Rami G. Khouri

Petra : a guide to the capital of the Nabataeans, 1986 AD

page 11


A historical introduction to the land of Edom, the Nabataean Kingdom, Petra and the Roman Province of Arabia

Petra's ancient prominence was due to the combination of its easily defended position, secure water resources, rich agricultural and grazing lands in the immediate vicinity, and a geographically strategic position near the junction of two of the ancient world's most important trade routes. The silk and spice routes that linked China, India and Southern Arabia with Rome and the Mediterranean world passed less than twenty kilometres to the east of Petra. From Petra, an established land route via the Wadi Araba, Gaza, and the north Sinai coast allowed men and goods to pass westwards to Egypt, through the formidable natural obstacles of mountains, inland seas, swamps and deserts that acted as a barrier between the eastern and western parts of the ancient Middle East.

While trade provided the economic base for the development of Petra into a splendid royal capital during the late Hellenistic era, the Petra basin area may first have been revered by the Nabataeans, in their early days in southern Jordan, as the sacred precinct of their god Dushara. The name Dushara means 'He of Sharra', referring to the Sharra mountains located north of Petra, and visible from it. It is possible that this sacred precinct was first used as a Nabataean necropolis, before becoming a magnificent capital city by the 1st century BC.

Even before the historical period, however, the Petra region was inhabited by Stone Age people who exploited its natural vegetation and wildlife. Diana Kirkbride's pioneering work at Beidha has revealed the presence of an important Neolithic village from the 7th millennium BC, along with traces of even earlier Natufian camps from the 9th and loth millennia BC. Recent surveys and excavations in the Petra area by a West German team from Tubingen University, headed by Hans Peter Uerpmann and Hans Georg Gebel, have discovered a handful of new settlements, seasonally occupied campsites and rock shelters from the same closing millennia of the Stone Age.


The land of Edom in south Jordan has not received the attention of archaeologists and historians that it deserves. This was a strategic border and transit zone that was disputed among the diverse civilizations that encircled it from all sides throughout history, such as Egypt, Assyria, Mesopotamia, Persia, Judaea, Phoenicia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium and the Islamic nation. Internationally, the land of Edom sits like a pivot astride one of the great trade routes of the ancient world, linking the exotic commodity-producing regions of China, India and Southern Arabia with the rich, almost insatiable, markets of Rome, the Mediterranean lands, Egypt and Syria-Palestine.

The Nabataeans made their appearance in Jordan during the closing centuries of the Iron Age, roughly corresponding to the Old Testament period of the Bible. During the Iron Age (1200-333 BC), people came together to form more formidable, veritable little 'nations' that endured because of their higher level of political, economic, social and military organization. Invariably kingdoms under a single, 'hereditary ruler, or confederations of tribes that may have rotated political leadership, these new 'nation-states' in Jordan included (from south to north) Edom, Moab, and Ammon, alongside neighbouring powers in Judaea and Phoenicia, among others.

The Assyrian Kingdom, from its base in the middle reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, dominated the smaller kingdoms of the Fertile Crescent and the eastern Mediterranean during most of the 8th and 7th centuries BC. Assyrian influence in southern Jordan has been shown clearly in the excavations of Mrs Crystal-M. Bennett at the two important Edomite towns of Tawilan and Buseira, both of which can be visited today near Petra.

In 612 BC, the Babylonians and Chaldeans ended Assyrian hegemony in Jordan-Palestine, and threatened the small kingdoms in Edom, Moab and Ammon that had flourished as autonomous vassal states under Assyrian control. In the first two decades of the 6th century BC, the Babylonian King Nebuchad-nezzar attacked and subjugated the Judaean, Ammonite and Moabite kingdoms; Edom followed soon after. Some scholars believe the Babylonian King Nabonidus (555-539 BC) was the one who finally brought Edom under Babylonian control, during his military campaigns in south Jordan and north Arabia in 552 BC. The Babylonian administration of Edom must have been relatively brief, for the Persian Cyrus conquered Arabia around 546-540 BC, before moving on to destroy Babylon in 539 BC. The Persian period in the history of Edom is one of the least known, for there are few historical references to it and even fewer inscriptions or excavations. It was during the historically turbid 7th-6th centuries BC that political control of the land of Edom passed successively from Edomite, to Assyrian, to Babylonian, and finally to Persian hands. This created the kind of intermittent instability that paved the way for a new group of people to stake a claim to the land and make of themselves a new regional power. These were the Arab people or tribe known as the Nabataeans.

