Petra Monastery
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Straddling the northern end of the caravan route from South Arabia to the Mediterranean, the Nabataean kingdom emerged as a great merchant-trader realm during the first centuries B.C. and A.D. Previously nomads in northern Arabia, the Nabataeans had already settled in southern Jordan by 312 B.C., when they attracted the interest of Antigonus I Monophthalmos, a former general of Alexander the Great, who unsuccessfully attempted to conquer their territory. By that time, the city of Petra (ancient Raqmu) was the center of the Nabataean kingdom, strategically situated at the crossroads of several caravan routes that linked the lands of China, India, and South Arabia with the Mediterranean world. The fame of the Nabataean kingdom spread as far as Han-dynasty China, where Petra was known as Li-kan. The city of Petra is as famous now as it was in antiquity for its remarkable rock-cut tombs and temples, which combine elements derived from the architecture of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Hellenized West. [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. "Nabataean Kingdom and Petra", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, \^/]

During the reign of King Aretas III (r. 86–62 B.C.), the Nabataean kingdom extended its territory northward and briefly occupied Damascus. The expansion was halted by the arrival of Roman legions under Pompey in 64 B.C. At various times the kingdom included the lands of modern Jordan, Syria, northern Arabia, and the Sinai and Negev deserts. At its height under King Aretas IV (r. 9 B.C.–40 A.D.), Petra was a cosmopolitan trading center with a population of at least 25,000. The kingdom remained independent until it was incorporated into the Roman province of Arabia under the emperor Trajan in 106 A.D.

Books: Markoe, Glenn, ed. Petra Rediscovered: Lost City of the Nabataeans. New York: Abrams, 2003. Milleker, Elizabeth J., ed. The Year One: Art of the Ancient World East and West. Exhibition catalogue.. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Taylor, Jane Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.


Petra aqueduct
Petra (180 kilometers south of Amman) is an amazing place and Jordan's number one tourist draw. Hidden among colorful canyons, this fabled sandstone city was carved into solid rock cliff faces in a remote valley part southern Jordan by an ancient, mysterious people called the Nabataeans Described once as the "rose-red city half as old as time," Petra is composed on many structures, most of them tombs, scattered over a fairly wide area. It takes at whole to visit the site. Many people spend a couple of days there. [Source: Don Belt, National Geographic, December 1998]

Among the ruins carved into the rose- and chocolate-colored cliffs are the famous Treasury, a gigantic monetary, Roman-style palace tombs, soaring temples, elaborate tombs, a Roman theater carved into a cliff, burial chambers, banquet halls, water channels, cultic installations, markets, public buildings and paved streets. A few Bedouins still live in the ruins of some of the caves.

Petra was the ancient capital of the Nabataeans, a nomadic tribe who moved from Arabia to the Petra area around 2,400 years ago. They were major power in the the Middle East during the period between the decline of Greece and the rise of Rome. Little is known about the Nabataeans. They lived primarily in a 400 square mile area around Petra. They left behind no written record. Ancient manuscripts described them as smart merchants and traders.

Petra was establish in the 4th century B.C. and flourished for 700 years. At its height during the Roman era, the Nabataean kingdom stretched as far north as Damascus and included parts of the Sinai and Negev deserts and ruled most of Arabia. Perhaps 30,000 people — a large number for an ancient city — lived hidden among the canyons in Petra, which was widely admired for its massive architecture and refined culture.

Petra, Water and Caravans

The secret to Petra's success was the skill of the Nabataeans at flourishing in an extremely arid region with only six inches of rain a year by obtaining, transporting and storing water using a system of cisterns, pools, dams and water channels. The Nabataean water system captured rainwater, channeled streams, prevented floods and utilized spring water. Archeologist Maan al-Huneidi told National Geographic, "We were astonished by how sophisticated their ideas were." An engineer said, "Hydrology is the unseen beauty of Petra. Those guys were absolute geniuses." On the mountainsides around Petra are hundreds, maybe thousands, of dams and almost as many plaster-lined cisterns carved from solid rock. "Miniature canals linked one catchment area to the next, moving water downhill gracefully, sometimes whimsically, in little troughs of sandstone as finely carved as sculpture," Don Belt wrote in National Geographic.

Petra was like a natural fortress near a mountain pass at a crossroads of trade. The Nabataeans derived their great wealth and power by levying tolls and sheltering caravans traveling between Egypt, Arabia and Mesopotamia. These caravans carried frankincense and myrrh from Arabia, spices, indigo, and silk from India, and slaves and ivory from Africa.

Nabataean trade routes

Six major caravan roues merged on Petra. The frankincense caravan took 12 weeks to reach Petra from the frankincense groves in Oman. It stopped in Medina, and then made its way across the inhospitable western Arabian desert, where camels and people had to drink brackish water from water holes and the caravans were sometimes attacked by Bedouin raiders. Petra undoubtably was a welcome sight after all that and a place to get some rest and relaxation.

