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Petra: The Rose-Red City Half as Old as Time

In 1845, John William Burgon, newly graduated from Oxford University, penned these lines about Petra, the miraculous “lost city,” whose discovery twenty-three years earlier had captivated Western archeologists and Biblical scholars. 
 
It seems no work of Man's creative hand,
by labor wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.
 
petra-jordan-375.jpgBurgon’s words still ring true for everyone who passes through the narrow winding Siq, a twisting corridor of yellow, brown, and rose-red rock that seems to have no end. Through the narrow tear in the rock is revealed the elegant facade of the Treasury, protected for centuries from cruel erosion by the desert winds. The contrast between the rough rock and the polished facade begs the questions:  Who made this fabled but forgotten city? How did they make it, and why?
 
Some answers come readily. We know from traces of copper deposits that Petra was an essential link in the chain of cities along which goods from Aqaba were brought to Damascus via Petra and Amman. Petra’s protected location made it a natural choice to store goods along these key trading routes. 
 
Biblical scholars identify Petra, which means “rock” in Arabic, as the ancient land of Edom, famed in the Bible for refusing to welcome Moses and the Israelites. In nearby Wadi Mousa, it is said that Moses struck the ground with his staff and a two-pronged spring gushed forth. Whether or not Moses was responsible, remains of a sophisticated network of ceramic pipes, aqueducts, and irrigation channels testify to the vital importance of water to this oasis city, which grew in size to an astonishing 30,000 inhabitants in its heyday.
 
The architects of Petra’s greatness were the Nabateans, about which we know frustratingly little as they left no written records. Foreign accounts suggest they were a resourceful, flexible, and pragmatic people of nomadic origin, taught by highly skilled Babylonian masons to hew buildings from the rock facade. Rather than confronting their neighbors and the many potential invaders who coveted the wealth of Petra, the Nabateans found ways through shrewd diplomacy and compromise to stave off attacks. When Emperor Augustus of Rome sent an army to secure Petra, the Nabatean king’s chief minister met the army himself and offered to guide them to the fabled city. Bringing them around the long, back way through the desert, most of the Romans died of sunstroke and thirst by the time they reached Petra. 
 
A robust Hellenistic influence is prevalent in the elegant proportions of Petra, but fierce debate rages over the purpose of the buildings and the city itself. Was Petra one vast necropolis of tombs, or was it a vibrant city of the living as the complicated network of buildings, roads, and alleyways suggests?
 
Ultimately the Romans were able to absorb Petra into their rapidly expanding empire, finally securing their hold over the city in 106 CE. The Byzantines inherited the rose-red city, and its adaptive people adopted Christianity in the late fourth century with Petra ultimately achieving the distinction of its own Metropolitan. 
 
As trade routes moved to the sea and repeated earthquakes in the third to sixth century began to damage major parts of the city, Petra began to sink into obscurity. Where the Nabateans went remains a mystery, but Petra became the home of nomadic tribesmen, who took up residence with their flocks in the abandoned stone buildings.
 
Centuries passed with only whispers verging on the fantastical about the storied rose-red city. In 1812 John Burckhardt, a Swiss intellectual, fluent Arabic speaker, and learned Koranic scholar disguised himself as an Indian trader to explore the Mountains of Moab. As Burckhardt traveled south on the King’s Highway, rumors of the lost city of Petra grew more detailed. Burckhardt convinced his Bedu guides to lead him to the Temple of Aaron, where he claimed he wished to sacrifice a goat. Impressed by his seeming piety, they led him through the Siq and Petra on the way to the prophet’s tomb. Burckhardt was able to make quick sketches in a tiny notebook he concealed beneath his robes.
 
Burckhardt's hasty, risky sketches were published five years after his death in Cairo, and they proved invaluable to the hordes of starry-eyed archeologists and Biblical scholars who raced to Petra to ponder her mysteries. 
 
The allure of Petra has not abated since Burckhardt’s perilous voyage through the ancient city. Active digs continue, and new finds delight archeologists and scholars alike. Recent finds of Neolithic dwellings suggest that Petra may well be one of the oldest sites of human habitation on earth. It seems Burgon was right:  the rose-red city really is, “as old as time.”

 
Visit Petra and Jordan with Alexander + Roberts on our in-depth itineraries Highlights of Jordan and Journey to Petra. Contact our knowledgeable reservation agents today to learn about this and other innovative itineraries.

Posted: 5/2/2019 3:40:20 PM by Alexander + Roberts