Of all places shaped by humans, Petra may claim the first rank in beauty. One dares to say it, now that millions have chosen Petra among the world’s Seven Wonders (second only to the Great Wall of China). The components of Petra’s beauty are the riot of color and the elegant precision of architectural line: wildness and control in harmony.
The Nabataean Arabs who sculpted the city started out as tent-dwelling caravaneers with no homegrown architectural tradition. They borrowed from the styles of the people they traded with, adapting them boldly to their desert setting. The royal family and its entourage cut 34 tombs in the sandstone cliffs in the style of Roman temples. Elsewhere in the Hellenistic world, temples collapsed. The mountains, however, remained. Where today can you see full façades, roofs and all? In Petra.
These temple-like tombs are the exception at Petra. The upper and middle classes, subroyal, stuck to forms passed down from the Ancient Near East through the Assyrian Empire and Persia. We find in Petra, therefore, an epitome of the best of the ancient world, west and east, a microcosm in sandstone.
Yet the Petra of 2000 years ago was not a city of tombs. It is estimated that at its height in the 1st century AD, 30,000 lived here – using between 600 and 700 caves hewn into the rock, as well as built houses. The houses fell long ago, leaving mere foundations and sometimes a finely painted bit of wall. But the caves remain. So do the rock-cut tombs, parts of temples, a theater, many so-called high places, and the magnificent presentation of it all. Yet if Hieronymus of Cardia is to be believed, at one time the Nabataeans outlawed building and insisted on living in tents:
“They live under the open sky and claim as fatherland a wilderness that contains neither rivers nor goodly springs from which a hostile army might draw water. They have a law forbidding them to sow grain, plant orchards, make wine or build houses. Anyone who does so will be executed. They follow this principle because they believe that anyone who possesses such things in order to get a use from them is vulnerable to powerful men, who can compel their obedience. Some raise camels, others sheep, which they pasture in the wilderness.”
When they changed their life style, most retained a distinctive simplicity of form. Yet as a nation that lived from international trade, they had learned to be tolerant of other cultures. Side by side with conservative, imageless forms, therefore, we find others decked with images galore.
Strabo and Pliny describe the natural advantages that gave Petra its importance. Strabo writes: “It lies on a site which is otherwise smooth and level, but it is fortified all round by rock, the outside parts of the site being precipitous and sheer, and the inside parts having springs in abundance, both domestic purposes and for watering gardens” (Strabo 16.4.21, 26). Pliny seconds this: “it is surrounded by inaccessible mountains with a river flowing between them.” The river is today called Wadi Musa.
The main factor that made Petra important, though, was that the Nabataeans chose to make it so. For the Nabataeans were important. What made them so was their mastery of the desert between Arabia and Gaza. This mastery depended on their ability to dig cisterns that collected large amounts of runoff and to keep them hidden from outsiders. Thanks to this water supply, they could ship goods on camels. Just south of Gaza lay Egypt. The Nabataeans had a near monopoly on the transport to Egypt of items they’d acquired from Arabia and India. From Arabia there were frankincense, myrrh and aloe. From India there were black pepper, precious gems, textiles, nard, Chinese silk and Malaysian cinammon. The routes to Egypt went through Petra.
During this pre-Roman time, another factor also came into play. In the 2nd century BC and much of the 1st, the Seleucids were confined to Syria, having lost Mesopotamia to the Parthians. (See map below.) Normally, the bulk of the India trade went by ship into the Persian Gulf. Much then crossed the desert to Petra, but another part continued up the Euphrates or the Tigris, reaching Antioch’s harbor on the Syrian coast, whence it could be sent throughout the Mediterranean world. But the Seleucids and Parthians were enemies; the fighting started about 150 BC and lasted, off and on, for almost a century. When Rome conquered Syria, it too got into battles with the Parthians. For much of the period, then, between 150 and 30 BC, the routes from Mesopotamia to Antioch were blocked. As a result, Petra got an even bigger than usual piece of the action, and the Nabataeans accumulated their first great wealth. This is the situation pictured below. Note the centrality of Petra: