Petra: A traveler's Guide
Rolalyn Maqsood
1994 AD

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Petra in ancient history

A city or region with such ancient associations and antecedents as Petra can have no really continuous and coherent history. The writer is forced to rely on the uncertain and fragmentary sources available. However, in the case of Petra, there are two invaluable sources which are also among the most widely read texts in the world: the Bible and the Qur'an. Threads of story and legend about the Petra region and its people are interwoven in both these sources, and include some of the most well-known tales. What connection has Petra with the quarrel between Esau and Jacob? with the selling of Joseph into slavery? or with the fall of Jerusalem? How is it linked with Herod the Great, or Salome who danced and demanded John the Baptist's head as a reward? The following pages look at these stories (among others) to uncover part of the hidden history of one of the world's great commercial cities, and its links with some of the world's greatest literature.


The Petra region has been occupied since the earliest of times, and there was a settled community at Aklat and Baidha (suburbs of the city in later times) as early as 7000 BCE. Our historical information about the people who inhabited the Petra region before the third millennium is very sparse, coming almost exclusively from the discoveries of excavators. In the C17 BCE the Petra region was occupied by a Bronze Age people called the Horites (Deut. 2:12, 22). They were a primitive race who dwelt in caves and lived by hunting; they did not cultivate the ground or keep cattle and sheep; they did not know the arts of making pottery or weaving; their tools and weapons were of unworked flint which they later learned to work and polish. There is some evidence that they cremated their dead - a practice abhorrent to Semitic feeling - and practised cannibalism. Early Egyptian records refer to a people known as the Charu - which may be another form of Horite. On the other hand, the reference to the Horites in Genesis 36:20, 29 implied that they were a Semitic people, so their identification with the cremated cave-dwellers is uncertain.

The Horites left numerous monuments of stone - menhirs (tall standing stones), dolmens (two standing stones with a horizontal stone lying upon them), and cromlechs (stones arranged in a circle). Dolmens are very common throughout Jordan. They were probably connected with the cult of the dead, and in some cases may have been used as altars.

From time to time the population of the deserts to the east and south became too great to be sustained by its own produce.


Biblical stories and legends

The Petra basin was a nomadic tent "city" from the very earliest biblical times, an important converging place for the nomadic tribes, being on the major trade routes and an important religious shrine. The tribes people gathered with their tents in the large protected basin-like valley encircled by the mountains, with the massive rock now called Umm al-Biyara (Mother of Cisterns) as its natural fortress. But although Petra is so obviously important and placed in such a strategic position, it is not mentioned in the Bible. The reason is that the built city of Petra, with its tombs and houses carved in the rock, belongs to a period which comes after the biblical era, the period of the Nabataeans (see Chapter 3). In biblical times the region was known as Seir or Sela, Petra being its Greek name.

The Bible is nonetheless a vital source of information about the region. The key to understanding its significance in biblical history lies in reading the Bible "inside out". The Bible concentrates on the descendants of Israel's son Jacob, regarding all the other peoples of the land as being irrelevant rift-raff whose sole aim in life was to discomfit the "chosen race". But once you grasp the significance of the tribal relationships and become familiar with a basic map of the regions on the far side of the River Jordan, it becomes clear that the people of Petra played a singularly important role in the biblical narratives: read "Petra" instead of "Seir", "Petrans" instead of "Kenites", "Horites", "Ishmaelites", "Edomites" and "Esau".

The first inhabitants of Petra who make their appearance in the pages of the Old Testament were Kenites (or Cainites), of the tribe of Cain the son of Adam - tillers of soil, as opposed to the sons of Abel (Habil), who were shepherds - the people now called Bedu. These Kenites were also smiths and musicians (Josephus Jewish Antiquities i.2.2 and Gen. 4:21-22), and the Petra region abounds in old copper mines and metal-workings. The other early "men of Seir" were the menhir-building cave-dwelling Horites mentioned earlier, descendants of their founding-father Seir the Horite. Their capital (headquarters would be a better word) was the Sela (Rock) (Gen. 14:6) with which Petra is usually now identified.

Descendants of Abraham

The history of Petra as told in the Bible concerns the descendants of the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) through his son Ishmael and his grandson Esau. Abraham was the Nomad of Mesopotamia, reckoned to be the founding father of all the tribes people in that region - both Arabs and Jews. He was the man called by God, the man who became Al-Khalil ("the Friend") who spent all his life following the commands of the Voice that guided him.

His religious enlightenment is revealed both in the Old Testament and in the Qur'an. According to the Qur'an, Abraham grew up amongst the Chaldaeans of Mesopotamia, who had great knowledge of the heavenly bodies, and who worshipped obelisks representing the moon, sun and Ishtar/Atargatis/Al-Uzza who was also the planet Venus (see Chapter 4). But Abraham saw beyond the physical world to the spiritual world, and tried to teach his people the error of their ways. The faith of Abraham was the beginning of the long struggle of monotheistic worship against the Baal culture. These cults (discussed more fully in Chapter 4) represented a much older form of religious life, one that worshipped a number of gods and goddesses representing the powers of life and nature,

Abraham had two famous sons - Ishmael (Ismail) and Isaac. Ishmael, his firstborn, was the son of Hagar an Egyptian concubine, possibly of royal birth. Isaac his second was son of his beloved wife Sarah - born in her old age after a lifetime of barrenness. The elder son Ishmael was the founding father of all the tribes known as Ishmaelites - an umbrella term covering the Edomites and Amalekites, tribes regarded by the Arabs as the senior descendants and heirs of Abraham.

Jacob and Esau

Isaac the younger son married his cousin Rebekah and they had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Isaac's favouritism towards Esau caused Jacob to plot against his twin brother who had married three powerful heiresses, one of whom was his uncle Ishmael's daughter Basemath (Gen. 36:1-5). Further, Rebekah could not bear the thought of the tribal inheritance getting back irffo the hands of Ishmael's family and plots were hatched. Jacob 'tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright (Gen. 25:28-34), and later tricked his blind father into giving him the tribal blessing which should have gone to the heir (Gen. 27). The rest of the Old Testament concentrates on the history of the Hebrew descendants of Jacob - whose name was changed to Israel after he wrestled with the angel (Gen. 32) - and is seen from their point of view. Because of this bias the descendants of Ishmael and Esau are relegated to a list of enemies of Israel, lumped together with all their tribal relatives - without any conscious realization of their equal, if not superior, importance in historical and religious terms.

Esau moves to Edom (Petra)

Angry after the second betrayal by his brother, Esau "took his wives, his sons and daughters ... and went into a land far away from his brother Jacob ... and dwelt in the hill country of Seir; Esau is Edom." (Gen. 36:6-8). And Seir is Petra.

After such a history, it's not surprising that the Edomites were reckoned - along with their kinsmen the Amalekites, Ammonites and Moabites - to be the most intractable ancient enemies of the Hebrews. The list of Esau's descendants in the hill country of Seir is given in Genesis 36, plus the names of the eight kings who ruled in Edom long before the monarchy was established among the Hebrews (v. 31). Every one of those kings was an outsider. Exogamous marriage suggests strongly that descent must have been in the female line. Genesis 36:40-3 also gives a list of eleven of the tribal sheikhs, of whom the first five were women. This indicates the high status of women during a period and in a region where the Great Goddess was venerated (see Chapter 4).

Joseph's brothers sell him into slavery

One of the commodities that passed along the ancient trade route from Damascus down the King's Highway east of the Dead Sea to Petra and beyond, was slaves. The Israelites developed a reputation as slave-owners and slave-traders, and usually regarded any captives they took as having been given them by God. It must have amused the bitter patriarch Esau when his brother Jacob, in his turn, succumbed to the foolish desire to make one son his favourite, and the jealous brothers sold the young dreamer Joseph to a caravan of Ishmaelites coming down to Petra from Gilead for twenty pieces of silver. Joseph was then sold to one of the military commanders of the pharaoh of Egypt (Gen. 37:25-36). Joseph was apparently able to forgive his brothers for selling him, but he never forgave his Ishmaelite cousins.

The Exodus

By the time of Moses and the Exodus some 400 years later (c.1350 BCE), the Edomites, Amalekites, Moabites and Ammonites had become full-blown tribal kingdoms, and continued to be bitter enemies of the Israelites.

