• Ildiko

Journey along the Spice Route thru Petra!

For 2000 years merchants, travelers, and scholars have traversed the narrow gulley of the Siq in Petra and gazed with awe at the beautiful monuments, temples, and tombs hewn from the red sandstone rock. Petra (meaning "rock"), a bustling city carved by the Nabateans in the Wadi Musa Valley, in today's Jordan, was located at the crossroads of the two most important desert caravan routes. One route connected the Arabian peninsula to the Mediterranean Sea and the other connected Egypt to Syria. Spices, incense, myrrh, perfumes, silks, fabrics, gold, precious stones, medicine, bitumen, and other luxury goods were all transported to Petra and then distributed from there. The Nabateans completely monopolized the regional trade at Petra, known to them as 'Raqmu', and demanded heavy customs fees on the value of the goods that passed through there. This revenue made the Nabateans very wealthy and they quickly emerged as a world class economic power. Petra's art, architecture, religion, and lifestyle reflected the myriad of cultures that influenced the Nabateans and were products of their trading relationships with the Persian, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian worlds.

Who were the Nabateans?

While many people are familiar with perhaps a couple of prominent monuments in Petra; likely few are familiar with the people who actually engineered the city. The Nabateans were Semitic, nomadic, both Aramaic and Arabic speaking, desert-dwelling tradesmen. They excelled at traversing the desert, exploiting dromedaries, cultivating agriculture, cutting stone, and creating incredibly advanced plumbing systems to manage the mountain springs and sporadic rainwater in inhospitable terrain. They managed the water so well in the arid environment, that Petra in its day, was a thriving center, luxuriant with blooming gardens, flowing fountains, cultivated fields, and robust vineyards. This is hard to envision given the dry, desert terrain of Petra noted by tourists today. They learned viticulture and wine production from the Greeks who passed through the region. Petra, the Nabatean Kingdom's capital city was carved by the Nabateans in 2nd c. BC, annexed and expanded by the Romans in the 2nd c. AD (referred to then as Arabia Petraea), and ultimately fell to decline in the 4th c. AD. When the water management systems fell into disrepair under the Byzantines in the 4th. c. and new sea trade routes emerged and a significant earthquake damaged Petra in 363 AD, many Nabateans abandoned the city center of Petra and moved to the nearby towns. There, the Nabateans adopted Byzantine Christianity and ultimately Islam, as evidenced by the several Byzantine churches and Islamic mosques that since have been excavated. It wasn't until after the Crusaders that the area was ultimately abandoned in the 12th century, except for a 'handful' of nomadic Bedouins. Petra was later re-discovered in the 1800s and excavations there continue to this day!

The light brown area on this map shows the vast extent of the Nabatean Kingdom.

I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit Jordan a couple of years ago. Petra is an astounding site!! Having visited in early July, the weather was intolerably HOT. Nevertheless, the visit and the hike through the Petra ruins were unforgettable. Upon entering the archaeologic site you first encounter funerary buildings carved out of the rock. These are Djinn blocks and the Obelisk Tomb. Djinn blocks are 'Spirit blocks', considered by Bedouins to be the seat of spirits guarding the city.

Thereafter you enter the passageway that led toward Petra's city center. This gorge is called The Siq. In some areas, it is very narrow ... only 3 m. wide, barely allowing for the passage of carriages. This was the only easy access way into the city and was heavily monitored and guarded from vantage points up high. The imposing rock walls along the Siq had carved channels, terracotta conduits, and dikes that would divert spring water and sudden river flooding into numerous underground plastered cisterns. Such water management innovations allowed for enough water storage to withstand prolonged periods of drought, enabling Petra to always meet the water demands of its inhabitants. The walls of the gorge were covered with votive niches, sculptures, inscriptions, and graffiti. Some areas along the Siq still retain limestone slab pavement laid during the Roman conquest to enable easier passage, in and out of the city center. The end of the narrow Siq opens up to a wide-open area that will look familiar to many of you. This wide space is dominated by the colossal 'Pharaoh's Treasury' (al-Khazneh). This monument was even featured in the popular 1989 movie, 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.' The façade of the Treasury is well preserved, as it is so deeply set in the mountainside and thereby protected from erosion. The building's purpose has been debated by scholars over the years and was once thought to house an urn containing the hidden treasures of an unnamed pharaoh. Numerous bullet holes have damaged the upper part of this monument, bearing witness to futile efforts to extract "the treasure". The prevailing theory, however, is that it served as a tomb for one of the Nabatean kings ... most likely Aretas IV.

A traveler's tip is that the façade of this "most-famed" Petra monument is usually shaded by the high rock walls surrounding it. Given that the façade faces eastward, it is completely illuminated by the sun only in the early morning hours. The ancient Petra site is open to visitors beginning at 6 am.

As you keep walking you pass along the Street of Façades. These are all Nabatean funerary tombs. While the nomadic Nabateans didn't build houses but rather lived in tents, they did believe in the importance of honoring their dead with impressive, decorative permanent tombs. The tombs' uniform, monotonous appearance at present, was once vividly decorated with plaster facings in colors of red, yellow, and blue. This street leads to the Theater. This spectacular building hosted their entertainment with 45 rows of tiered seats, dug out of the rock, and could hold 6,000-8,000 spectators. During this time, Petra had developed to a population estimated at 20,000. This Theater was abandoned in 363 AD after the disastrous earthquake caused the stage to cave in.

The Wadi Musa Valley received so much traffic in its time that its entire length was traversed originally over a cobblestone road but later expanded by the Romans to a paved, Colonnaded Street. Along the street was located a Nymphaeum which was a large public fountain where caravans arriving at Petra could refresh themselves.

The monumental Temenos Gate along the colonnaded street led to the sacred area.

There, was located a large Temple along with several smaller sacred sanctuaries. MANY Royal tombs were also carved along this road. As you continue to ascend along this ancient sacred way you ultimately reach the massive sanctuary at the peak of the mountain named Jabal ad-Dayr. This peak offers one of the most beautiful panoramas of the Wadi Musa Valley and the Royal Tombs. The spectacularly preserved façade of ad-Dayr beautifully illustrates the details of Nabatean architecture. This was a place of worship for the Nabateans, where ceremonies and banquets of religious nature were held. During the late period, this building was converted into a building for Christian worship. Hence, it is now referred to as 'the Monastery.'

As you can probably appreciate, Petra is an AMAZING place, full of history, scenery, and adventure. There are several other great sites within Jordan which I will cover in future posts, such as Gerasa (Jerash) and Madaba and Wadi Rum. If the desert-master Nabateans interest you, there are several "camps" and caravan stops within the Negev Desert of present-day Israel that display the archaeological footprint of the Nabateans. Places like Avdat, Shivta, and Ein Saharonim in Makhtesh Ramon are all former "stomping grounds' of the Nabateans, as they were all once part of the Nabatean Kingdom. Lots to see, lots to cover. All such awesome sites!!