Petra (Greek πέτρα (petra), meaning 'stone'; Arabic: البتراء, Al-Batrāʾ) is a historical and archaeological city in the Jordanian governorate of Ma'an, that is famous for its rock-cut architecture and water conduit system.
Established possibly as early as 312 BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans, it is a symbol of Jordan, as well as its most-visited tourist attraction. It lies on the slope of Mount Hor in a basin among the mountains which form the eastern flank of Arabah (Wadi Araba), the large valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. Petra has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985.
The site remained unknown to the Western world until 1812, when it was introduced by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. It was described as "a rose-red city half as old as time" in a Newdigate Prize-winning poem by John William Burgon. UNESCO has described it as "one of the most precious cultural properties of man's cultural heritage". See: UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. Petra was chosen by the Smithsonian Magazine as one of the "28 Places to See Before You Die."
Excavations have demonstrated that it was the ability of the Nabataeans to control the water supply that led to the rise of the desert city, creating an artificial oasis. The area is visited by flash floods and archaeological evidence demonstrates the Nabataeans controlled these floods by the use of dams, cisterns and water conduits. These innovations stored water for prolonged periods of drought, and enabled the city to prosper from its sale.
Although in ancient times Petra might have been approached from the south on a track leading across the plain of Petra, around Jabal Haroun ("Aaron's Mountain"), where the Tomb of Aaron, said to be the burial-place of Aaron brother of Moses is located, or possibly from the high plateau to the north, most modern visitors approach the site from the east. The impressive eastern entrance leads steeply down through a dark, narrow gorge (in places only 3–4 m (9.8–13 ft) wide) called the Siq ("the shaft"), a natural geological feature formed from a deep split in the sandstone rocks and serving as a waterway flowing into Wadi Musa. At the end of the narrow gorge stands Petra's most elaborate ruin, Al Khazneh (popularly known as "the Treasury"), hewn into the sandstone cliff.
A little further from the Treasury, at the foot of the mountain called en-Nejr, is a massive theatre, so placed as to bring the greatest number of tombs within view. At the point where the valley opens out into the plain, the site of the city is revealed with striking effect. The amphitheatre has been cut into the hillside and into several of the tombs during its construction. Rectangular gaps in the seating are still visible. Almost enclosing it on three sides are rose-coloured mountain walls, divided into groups by deep fissures, and lined with knobs cut from the rock in the form of towers.
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. Stations 19 through 26 of the stations list of Exodus are places associated with Petra. This part of the country was Biblically assigned to the Horites, the predecessors of the Edomites.
The habits of the original natives may have influenced the Nabataean custom of burying the dead and offering worship in half-excavated caves. 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. In the parallel passage, however, Sela is understood to mean simply "the rock" (2 Chronicles xxv. 12, see LXX).
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. But in the Aramaic versions Rekem is the name of Kadesh, implying that Josephus may have confused the two places. Sometimes the Aramaic versions give the form Rekem-Geya which recalls the name of the village El-ji, southeast of Petra. The Semitic name of the city, if not Sela, remains unknown. The passage in Diodorus Siculus (xix. 94–97) which describes the expeditions which Antigonus sent against the Nabataeans in 312 BC is understood to throw some light upon the history of Petra, but the "petra" referred to as a natural fortress and place of refuge cannot be a proper name and the description implies that the town was not yet in existence.
Threats to Petra
The site suffers from a host of threats, including collapse of ancient structures, erosion due to flooding and improper rainwater drainage, weathering from salt upwelling, improper restoration of ancient structures, and unsustainable tourism. The latter has increased substantially, especially since the site received widespread media coverage in 2007 during the controversial New Seven Wonders of the World Internet and cell phone campaign.
In an attempt to reduce the impact of these threats, Petra National Trust (PNT) was established in 1989. Over this time, it has worked together with numerous local and international organizations on projects that promote the protection, conservation and preservation of the Petra site. Moreover, UNESCO and ICOMOS recently collaborated to publish their first book on human and natural threats to these sensitive World Heritage sites. They chose Petra as its first, and most important example of threatened landscapes. A book released in 2012, Tourism and Archaeological Heritage Management at Petra: Driver to Development or Destruction?, represents the first in a series of important books to address the very nature of these deteriorating buildings, cites, sites, and regions. The next books in the series of deteriorating UNESCO World Heritage Sites will include Macchu Picchu, Angkor Wat, and Pompeii. (25).
On December 6, 1985, Petra was designated a World Heritage Site.