The present-day Ishmaelites of Petra claim that it was in the mountains just outside the city that Moses struck the rock when the Israelites were perishing from thirst in the desert (Num. 20: 7-11). Moses then sent a message to King Rekem of Petra, requesting permission to pass through Edom and reminding him of previous Israelite military triumphs. In spite of this thinly veiled threat, the king would not allow them to enter his territory, and they were obliged to take a long route round. In fact the Israelites already knew that they could not take Petra. They had been told by God that they were about to "pass through the territory of your brethren the sons of Esau who live in Seir; they will be afraid of you. Take good heed! Do not fight with them, for I will not give you any of their land. No, not so much as for the sole of the foot to tread on, because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession." (Deut. 2:4-5). They could only buy food and water from the Edomites. Before they left the region, Moses' brother Aaron died and was buried on Jabal Harun.

Despite God's ban, the Israelites - now led by the Israelite war-hero Joshua - were itching for a fight. When they eventually got past the tribal territories of their kinfolk their savagery was horrendous. They slaughtered Sihon the Amorite king of Heshbon, and after him Og the king of Bashan: "And we utterly destroyed them . . . destroying every city, men, women and children, and all the cattle and spoils of the cities we took as our booty." (Dent. 3:6-7). Joshua, celebrated as a hero by the Old Testament, became a byword amongst the Ishmaelite peoples for merciless butchery in the name of his religion.

The prophet Balaam, who was summoned by King Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites (Num. 24), is probably to be identified as Bela, son of Sheikh Beor; Balaam had apparently succeeded Rekem as king of the Edomites (Gen. 36:32). He may have been a sacral king, ruling as both king and high priest. His visions revealed only that their resistance to the Israelites would be in vain.

Moses curses Petra

The curses on Petra began during this period. Moses, in is final counsel before his death, reminded the Israelites of the great high place at Petra with its dangerous religious practices. He reminded them how the Edomites had "stirred Him to jealousy with strange gods, with abominable practices they had provoked Him to anger. They sacrificed to demons which were no gods ... I will heap evils upon them ... they shall be wasted with hunger and devoured with beat and poisonous pestilence; and I will send the teeth of beasts against them, with venom of crawling things of the dust ... they are a nation devoid of understanding; if they were wise, they would understand this! ... For their rock is not as our Rock ... See that I, even I, am He, and there is no God beside Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out my My band.!' (Deut.32:15-39)

Thus began the tradition of terrible curses that were to be heaped upon the region.

The Edomites were by now settled at Petra, so from now on they may be referred to as Petrans. With their rich mineral resources they thrived for the time being, and soon became masters of the arts of metal-working. The Wadi Arabah to the south of the Dead Sea is covered with ancient copper slagheaps which reveal the extent of their mining and smelting operations - Khirbet Nahas, for example, means "Copper Ruin". At the same time, the Philistines on the Mediterranean coast had the monopoly of iron. The Israelites, with no metallurgical expertise, were at a serious disadvantage. "There was no smith to be found throughout all the land of Israel . . . and there was no sword or spear in the hand of the people." (1 Sam. 13:19-22).

The Hebrews defeat the Petrans

The first Israelite king was Saul (shortly before 1000 BCE). He proved himself a powerful warrior, fighting the Israelites' enemies remorselessly: "when Saul had taken the kingship, he fought against all his enemies on every side, against Moab, the Ammonites, Edom . . ." (I Sam. 14:47-8). Saul apparently made use of some of the Petrans he had conquered. His chief herdsman was Doeg the Edomite, who presumably looked after his flocks in the newly conquered Edomite territories and became a famous biblical villain. In the rivalry between Saul and David, Doeg took the part of Saul and was involved in betraying David (I Sam. 21:7; 22:11-19).

After Saul's death, David (who was by then king of Judah) was accepted as king by the Israelites also. David (c.1000-960 BCE) then moved against the Petrans in order to gain control of the copper trade, and used Doeg's treachery as an excuse to attack. The campaign was an attempt at genocide which the Petrans never forgave: "David slew eighteen thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt, and he put garrisons in Edom, and all the Edomites became David's servants." (II Sam.8:13-14; I Chron. 18:12). The Petrans who survived nursed their hatred and grievance against the Hebrews for 400 years until the time of the downfall of Jerusalem (586 BCE).

David's son Solomon (c.960-922 BCE) maintained his grip on the Petran territory. Not only did he benefit from the famous copper mines near Ezion-Geber (on the Gulf of Aqaba) which as we have seen had been seized from the Petrans, he also realized that control of the shore of the Red Sea opened up enormous trade possibilities (2 Chron. 8:17). He commissioned the building of a merchant fleet, and established trade with the coasts of Africa and with the Queen of Sheba (in what is now the Yemen). This must have been a bitter time for those who had survived David's slaughter, who were obliged to watch Petra and its trade routes being taken over and run by the Hebrews.

The Petrans resist Judah

After Solomon's death, the united Hebrew monarchy of Israel and Judah could not be sustained, and the kingdoms were divided once more. The history of Petra then becomes bound up with that of the Kingdom of Judah. King Jehoshaphat of Judah (868 BCE) was hampered by tribal warfare: "The Moabites and Ammonites . . . came up against him for battle." They told him, "A great multitude is coming against you from Edom." He appealed to God for help, and complained that "the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir, whom You would not let Israel invade when they came out of Egypt . . . behold they reward us by coming to drive us out." After his earnest prayers, the Lord must have intervened to confuse his enemies, for "the Lord set an ambush against the men of Moab, Ammon and Mount Seir, destroying them utterly ... for they rose up against each other, and helped to destroy one another . . . and when Judah came to the watchtower of the wilderness, behold, they were dead bodies lying on the ground." (II Chron. 20).

A generation later, in the reign of Amaziah of Judah (c.800-783 BCE), the people of Petra took a battering once again. Amaziah "led out his people and went to the Valley of Salt, and smote 10,000 men of Seir [Petra]". Then followed a horrific act of barbarity against prisoners of war: "The men of Judah captured another 10,000 alive, and took them to the top of the rock and threw them down from the top, and they were all dashed to pieces." (2 Chron. 25:5-13). Scholars argue about the numbers but nobody can argue that it was not an atrocity. However, the king underwent an amazing conversion: "After he came from the slaughter of the men of Seir, he brought their gods and set them up as his own gods, and worshipped them, making offerings to them." (v. 14).

The Petrans' revenge on Judah

In the late C6 BCE, the smaller kingdoms of the Middle East were gripped by fear of the aggressive might of Babylonia (modern Iraq), the super-power at the head of the Persian Gulf. In the face of this threat the Triad worshippers of Petra actually became allies of the Judaeans for a brief time, but this alliance was only superficial and when Jerusalem (then held by the Judaeans) fell to Babylon in 586 BCE after a two-year siege, the Petrans could not resist their glee as the city was burned and everything reduced to rubble. At last they were seeing their revenge for their ancient grievances. The Judaeans who managed to flee from the city were hunted down and shown no mercy. Their lamentations also contained a warning to the triumphant Petrans, who assisted the Babylonians in the decimation of the city and its inhabitants: "Our pursuers were swifter than the vultures in the sky, they chased us on the mountains, they lay in wait for us in the wilderness . . . [you may] rejoice and be glad, O daughter of Edom, dweller in the land of Uz; but to you also the cup shall pass!" (Lam. 4:18-22).

The Petrans jubilantly chanted "Down with it! Even to the foundation" as the Babylonians systematically destroyed Jerusalem. Psalm 137 records the cry of one aggrieved Judaean against the Babylonians: "Blessed be he who shall deal with them as they dealt with us! Blessed be he who shall take their little ones and dash their heads against the rocks!"

If the Petrans had truly helped or encouraged the Babylonians to seize fleeing infants and kill them in this horrific manner, one can understand the curses against them that were to follow. But any retribution for the Judaeans was not yet - they were carried off captive, and the Petran Edomites immediately moved into the derelict territory and set up a new kingdom, known as Idumaea (now the Negev in Israel).

Any Petran sense of triumph, or hopes for freedom from the worry of their ancestral enemies were short lived. In c.500 BCE, in the living memory of some of the exiles, the Judaeans were allowed to return to their old homes and the savage bitterness broke out again.


The curses on Petra

It was during this turbulent period that the biblical prophets began to launch their psychic campaign against Petra. The ancient hatred between the Hebrew (Israelite and Judaean) and Ishmaelite tribes was inextricably linked with the religious fanaticism of both sides, and the holy city whose gods and atmosphere had so impressed King Amaziah, achieved the dubious honour of being the most cursed place in the Bible. Prophet after prophet ritually pronounced the most terrible dooms against it.

