Journey along the Spice Route thru Petra!
Updated: Jun 6, 2022
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 Nabataeans 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, while 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 Nabataeans 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 Nabataeans 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 Nabataeans and were products of their trading relationships with the Persian, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian worlds.
Who were the Nabataeans?
While many people may be familiar with a couple of prominent monuments in Petra; likely few are familiar with the people who actually engineered the city. The Nabataeans 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 experienced by tourists today. They learned viticulture and wine production from the Greeks who passed through the region. Petra, the Nabataean Kingdom's capital city, was carved by the Nabataeans in the 2nd c. BC, then annexed and expanded by the Romans in the 2nd c. AD (referred to then as Arabia Petraea), and ultimately fell into decline in the 4th c. AD. During the 4th c. AD when the water management systems fell into disrepair under the Byzantines, AND new sea trade routes emerged, AND a significant earthquake damaged Petra in 363 AD, many Nabataeans abandoned the city center of Petra and moved to the nearby towns. There, the Nabataeans 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 Nabataean 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 insufferably 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 the 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 passageway, or gorge, is called The Siq. In some areas, it is very narrow ... only 3 meters wide, barely wide enough to allow for the passage of carriages. The Siq was the only easy accessway into the city and was carefully monitored and heavily guarded from vantage points above. The imposing rock walls along the Siq had carved channels, terracotta conduits, and dikes that served to 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 that enabled 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 Nabataean kings ... most likely Aretas IV.
Traveler's tip: 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 archaeological site is open to visitors beginning at 6 am.
As you keep walking you pass along the Street of Façades. Along the street are all Nabataean funerary tombs. While the nomadic Nabataeans lived in tents rather than building houses, they believed in the importance of honoring their dead with impressive, decorative permanent tombs. Although the tombs appear monochromatic today, they were once vividly decorated with plaster facings in colors of red, yellow, and blue. The Street of Façades leads to the Theater. That 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 that time, Petra had developed to a population estimated at 20,000. The 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 on a simple cobblestone road but was 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.
A large Temple along with several smaller sacred sanctuaries was located in the sacred area. MANY royal tombs were also carved along that road. As you continue to ascend along the ancient sacred way you ultimately reach the massive sanctuary at the peak of the mountain named Jabal ad-Dayr. The 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 displays the intricacies of Nabataean architecture. That was a place of worship for the Nabataeans, where ceremonies and banquets of religious nature were held. During the late period, the 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 that I will cover in future posts, such as Gerasa (Jerash) and Madaba, and Wadi Rum. If the desert-master Nabataeans are of interest to you, then know that there are several "camps" and caravan stops within the Negev Desert of present-day Israel, as well, that also display the archaeological footprint of the Nabataeans. Places like Avdat, Shivta, and Ein Saharonim in Makhtesh Ramon are all former 'stomping grounds' of the Nabataeans, as they were all once part of the Nabataean Kingdom. All such awesome sites!