OnSite: Petra

In this video, explore the capital of the Nabateans!


Petra’s famous Khazneh. Courtesy Nathan Steinmeyer, BAS.

Tucked away in the sandstone cliffs of southern Jordan sits a wonder of the ancient world: Petra of the Nabateans. Whether it is the stunning façade of the Khazneh or the winding entryway into the city, known as the Siq, the beauty and grandeur of this ancient city are enough to cause even the most seasoned explorer to pause in awe.


Exploring Petra

Petra's Siq

Walking through the Siq, Petra’s ancient entryway. Courtesy Nathan Steinmeyer, BAS.

Despite Petra’s instant recognizability from films like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the greater city and the people who built it are far less familiar. While habitation of the area surrounding Petra likely began as early as the Neolithic period (c. 8300–4500 BCE), it was not until the Hellenistic period (c. 332–-37 BCE) that the magnificent city that we know today emerged, half built and half carved, from the rocky hills of the Sharah mountains.

Originally the naturally protected stronghold of the nomadic Nabatean tribes, Petra is entered through the Siq, a narrow gorge that meanders for nearly a mile through the hills before it opens onto the famous Khazneh. In antiquity, the Siq likewise served as the grand entryway into the city, with rock-carved niches throughout, some still bearing sacred carvings and prayers to deities, displaying the religious character of this important path.

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From its founding, Petra was a strategic junction in the rich Arabian trade network that carried goods from the Mediterranean, Far East, and Arabian Peninsula. Despite its economic importance, however, it is Petra’s ceremonial character that remains most visible today, with many of the dazzling stone-carved structures being tombs of the Nabatean royals and elites. The Khazneh is the perfect example. Despite meaning “Treasury” in Arabic, the Khazneh was originally the tomb or family mausoleum of the Nabatean king Aretas IV, who reigned in the first century CE. Ad Deir, or “the Monastery,” is another such example, thought to have been either a royal tomb or a memorial shrine to the Nabatean king Obodas I, who was later deified. The largest of Petra’s monuments, Ad Deir stands at a stunning 148 feet tall and 160 feet wide.


The first glimpse of the Khazneh. Courtesy Nathan Steinmeyer, BAS.

Although the Nabateans were a nomadic Arab tribe, the architectural style of Petra stands as a stunning fusion of Hellenistic and Nabatean traditions, a sign of their involvement in the greater Hellenistic world at the time. While many of the buildings are carved in a heavily Hellenized style, it was the Nabateans’ skill in desert agriculture and the harvesting of rainwater that allowed the city to flourish. Reaching an estimated population of 20,000 people in the first century CE, the city was watered through a system of channels, dams, and cisterns that collected fresh spring water and sparse rainfall from across their arid desert landscape. All along the Siq, for example, are channels, aqueducts, and dams that conveyed, stored, and diverted water from the surrounding hills to the city center.

water canal

Water canal running along the side of the Siq. Courtesy Nathan Steinmeyer, BAS.

Beyond the Siq and the Khazneh are the remains of the thriving Hellenistic city. Among the city’s marvels was an impressive theater. Carved out of the rock, the theater could have held upwards of 6,000 people. Further along the path is the city’s colonnaded street: a wide, half-mile-long, stone-paved thoroughfare flanked on all sides by the key institutions of the city’s Hellenistic life. On the left, one can spot the remnants of luxurious pools and gardens, as well as a bustling market and a grand audience hall reached by a monumental staircase; to the right, there is an elegant nymphaeum and an opulent shrine, the so-called Temple of the Winged Lions, dedicated to al-Uzza, thought to be the chief goddesses of the Nabateans.

Petra's temple

Petra’s Qasr al-Bint temple. Courtesy Nathan Steinmeyer, BAS.

Further down the avenue, beyond the remains of a towering triumphal gate, stands the imposing edifice of Petra’s main temple, known today as Qasr al-Bint. With its walls preserved to a height of over 75 feet, Qasr al-Bint was built in the guise of a traditional Roman temple, with a broad colonnaded porch leading to a smaller interior shrine, or Holy of Holies. It was likely built in honor of the chief Nabatean god Dushara. A short distance behind this temple, on a hill overlooking the city’s main street, archaeologists have uncovered Petra’s high-rent district, where wealthy citizens owned villas adorned with colorful Pompeian-style frescoes and supplied with the finest local and imported wares.

Petra's city center

Walking down Petra’s colonnaded street. Courtesy Nathan Steinmeyer, BAS.

Beyond the city center, however, the Hellenistic flavor of Petra gives way to monuments and features that are directly born of the Nabateans’ nomadic and Arabian origins. A rigorous climb up Jabal al-Madhbah behind the Roman theater, for example, brings you to an open-air sanctuary topped by towering obelisks that were set aside for religious sacrifices and rituals. A similar open-air sanctuary has been found atop neighboring Jebel al-Khubtha to the east. Both sites, in addition to providing stunning views over the heart of ancient Petra and its intricate honeycomb of rock-cut tombs, highlight the importance of traditional high-place sanctuaries within Nabatean society.


Who Were the Nabateans?

The Nabateans arose from humble nomadic origins in the vast deserts of northern Arabia sometime during the Persian period (539–332 BCE). By the late fourth century BCE, they had established themselves in the area around Petra (or Reqem, as it was known to them), but they still maintained a largely nomadic existence, moving seasonally across the desert with their tents and herds in search of water and fresh pasture.

Map of the Nabatean.

The farthest extent of the Nabatean Kingdom. Courtesy Biblical Archaeology Society.

But it was also about this time that the Nabateans began to get involved in the lucrative trade in South Arabian frankincense and myrrh, the same business that had led the Queen of Sheba to visit the court of Solomon some five centuries earlier (1 Kings 10). At first, the Nabateans were little more than middlemen in the trade, simply responsible for ferrying goods on camelback from Petra to the ports of Gaza and Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast. But as their economic and political fortunes improved in the ensuing centuries, the Nabateans gained political control over all of the lands bordering the Arabian frontier, a vast territory stretching from Damascus in the north to Hegra in the south.

By the first century BCE, Petra had become a full-fledged capital city, its rulers raking in considerable profits from an international spice trade that now extended from India to Rome. With such wealth and position, the Nabatean kings had to present both themselves and their city as equal partners in the international community, which at the time meant adopting the styles, tastes, and the mores of “western” Hellenistic civilization. Much like Jerusalem under the Herodian dynasty, Petra was to be built as a first-order Greco-Roman city ruled by Western-looking kings.

But the height of this prosperous desert capital that rivaled Herod’s Jerusalem was short-lived. By 106 CE, the kingdom of Nabatea had been swallowed by the Roman Empire. Although Petra continued to flourish for many years, its importance waned as the overland trade in South Arabian incense declined and the Roman imperial economy collapsed. The city, like much of the southern Levant, was then devastated by an earthquake in 363 CE. Petra carried on and even saw the rise of a significant Christian community, but it never again attained its former glory.


Read more in Bible History Daily:

Site-Seeing: Petra’s Temple of the Winged Lions

Solving the Enigma of Petra and the Nabataeans

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

The Petra Scrolls

When People Lived at Petra

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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