The attempts of the Triad worshippers to block the curses would come to nothing:

"And when they say to you, consult the mediums and wizards who chirp and mutter, should not a people consult their God. Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living? ... They will be thrust into thick darkness. "

(Isaiah 8:19-22)

The Petrans were suitably nervous in the circumstances, and made conciliatory moves, but there was to be no forgiveness.

"They have sent lambs from Sela [Petra], by way of the desert, to the mount of Zion ... but when Moab presents himself, when he comes to his sanctuary to pray, he will not prevail. "

(Isaiah 15-16)

"Flee! Save yourselves! Be like a wild ass in the desert . . . 1 will make you small among nations, despised among men. The horror you inspire has deceived you, and the pride of your heart, you who live in the clefts of the Rock (Sela), who hold the height of the hill. Though you make your nest as high as the eagle's, I will bring you down from there! /Petra shall become a horror; everyone who passes by it will hiss ... no man shall dwell there, no man shall sojourn in her ... Hear the plan which the Lord has made against Edom . . . at the sound of their fall the earth shall tremble, the sound of their cry shall be heard at the Red Sea ... the heart of the warriors of Edom shall be in that day like the heart of a woman in her pangs!"

Ezekiel, the chief prophet of the exile, continued the onslaught:

`Because you laughed over My sanctuary when it was profaned, and over the land of Israel when it was made desolate, and over the house of Judah when it went into exile - I am handing you over to the people of the East for a possession ... I will destroy you

I will stretch out My hand against Edom and cut off from it man and beast; I will make it desolate; from Teman to Dedan they will fall by the sword. .

(Ezek .25:3-7, 13-14)

"Behold, I am against you, Mount Seir . . . I will mate you a desolation and a waste ... I will cut it off from all the nomads. And I will fill your mountains and valleys and all your ravines with the slain ... you shall be desolate, Mount Seir, and all Edom, all of it!" (Ezek. 35)

Their doom was settled:

"Let the earth listen, and all that fills it ... the Lord has doomed them, has given them over for slaughter. Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood . . . their land shall be soaked with their blood, and their soil made rich with their fat ... and the streams of Edom shall be turned into burning pitch; night and day it shall not be quenched, its smoke shall go up for ever. "

(Isaiah 34)

The most vehement curse was that of Obadaiah, reiterating some of the words of Jeremiah, which suggests that it was a "floating oracle" - original curser unknown:

"Thus says the Lord concerning Edom ... though you soar aloft like the eagle, though your nest is set among the stars, I will bring you down ... Every man from Mount Esau Umm al-Biyaral shall be cut off by slaughter. For the violence done to your brother shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off for ever ... you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah in the day of their ruin; you should not have entered the gate of my people and gloated over his disaster ... or stood at the parting of the ways to cut off his fugitives; you should not have delivered up the survivors in the day of distress. As you have done, so shall it be done to you, your deeds shall return upon your own bead ... There shall be no survivor of the house of Esau!"

(Obad. vv. 1-18)

A shudder ran through the tribes people of Petra. The clash was not an earthly one, but a confrontation of the gods themselves. If their gods failed them, they were surely doomed.

The Book of Job (Nabi Ayyub)

One of the most interesting theological works of the Old Testament is the Book of job, the story of a noble and long-suffering sheikh of "the land of Uz", who may have been a citizen of Petra at a time when it was a tent city.

There are two theories about this land of Uz, both of which favour identifying it with the Petra region. One suggests that it was the cult centre of the goddess Venus Al-Uzza, the chief deity


of Petra, and the other is genealogical. According to the Genesis narrative, the first-born son of Abraham's niece Milcah was called Uz (Gen. 11:27,29). According to Josephus (Jewish Antiquities Uz founded Trachonitis and Damascus, but it is generally accepted that the "land of Uz" was further to the south, and that the Edomite territory extended into it (see Lamentations 4:18-22), where the "daughter of Edom" who rejoiced in the downfall of Jerusalem was identified with the "dweller in the land of Uz".

was sent to try to bring them back to the True Way. His mission was not successful, and the 'Ad tribesmen ridiculed his attempts to re-establish the religion and worship of Noah (Surah 7:66). The result of this was disaster. As also happened so often in the Old Testament tradition when the Hebrew tribes turned back to Baalism and adulterated their worship of the One God, the tribe was punished - by a terrible famine which lasted three years. All but a small remnant was finally wiped out by a fiery wind-storm.

The images employed in the Book of job reveal quite a lot about the inhabitants of his city. The kings and great men had splendid tombs, and great wealth in gold and silver (3:14-15); there were already rumours of ancient treasures concealed in the earth (3:21) - not so far-fetched in those days before banking (cf. Matthew 25:18,25); they were keen gardeners, and cut water channels into the rock (28:9-11). They protected their plots from wild creatures by traps and snares (18:9-10). Apart from rock carving, they also cut inscriptions with iron pens on to tablets which they then fixed with lead to the rock faces (19:24). Gold, silver and iron were mined, and brass was manufactured (28:1-2). They valued the topaz of Ethiopia (28:19) and wore jewellery made of coral-, pearl, rubies, crystal, onyx and sapphires (28:6, 16-18). They wore gold earrings (42:11) and admired themselves in looking-glasses of polished metal (37:18). Musical instruments were common - timbrel, harp and organ (21:11-12).

Petran tribes in the Qur'an

The Qur'an is also a source of story and legend about the peoples who dwelt in and around the Petra region. Although they do not play anything like as significant a part in this text as they do in the Bible, they are connected with some of the most well-known stories of the Islamic prophets.

According to the Qur'an (the revelations from God given to the Arabian Prophet Muhammad (570-632 BCE), the people of the "tent city" at Petra were the tribes known as the 'Ad and the Thamud. In Arab tradition, 'Ad was the son of 'Aus, the son of Aram, the son of Shem, the son of Noah. Nearly all the prophets accepted as genuine by Muslims are celebrities known from the pages of the Old Testament - except two. The two known only from the Arabic tradition are Hud and Salih, the two sent specifically to the 'Ad and the Thamud tribes.

At the time of Hud (a figure from the time before Abraham), the 'Ad tribesmen had forgotten all about the One God of their ancestor Noah (known as the prophet Nuh in the Qur'an), and had begun worshipping the Baal forces of earth and sky. Hud

The few who survived became known as the Second 'Ad, or Thamud tribe. Tradition specifies that these survivors were actually the "cousin" tribe to the 'Ad, for they were also descended from Noah. The first known archaeological inscription that identifies the Thamud tribe was carved by Sargon of Assyria in c.715 BCE. They occupied the north-west region of Arabia, and Petra became their capital. It was a tent city rather than a city with erected buildings at this stage, although they soon began to chisel away at the sandstone rocks. Their territory included what was known as the hijr (rocky country) (Surah 15:80), and the fertile valley and plains of Qura, north of Medina. The Thamud grew very rich from their trade in frankincense from the Yemen, which was in great demand in the western Roman world and in Egypt. In fact all the goods bound for Egypt passed through the stronghold city of Petra. Verses from the Qur'an describe Petra and its wealth:

"You have made gardens and springs, cornfields and date palms with spathes near breaking with the weight of fruit. And you carve houses out of the rocky mountains with great skill. "

(Surah 11:147,149)

Inevitably, as so often happens when people become rich, the Thamud became godless and arrogant, and conveniently forgot that all blessings belong to no one as of right, but are bestowed insha Allah - as God wills. The second of the prophets, Salih, was sent to remind them of their duty towards God, and try to bring them back to right thinking:

"Remember bow He made you inheritors after the Ad people, and gave you dwelling place in the land; you built for yourselves palaces and fortresses in the plains, and carved out homes in the mountains. Bring to your minds the benefits you have received from God, and stop your evil mischief on the earth!"

(Surah 7:74)

Despite the fate of their cousins the 'Ad, the Thamud took no notice of the divine warnings, and their complacency led to the most famous story about Salih and the Petran tribes. It concerns the sign of the She-Camel, which is referred to many times in the


Qur'an. When the Petran tribes were stricken by one of the inevitable droughts, Salih found to his disgust that the privileged classes of the city were saving their own skins by conserving all the water for themselves and preventing the poor from bringing their livestock to the few remaining springs. Muslims believe that a human being never really owns anything; he or she is allowed the temporary use of something by God. Therefore the claim by the rich of Petra that they owned the water supply was regarded by the Muslim prophet as an act of shirk - the usurping of the rights of God Alone.

