat of the Frankish Kingdom had left Petra without any particular value to the Islamic conquerors. But the tomb of Aaron, situated on a mountain at the North end of the Petra basin, which had been a Christian holy place, also became a place of Muslim pilgrimage.
Following the last reference to Petra by the Arab historians during the Middle Ages, there is a lack of any further information regarding Petra until the 22nd of August 1812, when Johann Lidwig Burkhart noted in his journal that he had apparently rediscovered the ancient city of Petra - "it appears very probable that the ruins in Wadi Musa are those of ancient Petra." Following his deservedly courageous journey through the Trans-Jordan region, a plethora of "learned travelers" also found their way to the ancient site having much of same impression of antagonist bedouin and fantastic ruins as did Burkhart. But the visits from foreign travelers were not appreciated by either the local bedouin nor the Ottoman government, and the site was virtually off-limits until the end of World War I. In the interim, extensive surveys were carried out throughout the Basin, but no archaeological excavations were undertaken until the work of George Horsfield early in the last century. Subsequently, excavations have begun throughout the city center and the immediately adjacent areas. Most definitive has been the excavation of the "Temple of the Winged Lions," carried on after an electronic survey and continued for some 21 seasons up to the present.
Petra today lies in ruins, but the natural beauty of the site and the magnificence of its carved monuments still attract visitors from all over the world.
The author would like to express thanks to Lin J. Hammond for assistance in preparing this brief paper.