Later History of Petra

Word of Petra's wealth reached the Romans. In A.D. 106, the Emporer Trajan annexed the Nabataean kingdom into the Roman province of Arabia, with Petra as it's capital. By then Petra was declining as new trade routes that became part of the Silk Road opened to the north. When the city of Palmyra to the north in present-day Syria opened a major caravan route that connected with the sea trade routes from India and China, Petra declined quickly. Tombs were looted and some were made into churches by that Byzantines that displaced the Romans in the region in the A.D. 4th century. There were earthquakes in A.D. 363 and again 551. The last references to Petra in the historical record come from around 582.

Petra died, perhaps because it was no longer possible to maintain the complex water system, and was forgotten by the outside world. It disappeared from maps in the 7th century, was resurrected briefly in the 12th century as a Crusader communications outports and was completely lost to West by the 16th century. It remained unknown to all but the Bedouins who occasionally lived there until it was rediscovered in the 19th century.

Spectacular Entrance to Petra

After passing through the entrance gate at Petra visitors walk downhill on a wide pathway towards the Siq. On the right, several dozen meters past the ruins of the gateway are the Djinn Blocks, three massive stone monuments whose original purpose is not known. Some think they were temples dedicated to the Nabataean god Dushara and Atargatis (goddess of fertility). Others believe they are tombs, “Djinn” is Arabic for "sprits." Near the Djinn Blocks, on the other side of the Djinn Blocks is the Obelisk Tomb, named after the four obelisks on the upper story of the monument. The obelisk was the Nabataean funeral symbol. The nearby Bab Al-Siq Triclinium features a classical Nabataean design. Its three carved rooms are believed to have been used for banquets for the dead.

First Glimpse
The Siq (about a half mile from the entrance) is a narrow, three-quarter-mile-long dry gorge that is used to reach the ruins of Petra. In some ways it is more spectacular than the ruins themselves. The towering 300-foot walls that rise up on both sides of a path, barely wide enough for three donkeys walking abreast, in some places are closer together at the top than the bottom and sunlight has difficulty penetrating through most of the day. Siq (pronounced "seek") means "dry gorge.

Describing his journey through Siq, to Petra, National Geographic reporter Thomas Abercrombie wrote: "For a mile the blood red sandstone passage burrows darkly downward, away from the warmth and glare of the desert sun; overhanging cliffs...obscure all but slivers of the sky. Across one glides a hawk. A paved road in its ancient heyday, my route is now a dry torrent bed strewn with boulders."

The entrance used to be marked by a Roman archway, of which only the vertical ruins are visisble. On the cliffs besides the path, about a meter off the ground, are remains of ancient channels that brought nourishing water into Petra. Above the channels you can see occasional inscriptions in ancient languages and niches with sculptures of gods, heros and rulers.

The Siq itself is a slot canyon similar to slat canyons found in Arizonad and Utah in the United States. It was carved out of the sandstones over tens of thousands of by ancient streams and flash floods. Tens of millions of years ago the entire region lay at the bottom of an ancient sea. The rock formations in the area were carved as the sea retreated by running water, rain and wind. The rock is mostly sandstone, colored by iron, copper and magnesium. The siq occasionally experienced dangerous flash floods. Twenty-three French tourist died in one in 1963.

Treasury and Place of Sacrifice of Petra

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The Treasury (at the end of the Siq) is best known as the site of the final scene of “” Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” . Chiseled and carved into a red sandstone, it is a magnificent 130-foot-high classical-style structure that looks like a red, rock-hewn Greek temple. According to a legend it once housed a royal treasure, but in reality it was a tomb for a Nabataean king.

The facade of the Treasury, sometimes brilliantly lit by the sun but more often covered in shadows, is the first thing visitors see when they emerge from the shadowy Siq. Abercrombie wrote: "At the lower end of the Siq, the shadows are pierced by a tall crack of rosy light. Beyond, the dark walls roll back like a curtain on a striking vision; Illuminated by the sun's first rays, an immense classical facade glows a hundred hues of crimson; its Corinthian capitals, its pediments and friezes shine bright and crisp as new."

Inspired by Hellenistic architecture, the facade is 30 meters wide and 43 meters high and was carved in the first century B.C. It has Corinthian columns, pediments and statues. Some scholars believe it may have been used at one time as a temple. The empty chambers of the Treasury reach far into the solid rock. Carvings on the facade depict Nabataean gods and goddess. The urn perched at the top of the monument, once believed to hold treasures of gold and jewels, gave birth to the monument’s name. The bullet holes visible on the walls are evidence perhaps that some raiders thought there was were some treasures inside somewhere.