Salih's sign involved letting loose a she-camel, and sending the thirsty beast on to Thamud land. Any true Muslim would have allowed the beast food and drink, but the wealthy Thamud took the view that since they owned the wells and pasture and this was not one of their camels - they would not allow her to drink their water, so they slaughtered her (Surah 91:14; 54:9). God was so angry at this proof of their callousness and shirk that He destroyed them by a great earthquake.


The tribes of Nabataea, who took over from the Edomites as occupiers of Petra, claimed to be descendants of Ishmael's eldest daughter Nabaioth, as opposed to the younger sister Basemath who married Esau. (Nabaioth is usually assumed to be Ishmael's son, but the name is a female one.) In fact, one could argue that the Nabataeans were simply a senior clan of Edomites. Their rise to supremacy probably coincides with the depopulation of Palestine by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in the C6 BCE - although their civilization at Petra developed much later. They were first referred to as a people (the Nabaaiu) in 647 BCE in a list of the enemies of the last great Assyrian King Ashurbanipal, when their king was Natnu.

The next mention of them is in the C4 BCE, when Alexander the Great's massive empire was divided up amongst his generals after his death (323 BCE). The Petra region became the border country between the Seleucid dynasty in Syria (created by Alexander's general Seleucds), and the Ptolemaic dynasty (created by another of his generals, Ptolemy) in Egypt. Continual rivalry between these two kingdoms ensured that the territories in between were rarely at peace.

The next reference to the Nabataeans (Nabataiot) was by the historian Diodorus of Sicily (Cl BCE). He quoted an author of around 312 BCE who recorded an unpleasant bit of warfare between the Nabataean Petrans and the Seleucid emperor Antigonus, who was attempting to become sole ruler of Asia. He swept down the King's Highway and attacked Umm al-Biyara while the fighting men were absent; the Nabataean army then returned, ambushed and massacred them, and escaped further trouble by retreating into the desert. However, until 198 BCE the Egyptians, not the Seleucids, were dominant on the west side of the Jordan, until the Seleucids under Antigonus IV attempted to unite the whole region with Syria under a Hellenistic culture, by imposing a mixed Greek and Syrian religion, Greek language, literature, sports and dress. (This led to the Maccabean revolt of 168 BCE.)

After 125 BCE the decline of both the Seleucid and Egyptian empires allowed the full development of the Nabataean state, it gradually extended its territory west into the Negev, east to the Euphrates and south along the Red Sea, a domain that stretched from Madain Salih (north of Medina in present-day Saudi Arabia) all the way to Damascus in the north.



From very early times, Petra was closely associated with trade. However, it was in the turbulent century around the life-time of Jesus that the historic situation arose which allowed the Nabataeans finally to develop an urban civilization on a magnificent scale.

When the Seleucid empire finally collapsed in 64 BCE, the rival mights of Rome to the west and Parthia to the east (established in 247 BCE) confronted each other across a wild, bandit-infested no-man's land. The inhabitants of Petra saw their opportunity and seized it. They organized a highly efficient force of "desert police" to create a safe route by which the caravans could travel from the East to the voracious markets of Rome and the West.

The luxury produce of India and China was much in demand on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. Merchandise was brought by ship through the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, to enter the Tigris-Euphrates delta and dock at Charax Spasinu. From there it would have been taken either up the Euphrates to Babylon, or across the top of the Nejd and Nefud deserts via Jauf (A1 Jawf) to Petra. Other routes to Petra went across the desert starting from what is now Kuwait, or Bahrain. Alternatively, the ships could go right round the south of Arabia and enter the Red Sea heading for the port of Ezion-Geber (now Aqaba). However, since most ships from the East could not sail against the very strong winds in the Red Sea, merchants regularly unloaded their goods on the Arabian peninsula, and carried them up the eastern shore by camel straight to Petra. To the west of Petra the routes fanned out, one road continuing west to Egypt, one branching north-west to Gaza, and the other heading north to Damascus.

The Nabataeans were effective highwaymen and made a good living by swooping down on the caravans and carrying off the luxuries of Arabia, India and East Africa to Petra. Outsiders were refused entry to the Petra basin and it became the storing 'place for plunder. As the trade route by-passed the actual city site this was quite easy to do.

Eventually, they found acting as "customs officials" more profitable than brigandage and offered their services on the road to the merchants as "honest brokers", plus giving them protection from any other tribes with their own desert police - at a price. Subsidies were demanded as transit insurance, the money being paid to these other tribes (with whom they were generally in league) to stop them attacking and taking plunder. It must be said, however, that the interpretation of this system as a


The later history of Petra Roman Petra

on the death of Rabbel II, Trajan annexed the Nabataean kingdom to the Province Arabia and appointed Cornelius Palma as governor. The city of Petra struggled to preserve its splendour, but its trade weakened every day, resulting in the gradual exodus of the wealthy merchants. The administrative capital of the province was moved to Bosra (Bosra in present-day Syria) and the Fourth Legion was garrisoned a few miles north of Petra. They took over the role of policing the trade routes from the Nabataeans,

Petra's economic decline was caused partly when Trajan started a great paved road from Bosra through Philadelphia (now Amman), Kerak, Shaubak and Udruh to Aqaba (bits are still visible), connecting Syria with the Red Sea and by-passing Petra. In addition, discoveries in navigation made the journey up and across the Red Sea easier and merchant ships could now safely reach port on the Egyptian side. Another trade route from the east went up the Persian Gulf and thence by caravan up the Euphrates and across the desert to Antioch. Trajan's activities encouraged the use of this route which increased the wealth and prosperity of the Syrian city of Palmyra as Petra declined. The more astute Nabataean merchants had long since quietly diverted their traffic to Palmyra anyway, to avoid putting their money in Roman pockets. Once the Romans shifted their attention to Palmyra also it was confirmed as the commercial centre and Petra sank into obscurity.

In 131 CE the emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE) visited Petra and granted it the name Adriana Petra, but during the late Roman period it really only served as a religious centre for Transjordan and southern Syria and its trading importance ceased altogether. When commerce departed "with it departed the opulent inhabitants who had animated by their presence the magnificent edifices which their sumptuous taste had raised - those edifices now everywhere in ruin. The rural tribes returned without any reluctance to a purely nomadic existence, mingling without any sense of transition with the Arabs who bad never abandoned that kind of life. The change in the social constitution of the country, however, brought with it some variation in their habits; they plundered where before they trafficked; they traversed the desert as bands of wanderers, not as


those lengthened lines of "peaceable caravans which had for so many ages given life to the wilderness." (Laborde)

The emperor Diocletian (c.230-316 CE) reorganized the province, and Petra became part of the Province of Palestine (Palestinn Tertia).

Christian and Muslim Petra

Christianity came to Petra in the fourth century, when it was the seat of a bishopric wealthy enough to support a community of anchorites (hermits) in the cliffs surrounding the city. The Byzantine era was one of steady population growth and urbanization thoughout the area Jordan now occupies, but Petra's decline apparently continued. Excavations show that the Street of Columns (the Cardo) became just a dirt-track, and small shops and hovels were built over it. The Urn Tomb became a church sometime before 447 CE; and the last reference to a bishop of Petra was to Athenagoras, a nephew of the Emperor Maurice in the sixth century.

The mountains surrounding Petra became its shroud. The city became "lost" and entered the realms of legend. When rediscovered in the nineteenth century by Burckhardt the wheel had turned full circle, and Petra was no more than a ruinous waste held by Arab robbers.

After the Arab Conquest (C7), Petra was only partially occupied, and fell further into obscurity. It may have been shaken by the same earthquake that destroyed Jerusalem and Jerash in 747 CE. Further damage might have been done by Caliph Yazid 11 (720-24 CE), who ordered the destruction of all human images in Muslim lands. The nomadic tribes had always resented Roman and Byzantine dominance, and welcomed the Muslim forces as liberators.

There is no information on the history of Petra in the first centuries of the Arab period. In later Arab sources the town appears under the name of Al-Asuit. When Muslim power shifted to Baghdad with the Abbasid Caliphate in 750, the entire land of what is now Jordan declined into a neglected, sparsely populated district.