The little hard historical evidence available today indicates they may have started to move into the land of Edom from northern Arabia some time in the early decades of the 6th century BC. As the Nabataeans gradually penetrated Edom from the south, the remnants of the now politically battered Edomites migrated westwards, into the southern reaches of the former Kingdom of Judaea. There, they established a new Edomite homeland called Edomea, better known by its Greek name of Idumea. The evidence suggests this was a gradual and peaceful process, which probably included considerable integration and cultural continuity between the Edomites and Nabataeans. There are several early historical references to Arab peoples whom scholars have tried to identify with the Nabataeans. The Assyrian records during the 8th-6th centuries BC mention Aramaic and/or Arab people called the 'Nabatu', the 'Nabaieteans', or the 'Na-ba-a-a-ti , and speak of 'the country of the Nabaieteans' and 'Natnu, king of the Nabai ati. The Old Testament speaks of the 'Nabaioth', while an inscription from Tayma mentions the 'nbyt' people. Most scholars now agree that none of these ancient references can be identified explicitly with the Nabataeans of Petra. The Nabataeans referred to themselves as 'Nabatu'.

We know with relative certainty that the Nabataeans were a nomadic Arab tribe from northern Arabia, who may have derived from the greater Qedarite tribal confederation that covered the area of southern Syria/northern Arabia, linked by the Wadi Sirhan stretches of east Jordan in between. According to some scholars, such as Dr Axel Knauf, there is geographical and linguistic evidence associating the Nabataeans with the Qedarites, the most powerful Arabian tribe in this area between the 8th and 5th centuries BC. By the 4th century BC, if not earlier, the Nabataeans had emerged as an independent and politically powerful tribe. They spoke an Arabic dialect, and by the late 4th century BC had adopted the more common Aramaic script which had become the lingua franca of the area under Persian rule, especially for commercial transactions. The generally accepted view is that they first moved into the land of Edom during the 6th-4th centuries BC, elbowed out the Edomites, and established their base at Petra by the 4th century BC. They prospered at first from livestocking, trade with southern Arabia, and extracting bitumen from the Dead Sea for export to Egypt. Certainly, there was a Nabataean settlement at Petra by the end of the 4th century BC, when we have the first fixed historical reference to them.

This comes from the Bibliothieca of the Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus, who wrote during the 1st century BC. He based his work on the eye-witness accounts of Hieronymus of Cardia, a Greek military officer who served in the area at the end of the 4th century BC. Diodorus recounts the campaigns against the Nabataeans by the ruler of Syria, Antigonus ('the One-Eyed'), one of the more ambitious of Alexander the Great's former generals. In 312 BC, or about a decade after the death of Alexander, Antigonus sent a force of 4000 foot soldiers and 600 cavalry, under the command of an officer named Athenaeus, to attack the Nabataean Arabs and plunder their animals. Athenaeus had heard that the Arabs celebrated a national festival or fair every year, during which their women, children and possessions were left behind in safety on the summit of a'strong but unwalled rock'. This rock has always been equated with Umm al-Biyara, the mountain that dominates the central Petra basin from the west. Excavations have shown the presence of an Edomite settlement on the summit of Umm al-Biyara, with possible Hellenistic occupation and substantial Nabataean remains.

Athenaeus approached Umm al-Biyara from the west, and attacked during the cover of night, when all the men were attending their national gathering (probably an annual or seasonal commercial fair). The Greeks sacked the place, killed and imprisoned some of the Arab population, and returned to the west with booty that included 'about 500 talents of silver', and most of the frankincense and myrrh the Nabataeans had stored. The Nabataeans gave chase, caught up with the attackers, and killed Athenaeus and all but fifty of his troops, who escaped. Back home at Petra, the Nabataeans sent a diplomatic letter of complaint to Antigonus (written 'in Syrian characters', or Aramaic), and the humiliated Antigonus replied with more diplomacy than truth that the attack was an unfortunate excess on the part of Athenaeus, who had disregarded orders and acted on his own. It was a transparent lie, for Antigonus wanted the financial gain that came from control of the trade routes in the land of Edom, and soon after sent his son Demetrius 'the Besieger' (or'the conqueror of cities') to attack the Nabataeans once again. The Nabataeans caught early sight of the invasion force and alerted the garrison at Petra, who scattered their coveted flocks of cattle, fortified the rock, and thus prevented a Greek attack. Nabataean precaution seems to have been followed by successful oratory, for Diodorus says that a moving speech by one of the Nabataean elders convinced the Greeks that the Nabataeans were not like them, in that they did not build houses, drink wine, or grow fruit trees or wheat, and only wanted to live in peace with them and would never become their slaves. After some negotiations, Demetrius consented to the Nabataean offer of gifts and some hostages, and retreated towards the Dead Sea.

Diodorus portrays the Nabataeans at the end of the 4th century BC as a nomadic people who valued their flocks and shunned built houses and cultivation that required a long stay in one place; they traded in frankincense and myrrh, were capable of writing in some form of Aramaic, and preferred negotiated compromises to military confrontations with their enemies. This valuable early portrait of the Nabataeans' life and culture is then followed by a relatively long gap in credible historical reports about them, punctuated only by isolated references to the Nabataeans in different parts of the Middle East. Evidence from papyrus documents in the archive of Zenon of Caunus, in Egypt, proves the Nabataeans were in the Hauran region of southern Syria by 259 BC, and refers to 'Rabbel', a common Nabataean royal name. A King Rabbel I may have reigned in the second half of the 2nd century BC. Diodorus' accounts mention that towards the end of the 3rd century BC there were 'many inhabited villages of Arabs who are known as Nabataeans. This tribe occupies a large part of the coast and not a little of the country which stretches inland, and it has a people numerous beyond telling and flocks and herds in multitude beyond belief . . .' The earliest known Nabataean inscription comes from Elusa, along the important Petra-Gaza road in the Naqab (Negev). It reads: 'This is the place which Nuthairu made for the life of Aretas, king of the Nabataeans.' The Abbe Starcky dates this inscription on paleographic grounds to the first half of the 2nd century BC, making it the earliest known reference to the Nabataean monarchy.