Street of the Facades (after the Treasury) is a row of houses (tombs) with intricate carvings thought be of Assyrian origin. The Amphitheater (on the Street of the Facades) is cut into the side of a cliff. Originally built by the Nabataeans and enlarged by the Romans, it has 7,000 seats made from blocks of stone.

The High Place of Sacrifice (reached by a long strenuous path and set of steps from the Street of Facades) is a sacrificial altar located on a 1035-meter-high ridge. Two seven-meter-high obelisks lie at the top. They are believed to represent the two most important Nabataean gods: Dushara and Al Uzza.

Tombs of Petra

The Royal Tombs (on the right side of the path, down from the Amphitheater) are perhaps the most impressive of Petra's 500 tombs after the Treasury and the Monastery. Small tombs are interspersed with the large ones. Some of the tombs are carved into beautiful-white-and-orange stripped rock.

The Urn Tomb (near the Amphitheater) is the largest of the Royal Tombs and is almost as large as the Treasury. Thought to have been carved around A.D. 70, the main chamber is 17-x-19 meters in size and was altered and used as a Byzantine Church in the A.D. mid-5th century. In front of the facade is large courtyard. Above the doorway are three chambers. The central chamber is blocked by a large stone, presumed to be a depictions of the man buried inside.

Silk Tomb (after the Urn Tomb) is smaller than the largest tombs and is badly damaged but is notable because of the brilliant red, yellows and gray that the ripple through the stone. The facade is fronted by a double cornice. The Corinthian Tomb (after the Silm Tomb) is known for its hodge-dodge of architectural elements. The top part is an imitation of the Treasury. The bottom is modeled after the Bab Al-Siq Tricilinium. The tomb has been badly damaged by earthquakes.

The Palace Tomb (after the Corinthian Tomb) is so named because it appears to be an imitation of a Roman palace and thus is believed to be one the newest tombs in Petra. The Sextius Florentinus Tomb (after the Palace Tomb) is the only dated tomb in Petra. Carved around A.D. 130, it was made for the Roman governor of Arabia and is dedicated to his son. Inscriptions over the doorway recounts the governor's life and achievements.

The Tomb of the Roman Soldier (reached by a long strenuous path and set of steps from the High Place of Sacrifice) was once connected to the Triclinium by a colonnaded courtyard. The style of the architecture and statues in Roman armor suggests the tomb was carved after the Roman annexation in A.D. 106. Nearby are the Broken Pediment Tomb, Renaissance Tomb, Triclinium, Garen Triclinium, and Lion Monument.

Colonnaded Street and Monastery at Petra

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Petra tomb
The Colonnaded Street (on the left of the main pathway between the Royal Tombs and the restaurant area) lies at the heart of Petra. It was once a bustling market palace, lined with shops and houses, and was the center of social and cultural life in Petra. Nothing remains of the shops and houses because they were made of perishable material like straw, wood and mud. The Colonnaded Street looks like something you would see in Greece. On the Royal Tomb side of the Colonnaded Street is the Nymphaeum. On the restaurant side is the Temenos gate. Across the The main path are a Byzantine Church, with wonderful mosaics, and the Winged Lion Temple.

The Monastery (reached by a half-mile, uphill path from Petra) is the largest of Petra's monuments. The facade measures 40-x-50 meters with a large empty chamber inside. Originally a temple or a tomb, it was an important pilgrimage site. Worshipers and priests used a processional route to congregate in the open area in front of the monument. From the A.D. 4th century onwards, during the Christian Byzantine period, it was used as a monastery. Crosses painted on the rear wall are still visible.

The path that leads to the Monastery includes 800 steps that have been cut into the rock. Along the way you pass the Lion Triclinium. Distant Spots at Petra include a ruined Crusader Fort, Moghar al Nassara tombs and the Snake Monument.

Obadiah and the Nabataean Defeat of the Edomites

Gerald A. Larue wrote in “Old Testament Life and Literature”: “The Nabataean displacement of Edomites prompted another Judaean, Obadiah, to express his feelings. The bitter memories of Edomitic behavior during the Babylonian conquest are revealed in the stinging words of what can best be identified as a hymn of hatred. [Source: Gerald A. Larue, “Old Testament Life and Literature,” 1968,]

“The bulk of Obadiah is generally placed in the first half of the fifth century B.C.. References to the sacking of Jerusalem (vss. 1 ff.) and to the same disruption of the Edomites mentioned in Malachi suggest the post-Exilic period. The intense nationalism is characteristic of other writings from fifth century Judah. The similarity between vss. 1-9 and Jer. 49:7-22 has led some scholars to suggest that both prophets adapted a pre-Exilic and anti-Edom hymn to their own use.10 The late R. H. Pfeiffer dated the last three verses of the poem in the fourth century,11 but they can just as easily be placed in the fifth century and attributed to Obadiah.

