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.