There are several biblical references to the Nabataeans in the Books of Maccabees, referring to events that took place during the middle of the 2nd century BC. One passage, dated to 169-168 BC, mentions 'Aretas the prince of the Arabians', a reference to Aretas I, the first Nabataean king we know of. Diodorus then reports that the Nabataeans' ... not only attacked the shipwrecked, but fitting out pirate ships preyed upon the voyagers ... ; some time afterwards, however, they were caught on the high seas by some quadriremes and punished as they deserved'.

This report of Nabataean piracy, probably on the Red Sea, is corroborated by the Roman writer Strabo. Professor Glen Bowersock has suggested that the Nabataeans may have resorted to piracy during the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, when their control of the trade routes - and therefore their very livelihood - was threatened by the discovery of the monsoon winds. This permitted the establishment of direct sea routes between India, southern Arabia, Egypt and the Mediterranean, thereby providing an alternative to the overland trade routes that passed through Petra. This would have generated some fierce competition between the Nabataeans and the powers of Ptolemaic Egypt,


resulting perhaps in the Nabataeans' drastic resort to piracy, only to be badly mauled by the Ptolemaic navy.

From the 1st century BC, generally reliable historical references to the Nabataeans become more plentiful. Around the year 100 BC, according to the historian Josephus, the Jewish Hasmonaean leader Alexander Jannaeus besieged the people of Gaza; they in turn anticipated in vain that 'Aretas, the King of the Arabs, would come to their assistance', perhaps on the assumption that the Nabataeans could not afford to allow an important export/transit port such as Gaza to fall into hostile hands. This is thought to be a reference to the Nabataean King Aretas II, the first Nabataean monarch to issue his own coins. He seems to have reigned during a time of Nabataean expansion, taking advantage of in-fighting among the Seleucids after 129 BC.

Aretas II was probably succeeded by his son, Obodas I, who inherited both the monarchy and an adversaerial relationship with the Jewish Hasmonaeans. Obodas I may have been succeeded by a King Rabbel I, but the next firmly identified Nabataean monarch was the son of Obodas I, King Aretas III (86-62 BC), who continued the decades-old Nabataean thrust to the north. Invited by the people of Damascus to save them from the threatening Ituraean kingdom in the area of modern Lebanon, Aretas III took over Damascus around 84 BC and ruled it through an appointed governor for over a dozen years. The Armenian King Tigranes took Damascus soon after 72 BC, and the Nabataeans retreated peacefully. Tigranes himself vacated Damascus in 69 BC to deal with a Roman threat against his own capital. This power vacuum in Damascus and the rest of Syria paved the way for the entry onto the Middle Eastern stage of a decisive new power that would determine the fate of the area for many centuries: the Roman General Pompey captured Damascus in 64 BC, and reorganised the area into the new Roman Province of Syria.

The widow of Alexander Jannaeus, Alexandra, had died in 67 BC, sparking a fight for power between her sons Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus. Hyrcanus lost a major battle against his brother's forces at Jericho, fled, and found refuge at Petra, the capital city of the Nabataean King Aretas III. Pompey probably planned to deal with the Nabataeans in a manner that would at least neutralise them - through war or peaceful treaty - and avert any possible military threat from the area south of the Decapolis and the Province of Syria. But the feud among the rulers in Jerusalem deflected his attention away from Nabataea, and in 63 BC he personally took control of Jerusalem and returned Hyrcanus to power. Pompey returned to Rome in 62 BC, having left the area in the hands of the first governor of Syria, Aemilius Scaurus. He lost no time in sending a military force against the Nabataeans, but fighting was averted, negotiations and reason prevailed, and the Romans withdrew after accepting Aretas III's offer of 300 talents of silver. The Nabataeans thus secured a working accommoda-tion with the power of Rome to the north, and a continuation of their vital trading activity. Around 60 BC, Aretas III died and was succeeded by King Malichus I, though there is considerable scholarly debate about when this transition took place, and about the possibility of a King Obodas II having reigned briefly between 62 and 58 BC.

In 40 BC, Parthian forces from Iran reached Jerusalem, as part of the complex battles for power among Roman leaders, and gained Malichus' support. The Jewish leader Herod left Jerusalem and unsuccessfully sought refuge with Malichus at Petra, after which he travelled to Rome to press his claim as leader of the Jewish Kingdom. Herod was installed by Rome as King of Judaea, and returned triumphantly to evict the Parthians from Jerusalem in 39 BC, subsequently forcing Malichus and others who had supported the Parthians to pay'large sums of money'. Herod and the Nabataeans went on to have several more military clashes in the following decade.