“The first nine verses of this poem mock the Edomites for the failure of their sources for security-remoteness, alliances, national strength. Now they have suffered a fate not unlike that which had come upon Judah in 586. According to Obadiah, the Nabataean attack was divine punishment for the role of the Edomites during the Babylonian conquest. Like other post-Exilic writers of this period, Obadiah believed that the Day of Yahweh was near when all aliens would suffer the wrathful punishment of the deity and only Judah would be saved to take possession of and rule in the new expanded kingdom. The fact that this poem was preserved probably indicates that it represented more than the view of a single individual and portrayed what was a rather common interpretation of events.


Temple of Bel, Palmyra

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Palmyra was originally an oasis settlement, called Tadmor, in the northern Syrian Desert. Although the Roman province of Syria was created in 64 B.C., the inhabitants of Tadmor, primarily Aramaeans and Arabs, remained semi-independent for over half a century. They profited from their control of the caravan routes between Roman coastal Syria and Parthian territory east of the Euphrates, which allowed them to provide the Roman empire with goods coming from all directions. Palmyra was strategically located on two of the most important trade routes in the ancient world: one extended from the Far East and India to the head of the Persian Gulf, and the other—the Silk Road—stretched across the Eurasian continent to China. [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. "Palmyra", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2000, \^/]

“Under the Roman emperor Tiberius (14–37 A.D.), Tadmor was incorporated into the province of Syria and assumed the name Palmyra, or "place of palms." After the Roman annexation of Nabataea in 106 A.D., Palmyra replaced Petra as the leading Arab city in the Near East and its most important trading center. About 129 A.D., during the reign of Hadrian, Palmyra rose to the rank of a free city, and in 212 A.D. to that of a Roman colony. With the foundation of the Sasanian empire of Iran in 224 A.D., Palmyra lost control over the trade routes, but the head of a prominent Arabian family who was an ally of the Roman empire, Septimius Odaenathus, led two campaigns against the Sasanians and drove them out of Syria. When Odaenathus was murdered in 267 A.D., his Arab queen, Zenobia, declared herself Augusta (empress) and ruled in the name of her son, Vaballathus. She established Palmyra as the capital of an independent and far-reaching Roman-style empire, expanding its borders beyond Syria to Egypt and much of Asia Minor. Her rule was short-lived, however; in 272 A.D., Emperor Aurelian reconquered Palmyra and captured Zenobia, whose subsequent transport to Rome bound in chains of gold is legendary.” \^/

Books: Ball, Warwick Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire. London: Routledge, 2000. Browning, Iain Palmyra. London: Chatto + Windus, 1979. Milleker, Elizabeth J., ed.

Palmyra Archaeological Site

The Palmyra archaeological site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to UNESCO: ““An oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Sites, =]

“First mentioned in the archives of Mari in the 2nd millennium BC, Palmyra was an established caravan oasis when it came under Roman control in the mid-first century AD as part of the Roman province of Syria. It grew steadily in importance as a city on the trade route linking Persia, India and China with the Roman Empire, marking the crossroads of several civilisations in the ancient world. A grand, colonnaded street of 1100 metres' length forms the monumental axis of the city, which together with secondary colonnaded cross streets links the major public monuments including the Temple of Ba'al, Diocletian's Camp, the Agora, Theatre, other temples and urban quarters. Architectural ornament including unique examples of funerary sculpture unites the forms of Greco-roman art with indigenous elements and Persian influences in a strongly original style. Outside the city's walls are remains of a Roman aqueduct and immense necropolises. =

Palmyra is an important site because: 1) The splendour of the ruins of Palmyra, rising out of the Syrian desert north-east of Damascus is testament to the unique aesthetic achievement of a wealthy caravan oasis intermittently under the rule of Rome from the Ier to the 3rd century AD. The grand colonnade constitutes a characteristic example of a type of structure which represents a major artistic development. 2) Recognition of the splendour of the ruins of Palmyra by travellers in the 17th and 18th centuries contributed greatly to the subsequent revival of classical architectural styles and urban design in the West. 3) The grand monumental colonnaded street, open in the centre with covered side passages, and subsidiary cross streets of similar design together with the major public buildings, form an outstanding illustration of architecture and urban layout at the peak of Rome's expansion in and engagement with the East. The great temple of Ba'al is considered one of the most important religious buildings of the 1st century AD in the East and of unique design. The carved sculptural treatment of the monumental archway through which the city is approached from the great temple is an outstanding example of Palmyrene art. The large scale funerary monuments outside the city walls in the area known as the Valley of the Tombs display distinctive decoration and construction methods. =

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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