Mention of Petra instantly evokes visions of pink granite buildings carved into rock, as though Roman engineers strayed far from home to create a folly. Buildings of Petra, that amaze visitors, are older than some Roman cities. The population of Petra today is about the same as it was two thousand years ago, when it was the trade center of the Near East. Back then, the population was involved in trade. Today the population is employed in tourism. Today people walk or ride donkeys to where the Sig opens to the iconic pink sandstone Treasury building, just as they did two thousand years ago. The number of caravans coming to Petra at the time of Christ is hard to estimate. Today more than a million visitors each year check Petra off their travel to-do list.
Visitors trekking the mile and a half dusty path to Petra today, are so overwhelmed by the first view of the columned, rose-colored façade of the Treasury Building, that they may not consider how this city came to be in this place, of this age, and of such opulence. Strategic cities tend to be near sea ports, or on hills overlooking entrance to a port. When Petra was conceived and built, in the period from the second century BCE to the first century CE, camel caravans, not caravels were the means of commercial transport. Transition to commerce by sea, which superseded land travel in efficiency, with the advent of sailing ships, began the demise of Petra and of Nabataean wealth.
Nabateans were Arab traders, who realized they could stay in one strategic place and facilitate transport of goods along the trade corridor of incense from Yemen and bitumen from the north, as caravan paths merged to head north to Gaza on the Mediterranean. Petra grew in wealth as its popularity spread. Warrior kings emerged, who increased size of the Nabatean kingdom and furthered control of trade. Nabateans mastered engineering of water systems, still visible on approach to Petra today. The Sig, the city entrance canyon, functioned as a water course and a protective wall. The path along the Sig, trod by visitors today, was first paved by Nabateans.
From the first century BCE to the first century CE, Petra experienced its golden age as a hub of trade that stretched from the gates of Hercules, at the western opening of the Mediterranean, across the Red Sea to India. During this time, hundreds of acres of the city of Petra were transformed from sandstone cliffs to edifices of a great society of Nabataeans. The Treasury and a monastery were constructed, along with homes of a population that reached 10,000. Rock-cut edifices were but a small part of city construction, that was dominated by free-standing, mud brick houses. City life was greatly influenced by its Greek associations, mixed with an Arabic culture, never far from the days of nomadic life, dependent upon scant local resources.
When Romans arrived in Petra, they did what Romans did best: they built a road. Roads were the life-line of the Roman army. In Petra, Romans improved the road from the ancient port of Aqaba to Petra. Next, the Romans analyzed the needs of trade routes and determined that Palmyra was more centrally located to serve as a trade hub. Petra declined, while goods were moved through Roman preferred and protected routes.
Romans were quick to adapt to use of sail-powered ships, reducing their dependency on rowed galleys, which required an ongoing supply of slaves. Sail ships sped goods along the water by making use of favorable winds. Winds that blinded caravan drivers on land became an asset at sea. Petra was a city built on income from camel caravans. The new era belonged to cities benefiting from sea commerce. Imposition by Romans of high road taxes encouraged use of new technology.
The Roman era began the decline of Petra and the Nabataean empire. Petra remained inhabited for centuries beyond the Romans, to the seventh century. Then it became a shadow city of cave dwellers. The twentieth century highway from Aqaba goes straight to Amman, the capital of Jordan. Petra is open daily as a tourist venue. It is a museum of Nabataean culture at its height. Today the population of Petra is 26,000, about what it was when Petra was an ancient trade city.
In a city of stone, dating buildings is nearly impossible. Numerous tombs built into cliffs were infringed upon for later structures, such as the theater, which is nestled among pre-existing tombs. As the city grew, optimum building sites were scarce. Repurposing a site to new or higher use meant carving into preexisting facades, so tomb entrances became homes and later churches. Repurposed use leaves a curious form to Petra. Major buildings, such as the Treasury or monastery, use prominent cliffs, standing as singular edifices, as though cut from virgin rock.
Damage from the Galilee Earthquakes of 363 CE effectively ended commercial life in Petra. Petra and Aqaba sit on a major fault line, that runs from the Dead Sea, down the valley of Petra, and through the Gulf of Aqaba, into the African continent. There have been several recorded earthquakes of sufficient magnitude to disrupt life in the area. Quakes occurred early in the thirteenth and seventeenth century of the Christian Era, which is the sixth though tenth century of the Muslim Era. The Galilee Earthquakes caused buildings in Petra to crumble and rendered the city water system unusable. Thereafter, the city was only attractive to cave dwellers.
In 1985, the city of Petra was recognized as a World Heritage Site. To make the city attractive to visitors and protect site integrity from effects of continued use as dwellings, twentieth century cave dwellers, Bedouins, who had settled in Petra, were relocated to newly constructed substitute housing. The pathway through the Sig, and through much of the city, continued to rely on Nabatean and Roman paving stones to keep visitor footsteps from encouraging ruts caused by water torrents when it rains. The ancient water system, remnants of which can still be seen along the Sig, has been replaced by a modern system of dams and pipes, using ancient water courses.
Among the daily multitude of visitors to Petra are cruise travelers on a shore excursion from Aqaba and overnight travelers enjoying the forty hotels and dozens of restaurants in tourist Petra. There are no overnight lodgings in the old city. Be prepared to walk, or ride, along the shady Sig, and be amazed at the dramatic entrance to Petra. The rose city deserves its popularity. Consider walking the Sig to prolong the experience and to note the altar places and art carved into rock walls along the way. Two thousand years ago, residents and travelers enjoyed time in Petra. So will you.