Little is known of Petra after this, except that in the twelfth century under Baldwin I, King of Jerusalem, the Crusaders occupied it and built a fort there. Baldwin went in 1101 in response to the plea of the Greek anchorites on Jebel Harun who needed protecting, since Aaron's shrine was also claimed as a holy place by the Muslims as well as the Christians. The area east of the Dead Sea was known as Oultre Jourdain, and Baldwin built a string of fortresses between Jerusalem and Aqaba (Aila) including Shaubak (Mont Real or Mons Regalis) and La Vaux Moise (Valley of Moses) at Petra. A fortress on the summit of Al-Habis was a solitary look-out. Both were abandoned at the end of the twelfth century. When the Crusaders were finally defeated Petra was ruled by Saladin's brother Al Adil, and then by An Nasir in 1229. In 1253 it passed to Izzidin Abek, the Mameluke ruler of Egypt. The last Muslim leader to visit Petra was the savage Sultan Baybars in 1276, who luckily for the Petrans was only passing through.


4 Nabataean religion

As we saw in Chapter 2 the religious worship of Petra called forth violent antagonism from the Israelites. This was not because it was a load of meaningless rubbish. Their cult was feared because it provided a viable and attractive alternative to monotheism. The gods were not austere and remote: any sensitive persons could have knowledge and experience of them for themselves and were not expected simply to accept priestly dogma in an attitude of blind faith. The attitude of those who worshipped the Triads was elitist and confident: "to faith add knowledge".

Any information we might have about the gods or spirit-powers of Petra comes to us from three main sources: from surviving written documents, including the Old Testament; from the reports of travellers, and ethnologists who study the beliefs, mythologies and practices of primitive peoples who still exist, and who believe that some kind of comparison can be justified; and from the esoteric teachings of present-day mystics and seekers after truth who claim to have some direct knowledge of natural religion and the initiation into what are widely known as the "Earth-mysteries".

No one with any knowledge of Egyptian religion can fail to be struck by the vast range of deities, idols of metal, stone or wood, receiving homage and ceremonial offerings or performing ritual gestures for the benefit of their worshippers; but in Petra one searches in vain for any such representation. It is true that in Roman times there was apparently a huge statue of the sun-god Dushrat in the city temple, but this is of late date and Roman influence.

Light and water: symbol and reality

Like all people in antiquity, the Nabataeans explained everything by the intervention of their gods, and for them there was nothing that was not capable of containing supernatural power. In particular the Nabataeans venerated the primeval forces of light (the sun, moon and the Planet Venus) and water.

Light is the nearest thing to God in this dense world of material phenomena. It is the subtlest, most intangible of things which humans can register by means of the five senses, the most ethereal element science can handle. According to the Old Testament, the first thing created by God was light, and it is a perfect symbol: out of the blackness of despair light brings us hope and consolation; out of our ignorance and bewilderment, light brings us awareness and direction. And since our light


comes from the sun, it is God as the sun which symbolizes the archetypal burst of power, and becomes in many ancient mythologies the Father and Creator of all things, the Maker, the One, the Self-Born."

Similarly, the veneration of water, especially springs and rivers, is one of the most ancient and universal forms of worship, and also one of the most persistent because it originates in such a basic human need. Neither the spiritual nor material resources that humans can offer are sufficient to control it. The smiting hammer of the sun and the gentle mystic blessedness of the evening star seem very close in Petra; and the sanctity of water, the dependence on its vital force, is absolute.

Nabataean mythology

The supernatural entities which affected the everyday life of every Nabataean were divided into three categories. First, there were the ancestors, the lingering identifiable residue of those who once existed as normal human beings; the Nabataeans had absolute belief in the existence of the human soul and its ability to survive separately from the human body. Second, there were the gods themselves, divinities who were eternal and transcendent, and who had never existed as humans. Third, there were certain forces, elemental powers or jinn that were less than gods but possessors of strange and sometimes malevolent powers. The jinn were not spirits of dead ancestors but something quite different - they were entities which had real existence but were inferior to the gods. The Assyrians and Babylonians called them utukku. They could have a force either for good or evil, and played a significant role in the daily life of humans.

Little is known of the minor Petran deities. The names of Qaush, Habalu and She'a-alqum have been recorded, the first being represented by a crescent moon, or by a sun beetle like the Egyptian god Khepri, and the last being a guardian of caravans. There was a goddess Manat, or Manathu, who appears to have been regarded as a daughter of Dushrat and was the "Genius" or hearth-goddess of the city.

The Triad

Since the Nabataeans had contact with so many different cultures, it is not surprising that their theology shares many aspects and beliefs with their desert neighbours - the Egyptians, the Aramaeans, the Syrians, Assyrians and Babylonians, the Canaanites, the Hebrews. It was a form of what the Old Testament calls "Baalism" - the worship of the supernatural


powers that lay behind the natural forces which enable life to exist on our planet. The word "Baal" simply means "Lord" or "Master", or "Great One".

The Sun God

The chief god in most triads was the Sun, and this seems to have been so in Petra (although some will argue that the major deity in this vast shrine was the Great Goddess). His four complementary powers were Atargatis, the goddess of grain, foliage, fruit and fish; Al-Lat the goddess of the moon; Al-Uzza (Al-Udha) the Evening Star, or goddess of the planet Venus, who represented human devotion - both romantic and religious; and Manat (referred to above) the goddess of Fate or Fortune. Al-Uzza was also patroness of water (especially springs or "living" water) and fertility in general.

Because assimilation was widespread, there is confusion as to the exact relationships within this hierarchy. Atargatis is usually reckoned to be the Great God's consort, and the other three goddesses his daughters. In Petra, however, Allat is sometimes depicted as the Virgin Mother of Dushrat, and Al-Uzza seems to have been assimilated with both Atargatis and Allat; she may, indeed, have been worshipped as his equal sister. If so, this would have reflected the relationships in Nabataean royal culture where: it was vital that the heiresses did not marry beneath them and, as we saw in Chapter 3, it was usual for kings to marry their sisters. In the Nabataean cult the Sun was known as Dushrat (Dusares, Dushara), the Watcher, the Eye that Saw, a deity of strength and creative force also associated with springs and water.

The Sun had many aspects but three were paramount. In the first aspect Dushrat represented the primeval source of power. He had existed before the creation, a formless spirit which bore within itself the sum of all existence. However, for our universe to exist at all, light must triumph over darkness and order over chaos. In this second aspect, the Light Triumphant, the solar deity is frequently symbolized by a stone object in the form of an obelisk, which represented a materialized beam of light reaching down and striking the earth.

In the third aspect, of being the cause of change, Dushrat is also "He who becomes", represented as the rising sun which emerges from its own substance and is reborn of itself; the god of all the transformations of life which is forever renewing itself. The symbol was often the black dung beetle rolling the solar disc between his front legs.

The distinctive qualities of solar worship were active rather than passive; Dushrat required commitment and loyalty to a mystical ideal, vigour and courage. God the Sun triumphed over night and put winter to flight. He was god of justice - his bursting light chased away the shadows where crime was rampant. I-fe was also the god of divination - through soothsayers he revealed the secrets of the future.

Dushrat was also commonly associated with the seasonal aspect of nature because plant life depended on the warmth and light of the sun, and was either urged into growth or - especially in the desert - destroyed by it. The solar deity was therefore closely linked with the spirit of vegetation which dies with the harvest and is reborn when the grain sprouts. In this aspect, the vegetation god is usually thought to be an incarnation of the sun-god himself, or his son.

Sun cycles were daily, seasonal, and annual, so the fact that he encountered and conquered darkness (symbolizing death) led to his being accepted in some cosmologies as the god of the dead, and the conqueror of Death. He was the light which vanished in the shadows every evening to reappear more brilliantly with each dawn. Thus he represented the struggle of good against evil - the war between the desert and the fertile earth, the drying wind and the green vegetation, the darkness and the light.

The Great Goddess

`turning now to the female divinities, the second person in the Triad was the divine power that symbolized response and receptiveness. The response could take the form of quiet, passive devotion (representing and accepting the self-denying submission of the worshipper), or it could manifest as the source of the fierce all-sacrificing zeal of the missionary disciple.

The Great Goddess of the East had many forms and guises. Just like talented women everywhere the roles of sweet virgin, pure maiden, beloved wife, sexual fulfiller, vigorous supporter, honoured mother, protective nurse, grieving widow-mother, venerable grandmother were all aspects of the same entity. Four "mysteries" were bound up with the concept of female divinity: virginal purity and chastity; the hunger and passion of voluptuous female sexuality; the self-sacrificing beneficence of motherhood and fruitful love; and the grief of a mother or widow.

