Geological Rock Formations. Petra Archaeological Park. Jordan 2010 © Nora de Angelli / www.noraphotos.com
Petra was first established sometime around the 6th century BC, by the Nabataean Arabs, a nomadic tribe who settled in the area and laid the foundations of a commercial empire that extended into Syria.
Evidence suggests that settlements had begun in and around Petra in the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt (1550-1292 BC). It is listed in Egyptian campaign accounts and the Amarna letters as Pel, Sela or Seir. Though the city was founded relatively late, a sanctuary existed there since very ancient times. This part of the country was Biblically assigned to the Horites, the predecessors of the Edomites. Although Petra is usually identified with Sela which means a rock, the Biblical references refer to it as "the cleft in the rock", referring to its entrance. The second book of Kings xiv. 7 seems to be more specific. On the authority of Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews iv. 7, 1~ 4, 7) Eusebius and Jerome (Onom. sacr. 286, 71. 145, 9; 228, 55. 287, 94) assert that Rekem was the native name and Rekem appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls as a prominent Edom site most closely describing Petra and associated with Mount Seir.
Petra, a vast city carved into the sheer rock face, was turned it into an important junction for the silk, spice, frankincense and other trade routes that linked China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome. According to the Old Testament, a battle took place from the heights of the tallest mountain in Petra, Umm al Biyara. Another cliff top, said to be the burial site of Aaron (Haroun in Arabic), the brother of Moses, has been a holy place for Christian monks and now Muslims.
Despite successive attempts by the Seleucid king Antigonus, the Roman emperor Pompey and Herod the Great to bring Petra under the control of their respective empires, Petra remained largely in Nabataean hands until around 100AD, when the Romans took over. It was still inhabited during the Byzantine period, when the former Roman Empire moved its focus east to Constantinople, but declined in importance thereafter.
The Crusaders constructed a fort there in the 12th century, but soon withdrew, leaving Petra, ‘The Lost City’, to the local bedouins until the early 19th century, when it was rediscovered by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812.
In October, 1917, Lawrence, as part of a general effort to divert Turkish military resources away from the British invasion of North Africa, led a small force of Syrians and Arabians in defending Petra against a much larger combined force of Turks and Germans. The Bedouin women living in the vicinity of Petra and under the leadership of Sheik Khallil's wife were recruited to fight in the defense of the city. The defenders were able to completely devastate the Turkish/German forces.
The Bedul Bedouin inhabit the region around Petra which achieved a "World Heritage" status by UNESCO in 1985.
Entrance to the city is through the Siq, a narrow gorge, over 1km in length, which is flanked on either side by soaring, 80m high cliffs. The rose-red colours and formations of the rocks are dazzling.
The Al-Khazneh (The Treasury), a massive façade, 30m wide and 43m high, carved out of the sheer, dusky pink rock-face and dwarfing everything around it, is found at the end of the Siq. It was carved in the early 1st century as the tomb of an important Nabataean king and represents the engineering genius of these ancient people.
T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) wrote: "...so you will never know what Petra is like, unless you come out here. Only be assured that till you have seen it you have not had the glimmering of an idea how beautiful a place can be."