Located between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea and regarded as an iconic symbol of Jordan, Petra is a historical and archaeological city in southern Jordan. Originally known to the Nabataeans, the nomadic Arabs, as Raqmu, Petra was possibly established as early as 312 BC as their capital city. In the Greek language, ‘Petra’ means rock. However, it is also known as the ‘Rose City’ due to the colour of the stone, out of which it was carved. In fact, Petra is half-built and half-carved into the rock, and is surrounded by mountains riddled with passages and gorges. Famous for its rock-cut architecture and water conduit system, the city lies on the slope of Mount Hor, near the small town of Wadi Musa and can easily be reached from Aqaba, a town that borders Eilat in Israel.
The Nabataeans were basically one among the several nomadic Bedouin tribes that roamed the Arabian Desert. They used to move with their herds to wherever they could find fresh water. With time, they became familiar with the area, learned the ability to control the water supply and that led to the rise of the desert city, as they created an artificial Oasis. They started to construct houses, temples, tombs and altars on the sandstone cliffs of Petra, two thousand years ago. They also wisely invested in Petra's proximity to the trade routes by establishing it as a major regional trading centre and with the growth of trading, they also started to earn more revenue. Thus the city of Petra served as an important trading centre for ancient traders who travelled between the Mediterranean and Africa. Enclosed by towering rocks and watered by a perennial stream, Petra flourished as the capital of the Tadeanos and the center of their caravan trade. It not only had the advantage of a natural fortress, but also controlled the main commercial routes which passed through it to Bosra and Damascus in the north, Gaza in the west, Aqaba on the Red Sea and across the desert to the Persian Gulf. Control of water sources, along with their almost magical ability to vanish into the cleft rocks ensured the Nabateans to remain unconquered for centuries.
Entrance to the city of Petra is through a narrow gorge, known as the Siq, which is over one km in length and is flanked on either side by 80m high tall mountains. Considered as the grand entrance, it was sacred to the Nabateans and was created by tectonic forces which pulled the rocks apart. The massive and majestic facade of Al-Khazneh, the treasury, stands at the end of the Siq, carved out of the dusky pink rock and announcing its monumental presence dwarfing everything around it. Carved in the early 2nd century, it represents the engineering genius of those ancient people.
Apart from the huge Al-Khazneh, there is a massive Roman-style theatre and hundreds of elaborate obelisks, temples, tombs, sacrificial altars, majestic colonnaded streets and the impressive Ad-Deir Monastery, which stands high above the city, with a flight of 800 rock cut steps.
The Romans arrived in 63 BC and in 106 AD, Petra lost its independence and fell to the Romans who annexed and renamed Nabataea to Arabia Petraea. Christianity came to Petra, much later, in the third and fourth centuries and flourished. The Byzantine Era witnessed the construction of several Christian churches, but the importance of the city continued to decline with the beginning of sea trade.
The city waned after a 336 AD earthquake that destroyed many of its structures. Apart from a handful of nomads, Petra became an abandoned place by the early Islamic era. It remained hidden by time and shifting sand for quite a long time and unknown to the world until it was rediscovered in 1812, by Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt.
Today, Petra is considered as one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world, where one can find a honeycomb of hand-hewn caves, temples, and tombs carved from blushing pink sandstone in the high desert of Jordan. The raw beauty of the ruined city is a work of art, painted on a natural stone backdrop that changes color and hue every hour. Every year, the magic of Petra attracts millions of visitors from all over the world. Since 1985, it has been enlisted in the UNESCO World Heritage Site and was selected as one of the 28 Places to See before You Die by the Smithsonian Magazine.