It seems that the Great Goddess was originally called Al-Lat (simply meaning "the goddess"). She had as many names as she had local manifestations, and in Petra she took the name Al-Uzza (the Mighty One). Sepulchral evidence at Palmyra equated her with the virgin-warrior Pallas Athena, the Maid, showing her helmeted with one hand holding a spear while the other rests on a shield. The symbol of the Goddess was usually the Moon, or the Planet Venus - the Evening Star, and her sacred animals were the cow and the lioness, and sometimes the snake.

This sad picture was described by Enkidu to his friend Gilgamesh in the famous cuneiform epic discovered in Babylon.

In the aspect of fruition, she symbolized the receptive living earth flowering and fruiting in due season. This role was closely bound up with the dying and rising god myth, the Goddess either being the stricken lover/widow or mother of the deceased.

Al-Uzza was the divine personification of Venus, the goddess of morn and evening. As the war-goddess she was Lady of Battles, valiant among goddesses. What we call sacred prostitution was part of her cult. She was goddess both of love and destruction. A very ambivalent character, she could be fickle, insatiable and cruel, gobbling up her numerous lovers and emasculating if not destroying them, she was therefore greatly feared as well as venerated. She was the "Star of Lamentation", making brothers quarrel among themselves and friends forget their friendship.

She regulated the course of the heavenly bodies and controlled the alternating seasons. She killed or tamed wild beasts. It was she who caused the products of the soil to flourish, gave men riches, protected them in battle, and at sea guided them on their adventures.

Sometimes she was depicted as a beautiful nude, sometimes her statues wore a Cretan-type dress with flounced skirt and bare bosom. Sometimes she was assimilated with Diana (Artemis) the twin sister of Apollo (the sun), a virgin-warrior who advanced, escorted by a lion, striking the ground with her spear. Sometimes she was the symbol of procreation, with huge broad hips, pressing her raised arms to breasts heavy with milk. The Nabataeans and their bedouin descendants depicted her only as a stone or obelisk, perhaps with a rudimentary face.

What did the Nabataeans believe about life after death? The dominant belief current in the Middle East at that period was the depressing one that under the earth lay the infernal dwelling-place, the land of no return. To enter it you had to penetrate seven gates abandoning at each a part of your apparel, the symbol of your humanity. When the last gate had closed behind you, you were naked and imprisoned forever in the land of shadows. In this region of eternal darkness the souls of the dead "clad, like birds, in a garment of wings" were all jumbled together, irrespective of rank or merit.

In the house of dust live lord and priest, wizard and prophet ... dusk is their nourishment and theirfood is mud.

It was not a pleasant prospect, and this miserable abode was not likely to attract anyone. If that was the human lot, no wonder dead loved ones were mourned, and death was feared. Countering this grim belief, the Triadic mystery cults burst upon dejected humanity like water pouring on to the desert, like light in darkness. Worship of the Triad made sense out of life, gave purpose and direction. No matter what your personal misfortunes, if you struggled to do good and lived a life submitted to the gods, after you left the earthly body behind you would pass through judgement to eternal bliss. If you deserved punishment, on the other hand, then that in justice would be your lot, The cult of Al-Uzza/Atargatis was one of the chief examples of these religious systems.

The Divine Son

The third person in each divine Triad was the saviour-hero, the virgin-born son of God, metaphysically impossible to distinguish from the Father since he was an incarnation of Himself. Mystical and intuitive knowledge of this offered salvation and eternal life to those who were worthy and capable of receiving it. At the time of King Harith IV, the doctrine of salvation can be summarized roughly as follows:

Humanity was in the grip of sin and the Evil One, a thraldom which could not be broken by any moral effort on the part of any human, since the moral nature of humanity was too weak, Consequently humanity was doomed to everlasting punishment. But God in His mercy provided a way of release by sending a Divine Son into the world to show the way and suffer a cruel death which atoned for the collective sin of humanity. The myth contained the following standard elements - the depressing sense of hopelessness about the moral condition of humanity; the descent of a virgin-born divine saviour-hero into a human body; the violent sacrificial death of that saviour; and the resurrection, immortality and divinity of that saviour, followed by the vicarious atonement effected by the divine death for all those who had faith in its efficacy, and the promise of their personal resurrection and immortality.

The reader may be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that this description refers to Christianity, but it was the mythology that lay behind the Dushrat/Al-Uzza cult, the Baal cults and fertility religions of the old Testament, the mystery cults of Isis, Osiris, Dionysus, Attis, Tammuz, Demeter and Persephone, and - above all - Mithras, the most popular elitist cult favoured by the


Roman military. It was precisely this seductive mythology of Triad worship that the prophets of Israel inveighed against throughout the Old Testament, and which is condemned by the Tawhid or Unity of God in the Qur'an.

"They do blaspheme who say God is one of'three, in a Trinity; for there is no god except One God. "

(Surah 5:76)

"They make the jinn equal with God, though God did create the jinn; and they falsely attribute to Him sons and daughters ... To Him is the primal origin of the heavens and the earth; how can He have a son when He has no consort?"

(Surah 6:100-101)

All these triadic systems involved mystical identification with personal saviour-gods, and ritually undergoing the personal sacrifice, death and resurrection experience of this saviour - whose prime function was to stir the heart and then show the way. It meant undergoing a stringent programme of fasting and long nights of prayer intended to produce actual experience of psychic phenomena, and in particular the "out-of-the-body" experience. In some cults, the neophyte was sealed up in a cave or "womb", to remain in a foetal position until this experience was achieved.

There was one basic difference between a member of such cults and an outsider. The members knew that life after death and the personal survival of the soul outside the physical body was not just an illusion brought about by our wishful thinking and reluctance to shake off our mortal coil. They knew it was reality, because they had experienced it. This awareness was not based on a person's circumstances of birth, background, wealth, or intelligence. One person could search a lifetime for the answers, and not find them; on the other hand, another might stumble on the Truth as if by accident. It was the duty of pious humans simply to be ready by attention to the conduct of their lives and when enlightened to submit. The secret knowledge involved various psychical powers along the way and it was considered dangerous to put this knowledge into the hands of the unworthy or those not ready to receive it, therefore neophytes were sworn to silence.

Colonnade and wide stone block road built by Romans in Petra after Nabataeans.


Entertainment: the theatre

An amphitheatre was a valuable civic asset, bringing in spectators and income from all the nearby towns. The beautiful sandstone theatre in Petra is one of the most outstanding buildings that remain, even though any marble that may have lined the seats has long since been taken away. It is a large theatre and seated over 7,000; what sort of performances might it have staged?

Some theatrical events of that period were serious cultural occasions, lectures, readings of verse, displays of visiting rhetoricians. It was nothing at all for an audience of that time to gather and listen to some good locutor holding forth for five hours at a stretch. Having said this, the larger theatres like the one at Petra were not often used for tasteful declamations. Like today's commercial ventures they needed to make money and were places of popular entertainment. Patronage based on popular taste did not usually make for a very high level of theatre. The three main types of shows a Petran audience would have enjoyed were farce, mime and pantomime.

Farce was very similar to medieval street-theatre - bawdy, topical, wholly lacking in sophistication, with a lot of audience participation. Mime usually involved strolling performers who could juggle, sing or dance. Pantomime was the most sophisticated with the entire action in the hands of a single player, the pantomimus (literally "one who imitates all things"), supported by chorus and musicians. A top-ranking pantomimus was the idol of the public. However, in the eyes of the law acting was a dishonourable profession, and although top actors were rich and famous they were disqualified from holding public office.

Displays of gladiators or exotic beasts were very popular as stage shows. By the very nature of things, these shows stirred up excitement and passions, and could often be dangerous. The audience did not pay its money in order to sit there knitting. What they wanted was blood, and lots of it - pitting ferocious wild beasts against human victims, or against each other. The more unusual the contest the better they liked it. Gladiators often fought with mismatched weapons, or a dwarf might be brought out to fight against a woman. Human performers were either condemned criminals exposed to some form of sophisticated butchery, or trained gladiators who might be slaves, prisoners of war or lesser criminals. The professional gladiators were the most dramatic, they were usually organized into schools (familiae) under private or public ownership, and were highly skilled.

