Although most of what can be seen at Petra today was built by the Nabataeans, the area is known to have been inhabited from as early as 7,000 to 6,500 BC. Evidence of an early settlement from this period can still be seen today at Little Petra, just north of the main Petra site.
By the Iron Age (1,200 to 539 BC), Petra was inhabited by the Edomites. They settled mainly on the hills around Petra rather than the actual site chosen by the Nabataeans. Although the Edomites were not proficient at stone masonry, they excelled at making pottery and it seems they passed this craft on to the Nabataeans.
The Nabataeans were a nomadic Arab people from Arabia who began to arrive and slowly settle in Petra at the end of the 6th century BC. It seems their arrival at Petra was unplanned, as their original intent was to migrate to southern Palestine. No doubt they found this place attractive with its plentiful supply of water, defensive canyon walls and the friendly Edomites, with whom it seems they had a peaceful coexistence.
By the 2nd century BC, Petra had become a huge city encompassing around 10km, and was the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom.
Primarily, the Nabataeans were farmers. They cultivated vines and olive trees and bred camels, sheep, goats and horses. They were skilled at water management and built a complex network of channels and cisterns to bring water from a plentiful source at Ain Musa several kilometres away to the centre of the city. But their main wealth came from the fact that Petra was an important hub for the lucrative trade routes that linked China in the east with Rome in the west. Caravans laden with incense, silks and spices, and other exotic goods would rest at Petra, which offered a plentiful supply of water and protection from marauders. In return for their hospitality, the Nabataeans imposed a tax on all goods that passed through the city and grew wealthy from the proceeds.
The Nabataeans were a literate people who spoke a dialect of Aramaic, the language of biblical times, and samples of their beautiful calligraphy can be seen carved into the rock face at Petra.
Apart from their outstanding architectural achievements, the Nabataeans were famous for their skills at making pottery, believed to have been handed down to them from the Edomites. A recently excavated kiln discovered at Wadi Musa, indicates that Petra was a regional centre for pottery production up until the late 3rd century AD, after which it fell into decline.
In 64 BC, the Romans arrived and established a Roman province in Syria. They formed the Decapolis League of ten city states, which forestalled any further expansion by the Nabataeans. In 106 AD, they annexed the Nabataean Kingdom, making it part of the Roman Province of Arabia. Petra flourished under Roman rule and many Roman-style amendments were made to the city, including the enlargement of the Theatre, paving of the colonnaded street, and a triumphal arch was built over the Siq. When the Roman Emperor, Hadrian, visited the site in 131 AD, he named it after himself, Hadrian Petra.
The Romans took control of the lucrative trade routes and diverted them away from Petra. It was the beginning of the end for the Nabataeans, whose wealth and power gradually fell into decline.
Evidence of the Nabataeans at Petra was dwindling and when Christianity spread across the Byzantine Empire, Petra became the seat of a bishopric and a monument was converted to a church, which is the Urn Tomb. Recent excavations have exposed three churches - one of them is paved with color mosaics, and new ones were built.
In 661 AD, the Muslim Umayyad dynasty established its capital in Damascus, Syria and Petra found itself isolated from the seat of power. This, combined with a series of strong earthquakes, marked the end of this once mighty city.
In the 12th century AD, the crusaders built an outpost at Petra, for their large castle at Shobak, 30km away.
Although there is some evidence that the place was, once again, used as a stopping place for caravans in the 13th to 15th centuries, it was eventually abandoned and became a place inhabited – and fiercely guarded - by the local Bedouins. This once magnificent city was forgotten entirely by the western world until the Swiss traveller, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, disguised as an Arab, rediscovered it on August 22nd, 1812.
The Treasury at Petra is a massive façade, 30m wide and 43m high, carved out of the sheer, dusky pink, rock-face and dwarfing everything around it. There are hundreds of elaborate rock-cut tombs with intricate carvings - unlike the houses, which were destroyed mostly by earthquakes, the tombs were carved to last throughout the afterlife and 500 have survived, empty but bewitching as you file past their dark openings. Here also is a massive Nabataean-built, Roman-style theatre that could seat 3,000 people. There are obelisks, temples, sacrificial altars and colonnaded streets, and high above, overlooking the valley, is the impressive Ad-Deir (A Monastery) – a flight of 800 rock-cut steps takes you there.
Petra is one of the news 7 World Wonders.
The Petra Nabataean Museum
This museum was opened in 1994, with three main exhibitions halls.
The first hall introduces the history of Petra and the Nabataeans, the geology of the Petra region, as well as special examples representing Neolithic food processing, Edomite pottery, Nabataean sculpture, and hydraulic engineering.
The second hall is dedicated to specific excavations, starting with the Neolithic village at Beida, then the Iron Age settlement at Tawilan, the Nabataean and Late Roman houses on Az-Zanter, the Zurrabah pottery kilns dated to the late 1st century BC through to the 6th century AD, the Nabataen Temple of the Winged Lions, the Qasr Al-Bint Temple in the city centre, and finally the Petra Church Project. A special exhibit representing earthquakes, Nabataean trade and Petra in the medieval period can also be seen in this hall.
The third hall deals with various artefacts, such as jewellery, lamps, bronze statuettes, terracotta figurines, pottery, and coins, with special emphasis on the manufacturing processes.
Petra Archaeological Museum
The old archaeological museum at Petra is located in an ancient Nabataean cave on the slope of Al-Habis. The museum was opened in 1963 and it is composed of one main hall and two side rooms. The collection represent finds from excavations in the Petra region, dating from the Edomite, Nabataean, Roman and Byzantine periods, with special emphasis on architectural decorative elements and stone sculpture. The exhibits in this museum are presently in the process of rearrangement after the opening of the Petra Nabataean Museum.