Petra : The Mysterious Hidden City

Petra ("petra-πέτρα" = cleft in the rock in Greek) is an archaeological site in the Arabah, Ma'an Governorate, Jordan, lies within a ring of forbidding sandstone mountains, 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. It is renowned for its rock-cut architecture. Petra is also one of the new wonders of the world. It was famously described as "a rose-red city half as old as time" in a Newdigate prize-winning sonnet by John William Burgon. UNESCO has described it as "one of the most precious cultural properties of man's cultural heritage." In 1985, Petra was designated a World Heritage Site. Even today this spectacular complex of temples, tombs, and houses can only be accessed on foot or on horseback. Entrance to Petra is via a dark winding crevice in the rock, known as the siq (cleft in Arabic), which is in places as little as a few feet wide.

This great mystery of the desert contains nearly 1,000 monuments, and once possessed fountains, gardens, and a permanent water supply. But why was it carved out of the sandstone in such a secluded, arid location? Who built this majestic and what happened to its inhabitants?

The earliest known population of Petra was a Semitic-speaking tribe known as the Edomites, mentioned in the Bible as descendents of Esau. But it was a culture called Nabateans who were responsible for most of the incredible architecture at Petra. The Nabatenas were a nomadic Arabic origin, but by the fourth century B.C., had begun to settle down in various parts of Palestine and southern Jordan, and around this time they made Petra their capital city. The naturally fortified position of the site on a trade route between Arabian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures allowed the strength of the Nabateans to grow. Gaining control of the caravan route between Arabia and Syria, the Nabatenas soon developed a commercial empire that extended as far north as Syria, and the city of Petra became the center for the spice trade.

The siq, Entrance to Petra

The wealth accumulated by the Nabateans at Petra (through their commercial enterprise) allowed them to build and carve in a style that combined native traditions with Hellenistic (Greek) influence. One of the Nabateans most outstanding achievements at Petra sprang from necessity. Their city lay on the edge of the parchod desert, so a water supply was a prime concern. Consequently, they developed highly sophisticated dams, as well as water conservation and irrigation systems. But the wealth of the Nabateans brought the envy of their neighbors and they were forced to repel several attacks against their capital during the late fourth century B.C., by the Seleucid king Antigonus. The Seleucid Empire was founded in 312 B.C. by Seleucus I, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, and included much of the eastern part of Alexander’s Empire.

In 64-63 B.C., the Nabateans were conquered by the Roman general Pompey, and in A.D. 107, under the Emperor Trajan, the area became part of the Roman province of Arabia Petraea. Despite the conquest, Petra continued to thrive during the Roman period, and various structures, including a vast theatre, a colonnaded street, and a Triumphal Arch across the siq, were added to the city. It has been estimated that the population of Petra may have been as great as 20,000 to 30,000 at its height. However, as the importance of the city of Palmyra, in central Syria, grew on a trade route linking Persia, India, China, and the Roman Empire, Petra’s commercial activity began to decline.

In the fourth century, Petra became part of the Christian Byzantine Empire, but in A.D. 363 the free-standing parts of the city were destroyed in a devastating earthquake, and it is around this time that the Nabateans seem to have left the city. No one is sure exactly why they abandoned the site, but it seems unlikely they deserted their capital because of the earthquake, as very valuable finds have been unearthed at the site, indicating that their departure was not a sudden one. A further catastrophic earthquake in A.D. 551 practically ruined the city, and by the time of the Muslim conquest in the 7th century A.D., Petra was beginning to slip into obscurity.

There was another damaging earthquake in A.D. 747 that further structurally wakened the city, after which there was silence until the early 12th century and the arrival of the crusaders, who built a small fort inside the city. After the crusaders left in the 13th century, Petra was left in the hands of sandstorms and floods, which buried a large part of the once great city until even its ruins were forgotten. It was not until 1812 that an Anglo-Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered the lost city of Petra and brought it to the attention of the western world. Burckhardt had been travelling in the near east disguised as a Muslim trader (under the name of Sheiks Ibrahim Ibn Abdullah) in order to acquire knowledge and experience oriental life. While in Eiji, a small settlement just outside Petra, Burckhardt heard talk of a lost city hidden in the mountains of Wadi Mousa. Posing as a pilgrim wishing to make a sacrifice at the ancient site, he persuaded two of the Bedouin inhabitants of the village to guide him through the narrow siq. The explorer did, however manage to produce a map of the ruins and made an entry in his journal to the effect that he had rediscovered Petra.

