81 ** Petra: An Introduction

View of the treasury mostly blocked by rockfaces on either side of the photo
Figure 1. The Treasury, through the Siq, Petra (photo: E. Macaulay-Lewis)

There is only one true way to experience Petra, the greatest city of the Nabataeans, a people who occupied the area from Sinai and Negev to northern Arabia in the west and as far north as southern Syria. On foot or mounted on a camel, one should leave the modern village of Wadi Musa in modern-day Jordan and enter the Siq, a narrow, curving canyon, that traders, explorers and travelers have been walking down since time immemorial.

Stone carvings, camel carvans and betyls (the famous god blocks) set in niches, appear. But these elaborate carvings are merely a prelude to one’s arrival into the heart of Petra, where the Treasury, or Khazneh, a monumental tomb, awaits to impress even the most jaded visitors. The natural, rich hues of Arabian light hit the remarkable façade, giving the Treasury its famed rose-red color.

Most of the caravan has been worn away by time, but the lower half of one man is still standing, as well as a second pair of feet next to that.
Figure 2. Camel Carvan, carved in stone, the Siq, Petra (photo: Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis)

The Nabataeans and the Incense Trade

Petra was the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom for most of its history until the Roman Emperor Trajan created the province of Arabia in 106 CE, annexed the Nabataean kingdom, and moved the capital of this new province to Bosra (also spelt Bostra) in what is today modern southern Syria.

The ancient sources inform us that the Nabataeans were great traders, who controlled the luxury trade in incense during the late Hellenistic and early Roman periods. The Hellenistic period stretches from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE to 31 BCE when the Roman Empire emerged. It can also refer to artistic and cultural similarities in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, Egypt and the Middle East in this era. Petra, the rock-cut city of the Nabataeans, lay at the intersection of these rich trade routes.

The great wealth that the Nabataeans amassed allowed them to create the spectacular architecture that so many admire in Petra today.

The map below was used by special permission in the source material, and is not openly licensed. The map seems to be supplementary, and could likely be deleted. 

Map of Major Nabataeans Sites


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