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Petra - an archaeological site in Jordan

March 19th, 2007 / / Links: Google Earth, Google Maps, Yahoo! Maps, Virtual Earth / Nearest places

Petra is an archaeological site in Jordan, lying in a basin among the mountains which form the eastern flank of Wadi Araba, the great valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. It is famous for having many stone structures carved into the rock. The long-hidden site was revealed to the Western world by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. Its famous description "a rose-red city half as old as time" is the final line of a sonnet by the minor Victorian poet John William Burgon, which won the Newdigate Prize for poetry, given at Oxford, 1845. Burgon had not actually visited Petra, which remained inaccessible to all but the most intrepid Europeans, accompanied by local guides with armed escorts, until after World War I.

Rekem is an ancient name for Petra and appears in dead sea scrolls (4Q462 for example) associated with mount Seir. Additionally, Eusebius and Jerome (Onom. sacr. 286, 71. 145, 9; 228, 55. 287, 94) assert that Rekem was the native name of Petra, apparently on the authority of Josephus

The descriptions of Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and other writers identify Petra as the capital of the Nabataeans, Arabic-speaking Semites, and the centre of their caravan trade. Walled in by towering rocks and watered by a perennial stream, Petra not only possessed the advantages of a fortress but controlled the main commercial routes which passed through it to Gaza in the west, to Bosra and Damascus in the north, to Aqaba and Leuce Come on the Red Sea, and across the desert to the Persian Gulf.

Recent excavations have demonstrated that it was the ability of the Nabateans to control the water supply that led to the rise of the desert city, in effect creating an artificial oasis. The area is visited by flash floods and archaeological evidence demonstrates the Nabateans controlled these floods by the use of dams, cisterns and water conduits. Thus, stored water could be employed even during prolonged periods of drought, and the city prospered from its sale.

Although in ancient times Petra might have been approached from the south (via Saudi Arabia on a track leading around Jabal Haroun, Aaron's Mountain, on across the plain of Petra), or possibly from the high plateau to the north, most modern visitors approach the ancient site from the east. The impressive eastern entrance leads steeply down through a dark and narrow gorge (in places only 3-4 metres wide) called the Siq (the shaft), a natural geological feature formed from a deep split in the sandstone rocks and serving as a waterway flowing into Wadi Musa. At the end of the narrow gorge stands Petra's most elaborate ruin, Al Khazneh ("the Treasury") hewn directly out of the sandstone cliff.

A little farther from the Treasury, at the foot of the mountain called en-Nejr is a massive theatre, so placed as to bring the greatest number of tombs within view; and at the point where the valley opens out into the plain the site of the city is revealed with striking effect. Indeed, the amphitheatre has actually been cut into the hillside and into several of the tombs during its construction, rectangular gaps in the seating are still visible. Almost enclosing it on three sides are rose-coloured mountain walls, divided into groups by deep fissures, and lined with tombs cut from the rock in the form of towers.

It is thought that a position of such natural strength must have been occupied early, but we have no means of telling exactly when the history of Petra began. The evidence seems to show that the city was of relatively late foundation, though a sanctuary (see below) may have existed there from very ancient times. This part of the country was assigned by tradition to the Horites, i.e. probably cave-dwellers, the predecessors of the Edomites;the habits of the original natives may have influenced the Nabataean custom of burying the dead and offering worship in half-excavated caves. But that Petra itself is mentioned in the Old Testament cannot be affirmed with certainty; for though Petra is usually identified with Sela, which also means a rock, the Biblical references are far from clear. 2 Kings xiv. 7 seems to be more explicit; in the parallel passage, however, Sela is understood to mean simply "the rock" (2 Chr. xxv. 12, see LXX). Hence many authorities doubt whether any town named Sela is mentioned in the Old Testament.

What, then, did the Semitic inhabitants call their city? Eusebius and Jerome (Onom. sacr. 286, 71. 145, 9; 228, 55. 287, 94), apparently on the authority of Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews iv. 7, 1~ 4, 7), assert that Rekem was the native name, and Rekem certainly appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls as a prominent Edom site most closely describing Petra. But in the Aramaic versions Rekem is the name of Kadesh; Josephus may have confused the two places. Sometimes the Aramaic versions give the form Rekem-Geya, which recalls the name of the village El-ji, south-east of Petra; the capital, however, would hardly be defined by the name of a neighbouring village. The Semitic name of the city, if it was not Sela, must remain unknown. The passage in Diodorus Siculus (xix. 94-97) which describes the expeditions which Antigonus sent against the Nabataeans in 312 BC is generally understood to throw some light upon the history of Petra, though it must be admitted that the petra referred to as a natural fortress and place of refuge cannot be a proper name, and the description at any rate implies that the town was not yet in existence. Brünnow thinks that "the rock" in question was the sacred mountain en-Nejr (above); but Buhl suggests a conspicuous height about 16 miles north of Petra, Shobak, the Mont-royal of the Crusaders.

More satisfactory evidence of the date at which the earliest Nabataean settlement began is to be obtained from an examination of the tombs. Two types may be distinguished broadly, the Nabataean and the Graeco-Roman. The Nabataean type starts from the simple pylon-tomb with a door set in a tower crowned by a parapet ornament, in imitation of the front of a dwelling-house; then, after passing through various stages, the full Nabataean type is reached, retaining all the native features and at the same time exhibiting characteristics which are partly Egyptian and partly Greek. Of this type there exist close parallels in the tomb-towers at el-I~ejr [?] in north Arabia, which bear long Nabataean inscriptions, and so supply a date for the corresponding monuments at Petra. Then comes a series of tombfronts which terminate in a semicircular arch, a feature derived from north Syria, and finally the elaborate façades, from which all trace of native style has vanished, copied from the front of a Roman temple. The exact dates of the stages in this development cannot be fixed, for strangely enough few inscriptions of any length have been found at Petra, perhaps because they have perished with the stucco or cement which was used upon many of the buildings. We have, then, as evidence for the earliest period, the simple pylon-tombs, which belong to the pre-Hellenic age; how far back in this stage the Nabataean settlement goes we do not know, but not farther than the 6th century BC. A period follows in which the dominant civilization combines Greek, Egyptian and Syrian elements, clearly pointing to the age of the Ptolemies. Towards the close of the 2nd century BC, when the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms were equally depressed, the Nabataean kingdom came to the front; under Aretas III Philhellene, (c.85 - 60 BC), the royal coins begin; at this time probably the theatre was excavated, and Petra must have assumed the aspect of a Hellenistic city. In the long and prosperous reign of Aretas IV Philopatris, (9 BC - AD 40), the fine tombs of the el-I~ejr [?] type may be dated, and perhaps also the great High-place.

[Source: Wikipedia]

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