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Petra, the most beautiful ruined city in the world

Posted in Ancient History, Architecture, Conservation, Discoveries on Tuesday, 16 April 2013

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This edited article about Petra originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 226 published on 14 May 1966.

Petra, picture, image, illustration


In 1812, John Burkhardt, a Swiss student at Cambridge University, made an expedition across the desert from Syria to Egypt, crossing what is now the Kingdom of Jordan. During this journey he accidentally discovered Petra, a unique city which had been lost to the world for hundreds of years.

The interest of explorers and archaeologists was at once aroused by Burkhardt’s description of Petra. But in the nineteenth century the journey was hazardous and very few people managed to get there.

When I visited Petra recently, I was driven down the Desert Highway from Amman to Wadi Musa, and from there we set out on the last stage of the journey to Petra on hired horses. For a quarter of a mile we rode on sand and pebbles beside the dried-up bed of the Wadi Musa. Then we entered the Siq, the narrow canyon that for centuries preserved Petra from attack.

The Siq winds on for nearly three miles between cliffs that tower 300 ft. on either side. Here and there a stunted tree clings to a cleft in the rock, but little else grows in this almost sunless gorge. After about half an hour’s ride, we reached one of the most unusual buildings in the world – the Khazneh, the Royal Treasury of the Nabataeans.

The Khazneh is extraordinary because, like most of Petra’s monuments, it was not built, but was carved out of the living rock. Columns in Grecian style – portico, decorative urns and arches – all were patiently cut by hand out of the sandstone cliff by Nabataean workmen more than 1,500 years ago.

The Nabataeans were a nomadic Arab tribe who settled in this rock-bound stronghold about the fifth century B.C. Petra lay astride the caravan trade routes that brought spices and ivory from the east and south, and slaves and precious metals from Egypt, in the west, to the Mediterranean ports of the rich Greek and Roman civilization to the north. The Nabataeans demanded money from the caravans in return for a guarantee of safe conduct through the desert. In time they amassed great riches from these tolls, and lavished much of it on carving a magnificent city.

The Khazneh is the first “building” which the visitor to Petra sees. Beyond it the Siq closes in again. Then, suddenly, you emerge from the canyon into a broad valley completely shut in by mountains which rise in precipitous cliffs from the valley floor. Here on the plain are the remains of what was once a bustling trading town – markets, baths, a Roman road and colonnade, covered waterways, fallen columns, blocks of building stone, a Triumphal Arch, broken statues. There is even a Roman amphitheatre with thirty-four tiers of seats cut by hand from the solid rock.

Everywhere in the cliffs around the valley are the mouths of the caves where the Nabataeans lived. They were comfortable caves, some with pillared doorways and rooms with carved ornamental friezes. Other great buildings are cut from the ochre-pink sandstone cliffs. Among these are the vast Palace Tomb, carved in imitation of a Roman palace in three storeys; the High Court, fronted by a huge courtyard, with a colonnade at one side cut from solid rock; the Lion Tomb; the Corinthian Tomb, and the vast altar and sacrificial stone of the High Place.

Lured by tales of its wealth, many conquerors hurled their armies against the city, but a few men could hold the narrow gorge against an army, and Greeks, Syrians, and Maccabeans were all repulsed.

Then the Romans came. They did not attack through the canyon. Instead, they cut the aqueduct which carried water into the city, and blocked the Siq so that no one could leave. The Nabataeans were forced to surrender, and Petra became a province of Rome in 106 A.D.

Many of the best monuments were carved during the Roman occupation and it was not until the fall of the Roman Empire that Petra began to decline in importance. Then trade routes moved away from the city, and the Nabataean kingdom began to crumble. Once the Portuguese discovered the sea routes to the East, Petra became a deserted city.

Today Petra is a tourist attraction.

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