Malichus died in 30 BC, after more than three decades in power, and was succeeded by King Obodas II (30-9 BC). Rome formally annexed Egypt the same year, after the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra. A period of considerable regional political intrigues followed, which resulted in a battle between the Jewish forces of Herod and the Nabataeans of Obodas in 9 BC. During the winter of 9-8 BC, King Obodas died. He was succeeded by the greatest of Nabataean kings, a certain Aeneas who was to rule from 9 BC to AD 40 as Aretas IV, 'the lover of his people'.

In AD 6, Rome annexed Judaea and created the Province of Judaea, which, with the previous Roman annexations of Egypt and Syria, once again provided the regional stability that allowed trade to flourish and the Nabataeans to enter their era of greatest development. To make relations with Judaea even better, the Jewish leader Herod Antipas married a daughter of Aretas. The next several decades saw the sudden blossoming of the Nabataean city at Medain Saleh (Hegra), in northern Arabia, a key stop on the trade route from southern Arabia. Nabataean cities in southern Syria and the Negev also prospered and grew, and the Nabataean realm now included southern Syria, the Negev and Sinai deserts, the entire Wadi Sirhan basin in east Jordan, and the area of northern Arabia between Hegra and Aqaba. The capital at Petra, with a population estimated at 20-30,000, was the showcase of Nabataean prosperity and pride. Aretas IV died in AD 40, and was succeeded by his son, Malichus II, who continued for a time to oversee the growth of the Nabataean realm that his father had established.

The Roman writer Strabo, writing in the early 1st century AD about events around the end of the 1st century BC, left a detailed account of Nabataean culture at that time. He writes of 'Nabataea, a country with a large population and well supplied with pasturage ... The Nabataeans are a sensible people, and are so much inclined to acquire possessions that they publicly fine anyone who has diminished his possessions and also confer honours on anyone who has increased them ... they prepare common meals together in groups of thirteen persons ... The king holds many drinking-bouts in magnificent style, but no one drinks more than eleven cupfuls, each time using a different golden cup. The king is so democratic that, in addition to serving himself, he sometimes even serves the rest himself in turn ... Their homes, through the use of stone, are costly; but on account of peace, the cities are not walled... The sheep are white-fleeced and the oxen are large, but the country produces no horses. Camels render service in their places .. .'

Strabo also mentions the presence of Romans and other foreigners at Petra, by then a magnificent city with active courts of laws, well endowed with water and gardens, and full of imported goods. The reign of Malichus II (AD 40-70), though long, is not well documented, for his reign left behind few coins or inscriptions. Certainly, as Starcky and others have pointed out, his reign saw increasing sedentarisation by his people, particularly in the northern parts of the kingdom, in the Hauran. Malichus II died in 70 and was succeeded by Rabbel II (70-106), whose mother, Queen Shuqailat, acted as regent for a few years until he came of age and assumed power. He was the last independent Nabataean king, and it was he who transferred the Nabataean capital from Petra to Bostra, in southern Syria. This partly reflected the shift in the trade routes that saw more goods bypassing Petra, moving instead by sea from Southern Arabia to Egypt, or over inland routes that went through the Wadi Sirhan or even via Palmyra. An inscription from Oboda in the Negev refers to Rabel II as 'King of the Nabataeans, who brought life and deliverance to his people'.


Rabbel II's death in 106, combined with a possible decline in the former power of the Nabataean Kingdom, may have given Rome the opening it sought to move on this independent Arab power that nestled amidst its own provinces in Egypt, Judaea and Syria. In 106 the Roman Emperor Trajan ordered the governor of Syria to move south and conquer the Nabataeans. On 22 March 106 the Nabataean Kingdom came to an end, and the era of Roman control began. The Romans reorganised the area of Jordan-Syria by establishing a new Province of Arabia in the south, alongside the Province of Syria to the north. The new province, Provincia Arabia, included some of the former cities of the Decapolis, such as Gerasa (Jerash) and Philadelphia (Amman), Petra itself, and most of the former Nabataean kingdom. Bostra was designated as the capital of the new province. Trajan gave Petra the title of metropolis in 114, indicating that it remained an important urban centre even though it had lost the glamour that came with being the regional capital. Much archaeological evidence from Petra itself indicates that the Roman occupation and annexation may even have resulted, ironically, in something of an economic and cultural renaissance. One of the first acts of the first governor of the Province of Arabia, Claudius Severus, was to build the Via Nova Traiana, or Trajan s New Road, between 111 and 114. This was an impressive paved road that stretched for nearly 500 kilometres, linking Aqaba with Philadelphia and Bostra.