It was a matter of concern that the youth of the day preferred the arena to their studies. Tacitus remarked: "Really, I think that the passion for gladiators and horses is conceived in the mother's

womb! Few indeed are to be found who talk of any other subjects in their houses, and whenever we enter a classroom, what else is the conversation of the youths?" "


Most of the agriculture around Petra was wheat and other grain, vines and olives, and the raising of goats and sheep. The agricultural tasks were those found everywhere in the region at that period. Many of them remain unchanged to the present day, Ploughing was particularly hard work as the soil was full. of rocks, It was usually done by the farmer with two animals yoked to a wooden plough with a metal blade. If the farmer was considerate he would always use animals evenly yoked to avoid causing sores to his beasts. God's law, in Deuteronomy 22:10, stipulated that "you shall not plough with an ox and an ass together". Unfortunately this law was frequently broken, and still is to this day.

The cult of the dead

Many ancient peoples practised a cult of the dead. This can most readily be seen whenever graves are excavated, and evidence is found of deposits of food and other necessities, for the use of the dead loved one in the after-life. Certain objects of value were often buried with the dead, as if the dead still had the power to own them. Care lavished on the dead was not always a labour of love, a duty performed by the relatives left behind to grieve their loss. Sometimes it was done to encourage the favourable disposition of that dead person towards the living, to soften possible hostility or to put the departed in a position where they could do no harm. Sometimes it was to make sure they really had departed.

While an enemy lived, at least one knew where he was and what he was doing. Once that enemy died, he could come at you when you least expected him, and you were at a great disadvantage. People who had died through human violence would certainly harbour resentment against their slayers and could extend this ill-feeling against their families, tribes and distant descendants. In those cases, burial customs were measures of protection against the deceased, and the tombs were intended to imprison them. The souls of the dead who had not been appeased or whose funeral rites had been neglected avenged themselves by tormenting the living, although once their presence was suspected they could be appeased by making a libation of water or offering a funeral repast. Petra was full of banqueting halls (triclinia), where such funeral meals were celebrated in honour of the dead.

However, the practice of mummification, practised by the Nabataeans as well as the Egyptians, indicated a love and respect for the dear departed; the object of keeping a corpse intact (if not recognizable) was to give the deceased's ba or soul a contact point with this world so that communication between the living and the dead could still take place, usually via a medium or priest. A soul which remained near to a well-preserved corpse was a kind of guardian spirit able to communicate with the living, avenge wrongs done to its body, and retain enough tribal feeling to assist in guarding the storage-places of tribal plunder. Like the Egyptians, the Petrans believed that so long as the mummy remained intact, the soul or "life-force" of the deceased could be drawn back into the cave tomb and be visited by the bereaved relatives, who would thereby gain consolation. If a loved one's soul came back, summoned or unsummoned, it would derive considerable satisfaction from the knowledge that the diligent descendants were still keeping them in mind, The spectral presence could be picked up by anyone with psychic ability and its advice asked on important matters.

In Petra there was a sharp difference in the methods of burial between the rich and the poor, and obviously it is mainly the tombs of the rich that the visitors see and marvel over. However, behind both forms of burial lay a deep respect for the dead and a confidence that their souls lived on, and would bless the living with their continued loving and guiding presence.

Burial of the rich

Wealthy people in Petra mummified their dead, laying their pickled and dried-out remains to rest in stone coffins in the cave tombs. The mummification process followed the same principles as in Egypt.

At first the body was laid out in the house for a few hours, for relatives to come and bid farewell to the corpse. Bodies were not left unattended by the embalmers for long, because the heat of the climate started the process of rotting very quickly.

When there was a death it was traditionally polite for mourners to come from far and wide, and for all the local people to gather to add their sympathy, swelling the ranks of relatives, household and neighbours. Weeping and tearing their hair and garments, they would mill about outside the house of the deceased in a frenzy of grief, throwing dust upon themselves and wailing loudly. A wealthy Petran might also feel obliged to hire extra


grandest buildings, Al-Khasneh and the Theatre (Tour 1) are the pinkest. The City Ruins (Tour 3) should also not be missed - but if your visit is only a short one you will have to choose.

The best use of a 24 hour stay

If you arrive at Petra in time for the evening meal and are lucky enough to have a full moon, why not attempt to see at least one Petra ruin by moonlight? Best is the Theatre.

Morning Take the ponies and arrive at Al-Khasneh (Tour 1) between 10 and Ham when the stone is at its pinkest in full sun. You leave your mounts here with their handlers.

Next, if you can manage a climb, go up several hundred rock-cut stairs over the Attouf Ridge and see the High Place (Tour 2), descending via the Wadi Farasa. The average tourist could cope with this ascent without too much difficulty (estimate two hours) although it is strenuous, steep in places, and would obviously not be advisable for anyone lacking in stamina, with bad legs or a medical condition. The only tricky bit is a stretch of some 100 yards at the very top, where you need your hands free.

If your legs are not up to this, amble along the Wadi Musa past the Theatre (Tour 1) to the City Centre sites (Tour 3). Both these trails end at Nazzal's Camp near the Hotel Forum Restaurant. The bedouin will bring the horses down to the end of the Main Street to meet you for the return journey at whatever time you arrange (God willing!)

Afternoon After lunch, you could either do the Royal Tombs (Tour 6) (walking only), or strike out for Ed Deir (Tour 10) - which involves a stiff climb (808 steps) and is always best done in the afternoon when the sun has moved round. The trek to Ed Deir and back presents no dangers, but takes at least three hours.

For the following tours a guide is necessary, plus hired horses for the trips to the suburbs. These can be arranged from the Visitors' Centre.

The most challenging local climb is the full day excursion to Umm al-Biyara (Tour 5). The ascent is tricky, and takes an agile person about three hours. The ascent of Al-Habis and back (Tour 4) takes around two hours and is much less strenuous. The trek out to Jabal Harun (Tour 11), with or without the climb, or Wadi Sabrah (Tour 9) is a full-day trip. Visiting the suburbs of Baidha and Al-Barid (Tour 8) needs a half day if you go by car.

Don't forget that everything takes longer in the hot season (May-September) since one tires much more easily, and more frequent rests are necessary to avoid heat exhaustion.

Tour 1: the Siq gorge (map p. 72)

How long this takes will depend on how long it takes to get organized - waiting for your Arab guides or your tour group for example. Allow 40 minutes if you're 'taking things gently or an hour if you want to dawdle, but it can be done in 20 minutes. It's nearly two miles from the Rest House to the city centre. Most people ride or walk. Private vehicles are not allowed. The gorge approaches Petra from the east. It is a chasm over a mile in length, inhabited by thousands of sparrows that set up a great noise as evening descends. There are other ways into Petra on the far side, but this is by far the most dramatic, and you would miss one of the great experiences if you do not explore it.

For hundreds of years tales had been told of the strange cleft in the wilderness that led to a fabulous City of Rock - but the few adventurers who set out to solve the mystery never returned, and horrible rumours ran that they had had their throats cut, sacrificed on the high places by the bloodthirsty devotees of the sun-god Dushrat. A constant watch was said to be kept on the gorge day and night by hawk-faced warriors, and all the lesser ravines were guarded by military outposts. Never had any fortress possessed so impregnable an entrance as this Siq gorge - a natural trap for invaders or spies. In fact, the air of romantic mystery was a matter of shrewd, practical business. The less outsiders knew about the inhabitants' mountain stronghold, the safer they were from attack and investigation.

Petra really begins before you enter the gorge at Ain Musa, (Spring of Moses), said to be the spring that burst forth from the rock when Moses struck it with his staff (Ex.17:1-7). Consequently the course of the river that flowed forth is called the Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses). The spring has been enclosed now in a small building with three white domes (it looks like a mosque) and bubbles out from under a stone wall along a pebbly channel. The clear water is safe to drink. Many tourists fill their bottles here in honour of its ancient association with Moses. In Nabataean times the place was regarded as being especially holy, since this was the water on which the whole existence of the city depended. The flow from this sacred spring was collected in two interconnected pools (Al-Birka), seen just beyond the carpark of the Petra Forum Hotel, and channelled by pipe and conduit right round Jabal Khubtha to feed the nymphaeum, a huge ornamental fountain at the head of Petra's main street. Other channels, one rock-cut and one of ceramic pipes, went through the Siq.


