Petra Treasury Revealed

This first view of the great monuments at the Jordanian site of Petra was made even more famous than it already was among archaeologists by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

In the real world, but like the movie’s ‘Alexandretta’, after the Crusades, the Nabatean city of Petra was largely forgotten, except by the Bedouin, and only rediscovered by the west as late as 1812, when the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt was first led through the canyon to the site (22 August 1812).

The Nabateans are something of a mystery themselves. It is likely that they were originally a nomadic people from the north-west of the Arabian Peninsula who took advantage of this spectacular geographical position in southern Jordan–astride a number of major trade routes–to found the city of Raqmu (later Hellenized as ‘Petra’ or ‘rock’) after 312 B.C..

They became experts in water management, both in terms of storing water to sustain city life, and diverting potentially catastrophic flash floods, by a system of dams, conduits, and cisterns.

They also became masters of carving structures into the local sandstone cliffs. These had the interesting property of offering a hard exterior which could be intricately carved, and a soft interior which could be relatively easily hollowed out to make large chambers.

Originally approached principally from the eastern plain, the city is far more dramatically approached today by a narrow gorge (the ‘siq’ or ‘shaft’), which opens up at a point along its length to allow this view of the Treasury (in Arabic ‘Al Khazneh’). This magnificent rock-cut tomb received its name from a Bedouin legend that the facade hides a vast treasure, and it bears the mark of hundreds of bullet holes where the local people have tried their luck at breaking through the rock.

By 106 A.D., the Nabatean kingdom passed peacefully under the rule of the Roman Empire as part of the province of Arabia Petraea, and Petra became its capital.

Perhaps because of this peaceful transition, the city initially flourished under Roman rule, but about a century later the city ceased producing coinage, and the carving of major tombs stopped.

The reason is unknown, but may have been a result of an incursion by the emergent Sassanid Empire, or a natural catastrophic event. It may also have been simply that the majority of trade moved to sea routes.

Petra appears to have survived as some form of religious center after the city declined, but, in 363 A.D., a major earthquake destroyed many buildings, and finally crippled the water system. The last inhabitants abandoned the city, which had become a significant Byzantine Christian center, about the time the Arabs conquered the region in 663 A.D..

Before finally succumbing to the desert and obscurity, the ruins at Petra remained an occasional curiosity into the Middle Ages–the Mamluk sultan of Egypt, Baybars, visited the site in the second half of the 13th century.