The Province of Arabia, important for its agricultural lands, cities and trade routes, had to be defended against two recurring threats from the east and south-east - the marauding Arab tribes from the desert, and the formidable kingdom of Persia. The Romans installed the Third Cyrenaica legion at Bostra to provide security throughout the province, with the governor of the province also commanding the legion. A smaller detachment of troops may also have been stationed at the Roman legionary fortress at Udruh, 15 kilometres east of Petra. Despite the increased use of the direct sea route between southern Arabia and Egypt, Petra continued to function as a trading entrep6t, for it was still an important station along the north-south inland caravan routes that linked Arabia with Syria. But now it probably derived less direct revenue from the commerce that passed through its territory, having to share the income from taxation, services and entrepreneurial commerce with both Rome and the new regional power, the Kingdom of Palmyra. This new kingdom, in the eastern Syrian desert, had started to grow in importance during the 1st century AD because of its role as a trading entrep6t between Syria and the Mediterranean world, and Mesopotamia and the east.

The security provided by the 'Roman Peace', revenue from trade, and the Nabataeans' new emphasis on irrigated agriculture all combined to assure continued urban development at Petra throughout the reigns of Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (117-38), the Antonines, and Septimius Severus (193-211). The Emperor Hadrian visited Petra in 130, during his tour of the eastern provinces, and the city was known thereafter as Petra Hadriane. Excavations, wall lines and the siting of burials have all confirmed that while the Petra municipal boundaries contracted somewhat after the Roman annexation, the city centre was handsomely redeveloped with a strong Roman character. New projects included, among others, rebuilding the main theatre and refurbishing the colonnaded street that probably had been first laid out in the early 1st century AD under Aretas IV. While the Nabataeans took on a mandatory Greco-Roman veneer, using Latin and Greek and even adopting Hellenised names, the enduring Nabataean Arab identity continued to make itself felt in Nabataean customs, architecture, script and even religion. Nabataean inscriptions on both the Saudi Arabian and Egyptian coasts of the Red Sea show that Nabataean traders were still active in northern Arabia, the Sinai and Egypt several hundred years after the Roman annexation of their capital and heartland. During the 3rd century AD, Petra suffered from the regional and international political turmoil that rocked the rest of the Roman East. The Persian Sassanians attacked the province of Syria from the east and captured Antioch in 260, taking prisoner the Emperor Valerian. The now powerful Arab Kingdom of Palmyra came to Rome's help and repulsed the Sassanian invasion, carving out for itself the role of Rome's ally and protector of its frontier interests in the east, much the same role as the Nabataeans had played for Rome several hundred years earlier in the south. The Emperor Diocletian, faced with security concerns on both the Arab and Persian fronts, briefly checked the slide of the Roman provinces of Syria and Arabia at the end of the 3rd century. He accomplished this through political reorgani-sation, enlarging the army, improving frontier defences, reform-ing the economic system, and rearranging and fortifying the provinces. The northern half of the Province of Arabia retained its old name. Its southern parts, including Petra and the lands south of the Wadi Hasa, left the Arabian province and became part of the Province of Palestine, to be known as Palestina Tertia.


Petra, the Nabataeans and the rest of the Roman east were soon to be overrun by the new power of Christianity, which had steadily gained ground during the early years of the 4th century. After the abdication of Diocletian, the Emperor Constantine assumed power in 312, and soon established the new capital of the Eastern Roman Empire at the site of the former Greek colony of Byzantium. In 324, Christianity was proclaimed as the official religion of the Empire, and Constantine formally dedicated his new capital of Constantinople, or New Rome (the modern Istanbul), on 11 May 330.

For the next 300 years, Petra and the land of the Nabataeans lived in the realm of the Christian Byzantine Empire. But the impact of Christianity at Petra was rather slow to arrive, and its inhabitants continued to adhere to elements of their former Nabataean cults for many decades after the advent of Byzantium. The Byzantine period was one of steady population growth and urbanism throughout Jordan. Petra remained an active, though perhaps not glorious, city throughout the Byzantine era. That Christianity did finally take hold here is clear from literary references to bishops from Petra, and from the symbols of Christianity at Petra itself, such as the many inscribed crosses and the transformation of the Urn Tomb into a church some time before 447. The historical references to bishops from Petra show that organised worship took place here during the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries. The last such reference to a bishop at Petra is to the late 6th-century Bishop Athenogenus, a nephew of the Emperor Maurice (582-602).

Coin evidence from Diana Kirkbride's excavations around the colonnaded street shows that a series of shops was in use here during the 4th century, while Peter Parr concludes from his excavations along the same street that commercial activity here had largely ceased by the 5th century. The excavations tend to confirm a 4th-century Syriac letter attributed to Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem that provides literary evidence of major earthquake destruction at Petra on 19 May 363. Some parts of the city continued in use afterwards, but the city as a whole probably lacked any major civic buildings.

During the 5th and 6th centuries, as Dr Tom Parker's work shows, most of the forts that formed the Roman-Byzantine security belt to the east of Jordan's cities were abandoned. The

combination of weakened security and economic decline once again made Jordan ripe for conquest by more dynamic forces from abroad. In 614 Persian invaders harrassed the area during the reign of the Emperor Heraclius; the Byzantine Empire's hold on the land of Jordan had become precarious.


