The mountains of Jordan are a lapidarian fortress separating the prolific region of Palestine and the arid dunes of the Arabian desert. Within this stronghold lies a secret archeological treasure, an ancient city hidden in the depths of a dark, narrow gorge. This was the lost city of Petra, the stone-carved capital city of the nomadic Nabataean Kingdom.
The gorge that engulfs the winding path to the city of Petra was considered to be the location where Moses struck a rock with his staff, causing water to emerge. It is no coincidence that the Nabataeans thrived here by creating innovative methods for harvesting rainwater and flash floods. They utilized dams, cisterns, aqueducts and pressurized water systems to turn Petra into an artificial oasis, thereby enabling the city to prosper even in prolonged periods of drought.
The nomad city, claimed to have been settled in as early as 9000 BCE, was positioned in the basin of Jebel al-Madhbah, a mountainous region nested within a network of ancient commercial trade routes. Petra’s proximity to Gaza in the west, Bosra and Damascus in the north, as well as Aqaba along the Red Sea made it the ideal trading hub for traveling merchants. It soon became a nexus of ancient commerce, causing the city and the Nabataean Kingdom to gain wealth and status in the ancient world.
The Nabataeans were notorious for borrowing cultural motifs from other cultures. To flaunt their riches, they ensured that Petra became a living work of art. The monuments and structures that made up the marred metropolis were carved in a variety of styles, including those of Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman influence.
As a result, archaeologists are unable to discern whether the Nabataeans outsourced their architects or their ideas. Nevertheless, it is clear that the city of nomads took advantage of the knowledge and skills gathered on their countless journeys by sampling the art and religions of the most developed cities and empires.
The blending of culture in Petra is most noticeable in the religion of Nabataea. The collective beliefs of the nomadic citizens was a mystery, but hieroglyphs and sculptures depict various deities and deified Kings. The original Nabataean religion consisted of a pantheon of gods who was ruled by the Chief god, known as Dushara, or he of the mountains of Shara.
In early Arab traditions, it is not acceptable to know the true name and face of the god you worship, so usually a title is given. As many nomads returned from various nations and shared their experiences, this taboo was gradually forsaken as Dushara began to merge with the gods of other cultures, such as Zeus, Dionysus, and Osiris. This fusion of deities later influenced sculptures of Dushara that depicted him in the likeness of these gods.
The earliest historical records of Petra were an account of an attack on their city by the Macedonian Army, ordered by Antigonus I in 312 BCE. The attack was unsuccessful due to the Nabataean’s experience with the mountainous terrain, allowing them to easily repel the Macedonian invaders.
The city was called Rekeme by its original Nabataean inhabitants and surrounding Arabic nations, but it fell to the Roman Empire in 106 CE, and was renamed Petra, or البتراء, Al-Batrāʾ in Arabic. Petra managed to keep its independence up until that point, even developing a professional relationship as a client state for the Roman Empire. Nabataea was eventually annexed by Rome and renamed Arabia Petraea.
The prominence of this ephemeral epicentre of progress declined as the popularity of sea trade routes rose. This decline accelerated in 363 BCE when an earthquake destroyed many structures in the city. By the early Islamic era, Petra was abandoned, inhabited by a small group of nomads until its rediscovery in 1812 by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, kindling the curiosity and wonder of the western world.
The Bedouin now believe that the city of Petra is haunted by Djinn, who shriek, cry and laugh as travelers cross the desert.