From somewhere in the vast deserts of the Arabian Peninsula in the years before the all conquering Alexander the Great arrived in the region, the Nabateans, in traditional nomadic style, moved to find the best available grazing and water for their flocks.
Although evidence is sketchy It’s believed that it was during the sixth century BCE, that they came to the lands of Edom, settled and built their magnificent capital city of Petra (modern Jordan), located at the crossroads of what became known as the King’s Highway. Past this strategic point came the caravans carrying goods from Egypt to Babylon and from Arabia to the northern kingdoms. It was perhaps inevitable that the Nabateans became traders, growing rich in the process.
One of the earliest authoritative references to the Nabateans comes from Greek Historian Diodorus of Sicily. Writing in the first century BCE, Diodorus draws from material written three centuries earlier. His source was Hieronymus of Cardia, an officer in the army of Alexander the Great.
With their arrival in Petra they began work to create what was an astonishingly rugged and beautiful city.
The Nabateans became particularly skilled water engineers; the evidence of their hard work to channel the winter torrents and manage the summer drought is still visible today, less noticeable perhaps than the many temples and monuments but a feature worth investigating. There are numerous underground cisterns, wells, water channels and dams scattered throughout the city and surrounding region.
By 106 C E, Petra and the rest of the Nabatean kingdom was annexed by Roman emperor Trajan and became part of the new province of Arabia. The city ceased to exist after the sixth century following several devastating earthquakes although in later years Petra did play host to a number of ‘visitors’, including the Crusaders.
A reference to Mamluke Sultan Baibars passing through Petra to Kerak in 1276 exists but little else after that date. In the years that followed, Petra disappeared under the shifting sands and it wasn’t until 1812 that the young Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burkhardt rediscovered the ‘lost’ rose red city.
Today the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, is undoubtedly the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’s best-known visitor attraction.
The entrance to Petra is through the Siq, a narrow crack, carved through the soaring rocks. A short walk, less than a mile, brings you to the area’s most famous structure, al Khazneh (the Treasury). The 130 feet high Treasury is carved from solid rock and although it was originally a royal tomb legend tells us it got its name because there was treasure hidden in the giant urn, which stands on the second level.
There is so much more to see, those fit enough to climb the uneven steps to the High Place of Sacrifice and the Tombs of Wadi Farasa are rewarded with a glimpse into the world of animal sacrifice. On top of the ridge is a level spot with two large drains, which allowed the blood to run away. There are also a number of altars cut into the rocks and the remnants of the houses where the priests once lived are clearly discernible. If that wasn’t enough there is a simply spectacular view across the mountains.
However despite its overwhelming popularity only 3 % of Petra Archaeological Park is seen by visitors. Currently a 20 year strategic Master Plan is being implemented to attract investment, develop new infrastructure and enhance Petra’s tourist facilities.
The sad fact about some tours of Petra is that many of the visitors to Jordan’s most popular site see only a fraction of the hundreds of monuments and tombs within the Park.
Many on ‘guided’ one day tours of Nabatean Petra will only walk along the Siq to the Treasury building and the Theatre, spend a couple of hours there before having some lunch then being whisked off to the next destination on their whirlwind Jordan tour or back over the border to their hotel in Israel. For me that’s a complete waste of time because you are missing so much of what Petra has to offer.
So my advice is to spend at least a couple of days investigating this beautiful and historic part of Jordan. There are a number of recognised routes and trails to be explored, some are self-guided with the help of a detailed trail map from the Visitor Centre, others require a knowledgeable local guide to help you make the best of the experience.
Best time to visit Petra
A good time to visit Petra is between mid-January to the end of May when the weather is best, although by May it is starting to get quite hot. From June until September visitors used to a less challenging climate may find the heat difficult to deal with, so it’s best to carry a supply of water with you. November and December are the coldest months, particularly at night.