The next major challenge came from the south in 629, when the armies of Islam came out of Arabia and clashed with the forces of Byzantium at Mu'tah, in south Jordan. They were initially repulsed, but attacked again and finally defeated the Byzantines at the Battle of Yarmouk, in north Jordan, in August 636. The Islamic generals marched on to Damascus, and established the Umayyad Caliphate in 661. There is some historical evidence to indicate that the Nabataeans continued trading with the cities of northern Arabia just before the advent of Islam in the early 7th century, and may have sided with the Islamic forces when the great confrontation with Byzantium finally materialised. Dr Salah K. Hamarneh of the University of Jordan suggests the remnants of the Nabataeans who still lived in southern Jordan so resented the Roman-Byzantine dominance of their former kingdom and capital city Petra that they allied themselves with the new Islamic power and viewed the surging Arabians from the peninsula as their 'liberators'. There are Arab historical references to a 7th/8th-century Nabataean souq, or market, at the Arabian town of Yathrib (Medina), and to an incident in the early 7th century when Nabataeans warned the young Islamic power of a Byzantine army being amassed in Syria to attack it. By this time, though, the 'Nabataeans' mentioned in the Arabic sources were most probably Aramaic-speaking peasants who may or may not have descended from the Nabataean Arabs of half a millennium earlier.

With the establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus in the mid-7th century, the people of Jordan found themselves under new leadership yet again. But for Petra, the end had finally come. Whatever organised urban life continued at Petra was successively obliterated by a series of earthquakes during the 7th and 8th centuries. The final blow to life within the city was probably the great earthquake of 747 which destroyed so many other cities in Palestine and Jordan. The picture of south Jordan in the Umayyad era appears somewhat dim, with no significant city-remains having been discovered to date. In the mid-8th century, when power shifted to Baghdad with the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate in 750, the entire land of Jordan declined gradually into a relatively neglected, sparsely populated district that was regionally insignificant in terms of agriculture, industry, trade, demographic power or military security.

After the early Islamic era, Petra virtually disappears from the historical record. In the Crusader period, it regained momentarily some importance as a strategic outpost, reaping some commer-cial rewards for the invading Crusaders. After the First Crusade in 1097-9, the Crusaders established four Latin kingdoms in Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli and Jerusalem. But it was only under Baldwin I of the Kingdom of Jerusalem that they expanded into the land east of the Dead Sea, seeking both to secure militarily their south-east flank and to collect revenues from the modest trade that still passed through the area. They called the area east of the Dead Sea and the Wadi Araba the district of 'Oultre Jourdain . By 1115/16, Baldwin's forces had built a string of fortresses along the route between Jerusalem and Aqaba (Aila), including strongholds at Shobak ('Mont Real' or 'Mons Regalis') and Petra ('La Vallee de Moise' or 'Le Vaux Moise', meaning Wadi Musa), and on an island off the coast of Aqaba called 'Ile de Graye' (known in Arabic as Jeziret Phar'oun, or 'Pharoah's Island'). The fortifica-tions of Oultre Jourdain were strengthened after several major clashes with the Arab/Muslim forces, including the construction in 1142 of the great Crusader fortress at Kerak ('Le Krak de Moab'). The Crusader presence in south Jordan and beyond increased steadily, for in Baldwin III's charter of 31 July 1161, he lists four fiefs for Oultre Jourdain: Le Krak, Mont Real, Ahamant (Maan, or possibly even Amman) and Wadi Musa. The Crusader presence in the Middle East was significantly curtailed by 1188/9, after the Arab forces of Salaheddeen (Saladin) defeated them in 1187 at the Battle of Hittin.

At least two Crusader fortresses built at Petra can be visited today. The main one was the fortress at Al-Wu'eira, just north of the Petra Forum Hotel. A fortress on the summit of Al-Habees mountain was probably a later subsidiary look-out installation to watch over the important communications routes that passed through the Petra basin, and that could not be adquately monitored from AI-Wu'eira. Both were abandoned towards the end of the 12th century.

As Dr Fawzi Zayadine has pointed out, there are several references to Petra during the 13th century. The Christian pilgrim Thetmar refers to it in 1217, and several later Arab writers mention the former Crusader fortresses at Petra. The Arab geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi in 1225 lists castles named Al-Wu'eira and Sela, near Wadi Musa. The Egyptian Sultan Baibars passed through Petra in 1276 on his way to suppress a political revolt at Kerak. His chronicler, Ahmed Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab al-Nuwairi, mentions the fortress of 'Al-Aswit' at Petra, though scholars still debate whether this was the fortress at Al-Wu'eira or Al-Habees. Sultan Baibars' passage through the city suggests that for the same reasons that Petra flourished in antiquity - the availability of water sources and a strategic location astride one of the few practicable land routes to Egypt - it must have remained throughout medieval times at least a significant stop on the established caravan routes. After the 13th century, the historical record on Petra, like its tombs and temples, is silent.


