Petra: An Ancient Land

Petra is inextricably linked with the Nabataeans, the nomadic tribe from western Arabia who built most of the monuments in the Ancient City that are visible today. They were not the first inhabitants of the region, however. In fact, Neolithic villages dating from around 7000 BC are in evidence in the surrounding wadis and hillsides of Petra. Remains of the most famous of these, excavated in the 1950s, can be seen at Al Beidha, just north of the Ancient City near Little Petra. Built at the same time as Jericho on the West Bank, Al Beidha is one of the earliest known farming communities in the Middle East.

Nabataean Heydey

The Nabataeans arrived in the region around the 6th century BC. They were organised traders, and over the next 500 years they used their wealth to build the city of Petra. In its heyday, under King Aretas IV (8 BC–AD 40), the city was home to around 30,000 people, including scribes (the Nabataeans created their own cursive script, the forerunner of Arabic) and expert hydraulic engineers who built dams, cisterns and water channels to protect the site and its magnificent buildings.

The Romans in Petra

By AD 106, as trade routes shifted from Petra to Palmyra and new sea trade routes via the Red Sea to Rome bypassed Petra altogether, the Romans assumed control of the weakened Nabataean empire. Far from abandoning the declining city of Petra, however, the invaders recast the Ancient City with familiar Roman features, including a colonnaded street and baths. The city was honoured by a visit from Emperor Hadrian in AD 131, and in the 3rd century Petra once again became a capital – this time of the newly created province of Palaestrina Tertia. It was a short-lived second glory as an earthquake in 363 brought ruin.

Petra's 19th-Century Rediscovery

By the time of a second devastating earthquake in 551 Petra had became a forgotten outpost, a ‘lost city’ known only to local Bedouin who preferred to keep its whereabouts secret. In 1812, however, the young Swiss explorer, Jean Louis Burckhardt, ended Petra’s splendid isolation, riding into the abandoned Ancient City disguised as a Muslim holy man, bringing in his wake a series of explorers, fortune hunters and curious travellers.

Throughout the 19th century, Petra became the focus of the Western European obsession with the Arabic Orient and the site was pored over by numerous archaeologists, poets and artists (including the famed British painter David Roberts in 1839).

Ongoing Exploration

The first English archaeological team arrived in 1929 and excavations have continued unabated to the present day. In 1992 the mosaics of the Petra Church were unveiled and in 2003 a tomb complex was found underneath the Treasury. Part of the continuing allure of the ‘Pink City’ is that despite years of scrutiny, Petra still has many secrets yet to be discovered.