Beside the spring is the bedouin village of Wadi Musa (A1 Ji), once a very important outlying suburb of Petra but unexcavated as yet since the Arabs have built over it. The spring is still a place of sacrifice, for the mountain-top weli, or tomb-shrine in honour of the Prophet Harun (Moses' brother Aaron) is just visible from here. Most Muslim pilgrims would make their sacrifices here, rather than climb all the way up - hence the native suspicion about Burckhardt's "religious enthusiasm" (see p. 10). Communication with the locals is not 100%. On asking to see the inside of the "mosque", I got shown into the loos!

The scenery around Wadi Musa consists of the smooth humps of white limestone hills, their smoothness accentuated by the jagged dark red peaks of the Petra range beyond. As yet, there is no hint of the lost city. The first Nabataean monuments to be seen are three enigmatic, solid carved cubes of rock some 20 feet high, and a 30-foot free-standing tower-tomb, with carved pilasters. The tombs are visually more photogenic, but the solid cubes are in other respects more interesting. They are described in Arabic as sahrij (water-tanks) - apparently rather a whimsy since they are perched up a hillside as dry as a bone. Twenty-three similar blocks have been indentified elsewhere in Petra, and they seem to be massive "god-boxes" or "jinn-blocks" (see Chapter 4) - places for the Nabataean spirit-guardians to dwell. They all occur near places of running water, hence the Arab name.

The western mind needs to press a certain mental switch in order to understand Arabic - it is all too easy to dismiss things as gullible nonsense, without realizing that in fact you have a linguistic barrier to cross. In English "water-tank" implies a reservoir to keep liquid in. The Arab searching for the concept of container has come up with "tank", but it is a container of the god-power not the water, but these are specifically water tanks because the inhabiting spirit forces happen to be standing guard over a source or flow of water.

You wait below these monuments on a grey-white road strewn with small boulders that is really the river bed, until a sudden echoing clatter indicates that your horses are about to arrive out of the Siq - which at this stage you cannot even see. Suddenly you are surrounded by tribesmen who seem to have appeared out of the solid wall of rock like Ali Baba and the forty thieves. It is a stirring sight when they come rampaging up at full gallop in a cloud of dust, with encouraging whoops and yells.

The ride is memorable. You can fall off the horse if you try but they are used to tourists and the owners generally lead them for you unless you are an experienced rider. This is half to protect you and half to protect the horse, which is after all their livelihood.


Christians here followed the scriptures of the Copts, which suggested that Mary did not give physical birth as do other mortal women, but that she withdrew to a cave; a brilliant glow of light was then seen to surround the entrance and a ray pierced the gloom. The observers watched in amazement as the holy infant was materialized, in mortal perfection, at the bosom of the virgin mother.

And what did it mean? What did it all mean? That God can be made flesh, and dwell among us, full of grace and truth, so that we can behold His glory? (John 1:1-18). Whatever your beliefs, here on this naked mountain under the vast bowl of the sky, you draw close to something - and whatever the circumstances of your own journey through life, with all its toils and upheavals and heartbreak, you feel pulsing strongly within you the eternal truth that light shines in the darkness, and darkness is not able to overcome it.

To get back, you must retrace your steps: there is no other way down. Since it will be dark by the time you reach the valley, you may decide to camp at the top and watch the sunrise next day, a good swap for a sprained ankle.

Tour 11': Jabal Harun (map p. 127)

A full day's excursion (perhaps overnighting). Jabal Harun (Mount Hor) can be reached on horseback (between two and three hours on horseback from Qasr al-Bint), followed by a stiff six-hour climb to the summit and back. Collect the keys from the bedouin in the tent at the bottom. Take food and drink. The summit is 4580 feet, the highest mountain in the Petra region consisting of twin peaks with the grave of Aaron perched on the truncated cone of the higher peak. If you think all this effort would not be worthwhile in order to see a rather delapidated shrine festooned with old rags, then let this opportunity pass. It is much too arduous for people without a genuine pilgrim mentality, and most tourists do not bother to get beyond a glimpse of the white-domed weli from one of the High Places. In any case, there is still local resentment here against casual visitors - bedouin do not appreciate people with no religious feeling bumbling about their sanctuaries - so put on the right attitude if you must go.

The death of Aaron

Believers in the "numinous universe" accept that certain localities can be impregnated with the life-giving force of some saint or hero - transforming the sites into powerhouses of spiritual blessing. Traces of their essential virtue would cling to their


mortal leavings even though their spirits had passed to another and better world. Holiness was seen as a kind of invisible substance, which clung to whatever it touched. So the virtues (the Latin word virtu means "power'") of saints would remain and be continually renewed and built up by the constant stream of prayer and devotion emanating from the pilgrims who found their way there. These places are visited to gain healing, or fertility, or protection against dangers psychic and physical, or to gain whatever is the desire of the heart. Jabal Harun is such a place.

The difficulties of reaching the shrine were graphically described by two travellers in the 1860s, Captain Irby and J. Mangles:

"We engaged an Arab shepherd as our guide, and leaving ... our servants and horses, where the steepness of the ascent commences, we began to mount the track, which is extremely steep and toilsome, and affords but indifferent footing. In most parts the pilgrim must pick his way as be can and frequently on his hands and knees. Where by nature it would have been impassable, there are flights of rude steps, or inclined planes, constructed of stones laid together, and here and there are niches to receive the foot-steps cut in the living rock.

Much juniper grows on the mountain almost to the very summit, and many flowering plants which we had not observed elsewhere; some of these are very beautiful; most of them are thorny. "

Until the C13 CE the shrine was in the care of Greek Christian monks. In the C7 CE the guardian of this tomb was a certain Bahira. The Prophet Muhammad - then aged about ten - was travelling to Damascus with the caravan of his uncle Abu Talib. The uncle did the climb up to pay his respects, and was met by the very excited monk who had seen a vision of the lad. Muhammad was duly fetched, and it was there that the Christian Bahira prophesied that he would become a messenger of God who would change the entire course of world history.

The shrine became Muslim, and was restored by the Mameluke Sultan Qalawun in C13 CE. The present domed building was constructed in 1459 - the date is given in the Arabic inscription above the entrance. It is still a Muslim holy place. A goat is sacrificed there every year at Eid-al-Adha, the feast at the end of the hajj pilgrimage which commemorates Abraham's sacrifice of his son. (Muslims believe it was the eldest son Ishmael (Ismail) who was sacrificed, and not Isaac as in the Old Testament.)

Although visitors are not encouraged, if you do get to the weli, you will either be totally perplexed by the enormous amount of fuss and effort over nothing, or will pick up the atmosphere of

just one of the stupendous views to be seen from the various High Places in and around the city.

p 129

Flash floods

It rarely rains in Petra, but occasionally rain up to thirty miles away can send a wall of water hurtling through the Siq gorge. In April 1963, 28 travellers were caught in the Siq and all were drowned. Two landrovers were deposited many feet up the sides of the canyon on a ledge, where they remained as gruesome warnings for several years. Recently a barrage dam has been built across the mouth of the Siq to ensure year-round safety (insha Allah) by diverting the water through a tunnel especially cut through the sides of the mountain by the Nabataeans in the first century BC. Presumably they had the same problems as well as wishing to utilize every available drop of water.

Harriet Martineau described the Wadi Musa in spate in 1847:

"We walked along a water-course and got out of it not far from our platform. Within three minutes, before I had half put off my wet clothes, I heard a shout. the torrent had come down, Down it came, almost breast-high ... giving a river in a moment, where we had never dreamed of hoping to see one. ... Just before sunset I went to look again. The white waterfalls were still tumbling from the steeps ... dashing along, making eddies among the stones. "

The water hurtles off through the Wadi Siyagh.


Guides can be hired from the Wadi Musa Police Post, the Petra Forum or the Rest House. Rates are negotiable, so be prepared to shop around and bargain. Ask yourself how much are you willing to pay a man for engaging him for a day? About 10JD per day is what they hope for.

Once away from official eyes, the guides will press for tips urgently and with pitiful expressions, and if this doesn't work and you have made an unlucky choice, can suddenly turn nasty. Ignore both tactics - they are acting. Tourists who weakly give in - mainly out of gratitude for safe return after a gruelling day - simply raise their expectations and make it less pleasant for those who follow after. Best practice is to negotiate your tip beforehand, and stick to it. If you have agreed on your tip, it is up to them what they choose to do for it. But be reasonable - if you get into difficulties and are helped, or if you receive help over and above the call of duty, it is only fair to reward it.


(Petra A traveler's Guide, Rolalyn Maqsood, 1994 AD, p13-73, p125-129, p159)



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


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