One Comment on Petra Treasury Revealed

  1. My adventures in Petra:

    “PETRA The Rose-Colored city half as old as time”.
    Did you know that Petra’s location had been lost to man from around 663 AD (CE) when it was abandoned and became a legend until rediscovered in 1812 AD (CE) around 1150 years later? In other words, just a legend for well over 1000 years.
    I have posted about Petra before on Facebook, but this is a greatly revised post that goes much more into my personal visits there. I have visited here twice.
    I hope you will enjoy this rather long narrative of one of the most amazing places on earth.
    Petra, is in Jordan, it is one of the most wonderful places I have ever been. It certainly deserves the honor of being named one of the “New Seven Wonders of The World”.
    It is a place you just must experience, as descriptions are wholly inadequate
    It has been said, but I have not been able to verify, that at the time from around 200 BC (BCE) to 100 AD (CE) Petra was one of the richest countries in the world. These dates may vary a bit.
    The important goods at the time were Gold, Myrrh and Frankincense.
    The Nabateans controlled the trade routes from their capital city Petra.
    Petra is in the Southern part of Jordan. This is a country that has many places of great interest to tourists. The people of Jordan are super nice and very friendly to those of us from other parts of the world.
    The country is ruled by King Abdullah and Queen Rania. In my opinion the best rulers in the Middle East
    I have absolutely enjoyed my two visits to that wonderful country and interacting with the great people of Jordan. The food is quite good as well.
    THE SIQ is the entrance to Petra.
    The distance is 2km or about 1 1/4 miles from where you enter till you begin to be in the city. It is an easy flat walk in a mostly dry steam bed. This stream bed normally has just a small amount of water on one side.
    The first time I was in Petra (Christmas day 1988) this small stream became a torrent as a flash flood hit the area. I will write a little more about that a bit later.
    Not to worry though as measures have been taken so that the dangers once posed by these flash flood no longer exists.
    Petra was chosen as the capital of the Nabateans in the 6th century BC (BCE). It was taken over by Rome around 106 AD (CE).
    Because it is located in a valley surrounded by sandstone mountains. There are only a few ways to get into Petra, but none of them are easy, and if the valleys are sealed, it is almost impossible for anyone to enter.
    The main entrance to Petra is called the SIQ; it has sides as high as 200 meters (650 ft.).
    This gorge and the temple at the end of it
    Al Khazneh(Arabic: الخزنة popularly known as and meaning “the Treasury”) is the name given to this building in Petra where legend had it that great treasure was stored. If fact no such treasure ever existed.
    (The Al-Khazneh) was popularized in American culture in the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”.
    The Khazneh translates to “The Treasury” It is just one of many very remarkable structures (over 800) in Petra as well as Roman and Byzantine ruins.
    In my opinion Al-Khazneh the most elaborate temple in the ancient Arab Nabatean Kingdom city of Petra.
    Of the over 800 carved tombs in Petra, the
    Al-Khazneh is the most famous.
    Its name Khazneh means “treasure” and comes from the Bedouin belief that the Pharaoh chasing the Israelites hid his treasure in the urn at the top of the Khazneh.
    During the flash flood, I mention below water was coming down on both sides of it from the highlands above like two gigantic waterfalls.
    Knowledge of Petra was lost to the Western world until John Lewis Burckhardt, a Swiss explorer, tricked his Bedouin guides into leading him there in 1812.
    Long before Petra was rediscovered by Burckhardt in had become a legend to the known world for about 1150 years.
    The only ones that knew of the city were the Bedouin tribes that have lived, and still do, in the area for 100’s of years.
    Burckhardt had disguised himself as a Bedouin and I believe bribed one or more Bedouins to guide him. If he had not, it is likely he would have been killed to keep the location lost to the outside world.
    There is a site in Petra, which is said to be the grave of Aaron (brother of Moses).
    There are two legends that deal with Petra, which few people have ever heard, but there is a fair amount of evidence for them, although I can’t attest to their absolute truth. One that says that where Moses struck the rock and the water came forth was at the entrance to the SIQ. There is no doubt that Moses and his followers did go right past this site.
    The second legend deals with Cleopatra. It is said she had a contingency plan to escape to Petra if Mark Anthony was defeated at Antioch by Rome.
    Well we all know he was defeated and the ships she would have used to escape were burned. So she chose suicide rather than to be paraded as a spectacle through Rome.
    Today the Bedouins are friendly and trade with the tourists. One of them invited me into his cave for mint tea.
    That made for an even better experience. That and the flash flood mentioned below made the day a real adventure, and one of my best travel days ever.
    Not to worry though this type of danger no longer exists.
    My first visit here was Christmas day 1988 and I was caught in a flash flood in this very area. That was quite an adventure. I do have many pictures of this and if I ever get them into digital form I will post some. One of them shows me sitting on a horse with my camera in one hand and an umbrella in the other. The water is up to the horse neck. I did not know it at the time, but some 20 years earlier 20 plus people had drowned in the area in an earlier flash flood. A diversion dam built since that time has cut down some on the danger.
    They do not let people into Petra when a flash flood is expected. There had been a little rain all day but this flood was not expected till it hit like nothing you can ever imagine.
    I found a couple of Bedouin boys with horses and they got us out of there. I tipped them well.
    It was VERY dangerous, but that did not really sink in till later.
    Because of the rain, I found some Roman coins that had washed to the surface, and one from the Byzantine era.
    All in all, even with the flash flood it was a “great” day. It was certainly an adventure I will never forget. I think I had 10 times more fun than Indiana Jones.
    My last visit was about 10 years ago and it is amazing how much more has been excavated since then. Although there is a tremendous amount to see here (one could spend days) only 1% of the city has been excavated after 100 years of excavations.
    On my first visit this site was not well known to Western tourists, but that has changed a great deal in the last almost 30 years.
    There were not a lot of people visiting than at all. That is quite different now.
    One thing I was not particularly happy to see were some make shift souvenir stands in the area which really seemed out of place. On my first visit Petra was much more pristine.
    I believe at that time of my first visit they only got less than 30,000 visitors a year. Now I believe it is somewhere (estimated) 500,000 to a million or more visitors a year. I am not 100% certain of those numbers. The numbers are somewhat down right now because of the misconception Jordan is not safe because of some of the problems in the Middle East. As I said this is a total misconception.
    Jordan is one of the most tourist friendly places I have ever been.
    Here is a bit of Petra’s history.
    Tomb facades were built from the top down. Scaffolding was built and then grooves were carved into the rock. Into these grooves were inserted pieces of wood, which when made wet, expanded and cracked the rock.
    Main Street: It has been estimated as many as 30,000 people may have lived in Petra during the 1st century A.D. It is a misconception that Petra was a city only for the dead. A large earthquake in 363 A.D. destroyed at least half of the city. Petra never really recovered from this destruction.
    Petra has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985.
    Just as a little aside. Lawrence of Arabia spent a lot of time in this area, and most of the movie about him was filmed in Wadi Rum a vast valley a couple hours away from Petra in a South-East direction.
    Wadi Rum is somewhat like Monument Valley in the US, but much larger.
    Believe me it is well worth a visit as well, and it is very beautiful in a haunting way.
    Wadi Rum is the valley that Lawrence marched his troops through to sneak up behind the troops at Aqaba, and defeat them in world War I
    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 Khalil’s wife were recruited to fight in the defense of the city. The defenders were able to completely devastate the Turkish/German forces.
    If you are ever in that part of the world it is well worth any extra effort to get to these remarkable sites. Both Petra and Wadi Rum.
    Of all the interesting places, I have ever been this easily is my number 2 interest. Number 1 will always be Egypt

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