The City of Petra

By: Paul Zimmerman

Originally Published in 2000

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Petra, one of the great cities of antiquity, Is nestled in the rugged Shan’ mountains of southern Jordan, halfway between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. Though Ion to Western scholars for centuries prior to its rediscovery in 1812, Petra and its surrounding region have a long and rich history that spans the Stone Age through the Middle Ages. Major Nacufian, Edomite. Nabataean, Roman. Byzantine, and Crusader sites dot the landscape. Nevertheless, it is its Nabataean period for which Petra is best known.

In the late 4th century BCE, Petra became home to a nomadic Proto-Arabic-speaking tribe. and by the middle of the 2nd century BCE these Nabataean had established a mercantile king­dom with Petra as its capital. Watered by numerous springs, defended on all sides by mountains. and strategically located along the Incense Route connecting South Arabia with Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean. Petra became the preeminent city in a kingdom that stretched from the Hejaz to Syria.

Befitting their important position and interna­tional power, the Nabataean adopted Hellenistic and Roman art and architecture—symbols of their cos­mopolitan aspirations. Invariably, Petra’s architecture shows an artful blending of Nabataean. Egyptian, Syr­ian, and Hellenistic traits_ Most famous are the rock-cut tombs, numbering in the hundreds. From the ornate al-Khazneh at the entrance to the city, to the starkly elegant ad-Dayr perched on a mountaintop to the west, these tombs are marvelous examples of syncretism. A walk across the site reveals the ruins of many houses, temples, and other freestand­ing structures as well. The only major building to remain standing in the city center is the Qasr temple. Other major structures that have recently been excavated include the Temple of the Winged Lions and the Great Temple.

Many of Petra’s greatest architectural monuments were erected in the 1st century CE, during the reign of king Aretas IV. Within a century of Petra’s annexa­tion by Rome in 106 CE, however, the city began to lose its luster. Later in the Roman period, trade moved northward to Jerash and the cities of the IDecapolis. Though still of considerable regional im­portance in the Byzantine period, Petra would never regain its prominence. By the Islamic period, the city was a ghost town.

Arid and inhospitable, Petra today is home to bedouin of the al-Budul tribe and is a major tourist destination. It is also the occasional home to many archaeologists. In recent years. over a dozen archaeological projects have been conducted by Swiss. German. Finnish, Japanese. American. and Jordanian missions.

Cite This Article

Zimmerman, Paul. "The City of Petra." Expedition Magazine 42, no. 2 (July, 2000): -. Accessed February 22, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-city-of-petra/


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