The Anglo-Swiss geographer and traveller John Lewis Burckhardt 'rediscovered' Petra on 22 August 1812, and recognised its ruins as those of the ancient Nabataean capital city. Among the dozens of scholars and adventurers who followed in Burckhardt's footsteps in the next century were two commanders of the British Royal Navy, the Hon. C.L. Irby and James Mangles, who spent two days at Petra in May 1818. In 1826, the French scholar Monsieur le Marquis Leon de Laborde visited Petra accompanied by the engraver Linant. The noted British artist David Roberts visited Petra in 1839, during his travels through Egypt and the Holy Land, and made a series of now famous and often remarkably accurate drawings that are collectors' items today. The great English explorer C.M. Doughty visited Petra in 1876 and, except for the Khazneh, which he called 'that most perfect of the monuments', disliked it intensely. The Czech scholar Alois Musil visited Petra in 1896, but only published his work as the second volume of his Arabia Petraea. He was able to take advantage of the first volume of the monumental study published in 1904 by the Germans, R.E. Brunnow and A. von Domaszewski, Die Provincia Arabia. They had spent ten days at Petra in March 1897 and another two weeks in March 1898, documenting and numbering over 800 monuments, which they sited on eighteen maps. Brunnow and Domaszewski were the first to classify the monuments of Petra according to style, though their classification and nomenclature have been regularly disputed and frequently revised by scholars ever since. The German Gustaf Dalman visited Petra several times between 1896 and 1907. His work was followed by H. Kohl's research on the Qasr al-Bint, and the study of the Roman city centre in 1916 by Theodor Wiegand and W. von Bachmann.

In 1923-4, the Englishman Sir Alexander Kennedy studied and photographed most of Petra's monuments and, with the help of the Royal Air Force, produced the first accurate maps of the Petra area based on an aerial survey. He published Petra, Its History and Monuments in 1925.

Archaeological excavations started at Petra in 1929, when George Horsfield and Agnes Conway first dug in the Katuteh area. One of the most valuable aspects of this work was a booklet entitled Studies in the Topography and Folklore of Petra, by Dr T. Canaan, which documented in detail the different names the local inhabitants of the Petra area used for its monuments, wadis and mountains. In 1934, the Conway Tower (then known as the Conway High Place) was cleared by the renowned American archaeologist W.F. Albright, followed in 1936 by the clearance of the Khazneh, the Urn Tomb and the Roman Soldier Tomb. Margaret Murray and J.C. Ellis of the British School of Archaeology in Egypt excavated some caves above the Wadi Abu'Ollega in 1937, and in 1954 the Department of Antiquities of the Jordanian government started salvage and preservation work in the city centre, under the direction of Peter Parr. The next year, the American School of Oriental Research did some surface surveys at Petra. One of the leaders of that team was Dr Philip C. Hammond, who still excavates at Petra today. Since the late 1950s, regular excavation and survey work has been undertaken at Petra by scholars from many countries, including Jordan, Great Britain, France, the United States, Germany, and Australia.


Petra is interesting not only for its ancient monuments, but also because it is still a living community. There are two major groups of people living in the Petra area today. The Bdul live within the Petra-Beidha basin, and the Liyatneh live in and around the village of Wadi Musa. The Bdul have preserved some of the lifestyle that was practised at Petra throughout antiquity - living seasonally in tents, caves, or rock-cut houses, fetching water from the springs inside Petra, cultivating cereals and some fruit trees, and herding sheep, goats and camels. The Bdul count at least ten generations of their people at Petra, and believe they came from northern Arabia several hundred years ago. From the three families that first established themselves in Petra several centuries ago, the Bdul have grown steadily to number nearly 1000 people today, many of whom live in the new village overlooking the central Petra basin, at Umm Saihun.

The village of Wadi Musa ('the Valley of Moses') has existed for hundreds of years as a small settlement of semi-nomadic villagers. The original name of Wadi Musa is'Elji , or'lldjee'. The village is the home of the Liyatneh tribe, who number many thousands of people, and include among their sons and daughters scores of highly educated professionals serving throughout Jordan and the Arab World.

The name Wadi Musa derives from the legend of Moses striking a rock here and creating twelve springs of water. The most important spring, 'Ain Musa, is located alongside the main road, at the point where the roads from Shobak and Aqaba converge at the eastern entrance of the town.

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The dam separates the Bab as-Siq area from the start of the Siq, the 1.2-kilometre-long natural fissure in the rock that was the principal entrance to Petra from the east. As you stand on the dam, notice a ledge-like cutting at the base of the rock to the left. This marks the entry into the Siq of the cut water channel that runs along its entire left (south) side. It passes behind the two boulder-like rocks that protrude from the cliff-face, just beyond the dam as you start the descent into the Siq. Both rocks have graves cut into their tops, but are not visible from ground level. The grave in the second rock has three round carved holes to the north, and a small gaming board of 49 holes forming a square that looks like a modern chess board. The water channel passes down the west side of the second rock, next to a narrow, rock-cut staircase. Twenty metres further on are the remains of the monumental arch. Many of the early travellers who visited Petra in the 19th century saw the span of the arch still in place, though their descriptions and drawings gave rather different testimony to both its architectural style and its function. The span of the arch remained in place until the end of the last century, and fell (according to the accounts of Mr Gray Hill, an early traveller to Petra) in 1896. The arch was a decorative, single-span structure that stood proudly some 20 metres above the level of the paved street. The curved springer stones of the arch still cling resolutely to the rock-face. Beneath them are the badly weathered remains of its decorated abutments, including pilasters and flanking niches that may have held statues.


