Petra is to Jordan what the Pyramids are to Egypt – a startling testament to man’s engineering prowess. The Rose City, as Petra is known, is a must-see attraction of awe-inspiring beauty. It is by far the most visited site in Jordan, and the only way to appreciate why is to see it for yourself.
Petra’s history goes back to prehistoric times, but it is most known for the Nabatean civilization that built it and flourished in its rock-cleft alleys around 500 BC. Nabateans, an ancient Arab people, established Petra as their capital around the 6th century BC. Petra soon became a center for spice, silk, and incense trades, controlling the routes that ran from southern Arabia on to Palmyra in the Syrian Desert. Today, Nabatean monuments reflect a cultural and artistic diversity that is owed to the times when Petra was an international trading hub.
Perhaps the most remarkable Nabatean achievement, on par with the magnificent rock-carved Treasury, is the water engineering system that made life possible in this parched area of the Jordanian desert. The system included water conservation systems and dams that captured water in the winter months. An elaborate system of conduits and terracotta piping was then used to channel water around the city.
Around 60 BC, the Roman general, Pompey, conquered the Nabatean kingdom, but allowed it to maintain a measure of autonomy. In 106 AD, the Roman Emperor, Trajan, extended full control over Nabatea, and it came to be known as Arabia Petraea, with Petra as its capital. Petra continued to prosper under Roman rule and Roman architecture such as street colonnades and an impressive classical theater were added to city. The Romans, too, were influenced by Nabatean architecture; a Nabataean-style tomb was built in Petra for the Roman governor of Arabia, Sextius Florentius (127 AD).
Christianity reached Petra around 300 AD. The ruins of a Byzantine church built between 450-500 AD can be seen at Petra. Several Nabatean tombs and temples were also converted into churches.
Changing trade routes and a devastating earthquake in 511 forever altered Petra’s commercial fortunes. Soon afterwards, human habitation significantly declined in Petra. The last significant development in Petra was a Crusader outpost built in the 12th Century. After the Crusades, Petra became a “lost city”, known only to Arabs in the vicinity.
Rose-red as if the blush of dawn … a rose-red city half as old as time
In 1812, Petra was reintroduced to the world by the Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. On his way to Egypt to explore the “interior parts of Africa”, he was attracted by local tales of a lost city in the mountains.
After Burckhardt, several westerners retraced his journey and recorded their impressions. The most famous of these explorers was John William Burgon, the 19th century poet who penned the award-winning poem, "Petra".