Petra and the Nabataeans

Deir (Monastery)
East Ridge Tombs
Great Temple
Khazneh (Treasury)
Nabataean Kiln (outside the city)
Petra Church
Qasr al-Bint
Road to the High Place
Roman Gate
Street of Facades

The Nabataeans first come into prominence during the Hellenistic Age. Originally a nomadic tribe from Arabia, they settled in the land of Edom, grew rich from the spice trade, and by the mid second century BC had established a trading kingdom with its capital at Petra. At its height, between 100 BC and 100 AD, the Nabataean Kingdom had expanded north to Bostra in southern Syria, west to the Negev and the Sinai, and south to Hegra and the Red Sea. Although they were allies of Rome during this time, the Nabataeans' wealth and strategic location proved irrisistable to the Romans, who in 106 AD incorporated the Nabataean Kingdom into Trajan's newly-created Province of Arabia.

The subsequent prosperity of Nabataea fluctuated along with the other Eastern Roman provinces. Petra transformed itself into a metropolitan city and bishopric see (residence) in Byzantine times, but declined into insignificance during the Islamic period, from the 7th century onwards, due to shifting patterns of trade and politics attendant on the move of the Islamic capital from Damascus to Baghdad; Petra remained essentially deserted for the next thousand years, except for the occasional pilgrim, crusader, or Arab traveler who might happen to pass through the area, or the bedouin who made temporary dwellings in the city's caves and tombs. The city was rediscovered by European explorers (Burckhardt, de Laborde) in the early 19th century. By that time any local knowledge of the history of Petra had been long forgotten, and replaced by legend1.

The visitor to Petra today (2005) will see ruins from the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods. Most spectacular and unique are the monumental tomb facades that are cut into pink sandstone cliffs above the city's wadis (dry river valleys). These family tombs were fashioned for the Nabataean elite – kings, royals, and the rich merchant-nobility. Behind their elaborate facades, little remains but a large and empty room with a few small chambers (loculi) cut into the wall, in which the deceased were interred. The burials themselves have long been robbed out, and their chamber roofs blackened by nomadic fires.

The tomb facades of Petra are greatly admired because of the beautiful colors in their underlying rock, which range from the rose-pink of dawn to the golden glow of the setting sun. However, these monuments had a very different appearance in antiquity; they were plastered and painted in brightly-colored white, yellow, and red stucco.

Below its monumental tombs, the city of Petra was approached from the narrow and easily-defensible Wadi Musa to the east. In ancient times, Petra was a green and vibrant place, watered by the seasonal rains that fell down the cliffs and into the desert valley. Control of this water was essential for life, and the Nabataeans mastered it by expert feats of hydraulic engineering: wells, channels, and cisterns. The remnants of Nabataean water-works are still visible today; many have even been rebuilt, in the late 20th and early 21st century, in order to protect the city's ruins from the rains that still wash down the slopes of the wadis.

Although the Nabataeans were fully literate2, we do not have very much of their writing. Some dedications and inscriptions are still readable, although many of these have been lost. Two important caches of personal documents – the Babatha archive from Nahal Hever, and the carbonized papyri from Petra Church – deal with the legal and economic affairs of particular persons. Beyond that, we have little or nothing from the Nabataeans about their history, literature, or religion.

High in the mountains, above the cliffs of the wadis, are ancient High Places whose altars were dedicated, in accordance with usual Semitic practice, to the local gods of the Nabateans. Still under worship in Roman times, these remnants of an earlier past recall, in their roof-of-the-world scenery and numinous atmosphere, a primeval and sacred geography.

1Thus the fanciful, contemporary Arabic names of Petra's monuments have little to do with the real function of these ancient buildings: the Khazneh is not a treasury, the Deir is not a monastery, and so on.

2Nabatean script derives from Aramaic, and eventually evolved into Modern Arabic. Many inhabitants were bilingual in Nabataean and Greek.