Thirty metres further, to the left, is the blue 'water channel' sign. Just beyond it, as the path turns left, are the remains of large stone blocks to the left that supported the water channel and also served as the kerbstones of the paved road. As the path turns right, to the right is the first of several stretches of the original paved road to be seen in the Siq. At eye-level, just above the kerb of the road, are the intact remains of the pressure-pipe water system made of ceramic pipes that fit snugly into one another. They were buried into a ledge cut out of the rock, and covered with a combination of stone chips and mortar. You can trace the pressure-pipe system here for about ten metres, while the rock-cut water channel is clear on the other side of the Siq. The better preserved rock-cut water channel can be traced to the left for almost the entire length of the Siq. Its level varies today because the path is usually higher or lower than the original level of the paved road, due to the erosion of the bed of the Siq by water action, and its subsequent silting up.

On the left, facing the small stretch of paved road, is the first of 51 votive or commemorative niches that were carved into the walls of the Siq. This one measures about 1.5 metres square, has three god blocks in the middle, a lintel-like groove across the top, and carved steps approaching it from the right. At this point, the high cliffs start to close in above you, and the colour of the rocks becomes more reddish. After another two minutes, as the Siq opens up, a larger stretch of the paved road to the left forms a semicircle of over 30 metres, about a metre above the level of the path. On the right-hand cliff-face is an elaborate niche, with a god block in the centre, flanked by pilasters, and topped by a pediment and six protruding god blocks. Some 25 metres further on to the right are more remains of the water system, and the cut channel to the left.

After two minutes, the Siq opens up into its widest part, with the longest stretch of paved road forming a 50-metre-long semi-circle on the left. On the right is a blue 'paved road' sign. To its left, in the middle of the Siq and next to a conspicuous tree, is the most important niche-monument in the Siq. It was uncovered during clearance work in the Siq in 1977. It is a 2.47-metre-high niche facing west, carved out of the face of a free-standing sandstone block on the very edge of a wide sidewalk, above the level of the road. Along the top is a frieze decorated with triglyphs and metopes, with an architrave below. Its facade has two pilasters with Nabataean capitals, flanking two stone god blocks cut in low relief on a pedestal. These were schematic representations of Nabataean deities; the bigger block on the left has two eyes and a nose carved into its upper half, and is thought to represent the Nabataean goddess Al-'Uzza. Anthropomorphic idols of this sort are known from excavations at Petra and other Nabataean sites in Jordan and Arabia, and this one is thought to date from the first half of the 1st century AD. At both ends of the paved road behind the niche is the best preserved example of the original state of the water channel, which was covered with flat stones and sealed with mortar.

Just after the path comes out of a long S-turn beyond the paved road, look up to your right and notice a splendid niche with ten block reliefs carved in a row, the big god block in the centre flanked by six small ones to the left and three intermediate ones to the right. After another big S-turn, the cliffs suddenly close in above you, and the path narrows quickly. You come upon a long stretch of wall to the left with a row of ten different niches. The first has three god blocks. The second from the left, with flanking pilasters and a pediment, is particularly interesting because it shows the figure of a person (probably a god or goddess) standing over two lions or leopards. A five-line Greek inscription underneath with the name of Sabinus, son of Alexandros, is probably the work of the person who had the niche made. To its right is another large niche with pilasters flanking the hemispheri-cal representation of the city in the centre, and a three-line Greek inscription underneath. The fourth and fifth niches have pilasters and identical god blocks in the middle, and both have Greek inscriptions underneath.

As the path turns right, on the lower left side of the wall, you may be able to make out what are thought to be the relief carvings of three camels in a row. They are said to be heading into the city, with outlines of their bodies, legs and necks clear to most people. They are down at the level of the path, with their lower legs buried underground. There are two more of these alleged camel reliefs just around the corner, after a series of four more plain niches in the wall above and a single niche with four god blocks lower down on the cliff-face. About 100 metres further on, on the left wall is a single niche containing three god blocks, flanked by pilasters and topped by a semicircular arch. The path opens up for nearly 150 metres, and then narrows suddenly. You turn the corner to see your unforgettable first glimpse of the Khazneh. Just at this point, however, stop for a moment and notice more remains of the pressure-pipe system on the cliff-face to the right, at eye-level. You can follow it for some 50 metres to the end of the Siq, and for a few metres along the rocks facing the Khazneh.

(Petra: a guide to the capital of the Nabataeans, Rami G. Khouri, 1986, p11-27, p41-44)



By Steve Rudd: Contact the author for comments, input or corrections.


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