Since the time of Burckhardt, the purpose of the rock-cut city of Petra, hidden away in such a secret location, has puzzled many a traveller, scholar, and archaeologist. The magnificent entrance to the site is the more than a mile-long siq, or narrow gorge that winds through the soaring golden-brown sandstone cliffs. There are many small nabateans tombs carved into the cliff walls of the siq, as well as evidence for the skill of the Nabateans as a hydraulic engineers, in the form of channels – once containing clay pipes – which originally carried drinking water into the city. A further example of the engineering abilities of the Nabateans can be seen at the right of the entrance to the siq.

The Monastery at Petra

Now, as 2,000 years ago, after heavy rain, water flows down the Wadi Mousa (Valley of Moses) into the siq and threatens to flood the site of the city. There was a catastrophic flood at petra in 1963, after which the government decided to construct a dam to redirect the flood water. During building, the excavators were astonished to discover that the Nabateans had already built a dam, probably around the 2nd century B.C., to redirect the flood water away from the entrance and to the north, via an ingenious system of tunnels, which eventually diverted the water back into the heart of the city for the use of the population.

The siq eventually opens out dramatically to reveal the best known and most impressive of the monuments of Petra, the classically influenced treasury (El-Khazneh in Arabic). The name Treasury originates from a Bedouin legend that pharaoh’s treasure was hidden inside a huge stone urn which stands at the top of the structure. The well-preserved façade of the Treasury, carved out of the solid sandstone rock, is decorated with beautiful columns and elaborate sculptures showing Nabateans deities and mythological characters, and stands 131 feet high and about 88 feet wide. The structure may have served as a royal tomb, perhaps with the king’s burial place in the small chamber at the back, and also seems to have been used as a temple, though to which specific god or gods it was dedicated is not known.

One of the few remaining free-standing buildings at Petra is the huge masonry-built Temple of Dushares, also known mysteriously as Qasr al-Bint Firaun (The Castle of Pharaoh’s daughter). This extensively restored large yellow sandstone temple stands upon a raised platform and has massive 75 feet high walls. The temple, built sometime between 30 B.C. and A.D. 40 was dedicated to dushares, the chief god of the Nabateans, and has the largest façade of any building in Petra. Inside, the building is separated into three rooms, the middle room serving as the sanctuary, or holy of holies. Facing this structure is the Temple of the Winged lions, named after two eroded lions carved on either side of the doorway. This tructure, the most important Nabatean temple ever discovered, has been the subject of more than 20 years of research and excavation by the American Expedition to Petra. The temple was founded in August A.D. 28 and was destroyed in the May A.D. 363 earthquake that brought down many of the city’s buildings.

The largest monument in Petra and one of the most striking is El-Deir (the Monastery), acquiring the name from its use as a church during the Byzantine period (A.D. 330 – A.D. 1453). The spectacularly situated structure, high up on the mountain, is 164 feet wide and 148 feet high, with its great doorway measuring around 26 feet in height. The structure is carved, as with the Treasury, into the side of a cliff face. In fact, the Monastery is similar to a larger, rougher, weather-beaten version of the more famous Petra monument. Archaeologists believe that construction of El-Deir began during the reign of Nabatean King Rabel II (A.D. 76 – 106), but was never completed.

But what exactly was the function of this strange place – was it a fortress, a commercial center, or a sacred city? There are many royal tombs throughout the site, as well as public tombs and shaft tombs (the latter places are apparently where criminals were buried alive). But evidence from archaeological investigations over the past decade or so suggests Petra may have had many different functions over the hundreds of years it was inhabited.

The picturesque site is a popular sight and featured in various works of art such as the movies Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Passion in the Desert, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and the Sisters of Mercy music video "Dominion", and the upcoming Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It was recreated for the video games Spy Hunter (2001), King's Quest V, Lego Indiana Jones and Sonic Unleashed and appeared in the novels "Left Behind", "Appointment with Death", "The Eagle in the Sand" and "The Red Sea Sharks", in The Adventures of Tintin. It also featured prominently in the Marcus Didius Falco mystery novel "Last Act in Palmyra".

(Source : Hidden History by Brian Haughton and Wikipedia)

(Pics source : Pic 1 taken from; pic 2 taken from; pic 3 taken from
Petra : The Mysterious Hidden City Petra : The Mysterious Hidden City Reviewed by Tripzibit on 04:09 Rating: 5


  1. The pictures of Petra are beautiful. It's amazing that with Petra's ancient history that it is still so preserved. I can understand why people are fascinated with it. Beautiful and mysterious.

    Thank you for sharing this information. I enjoyed it very much.

  2. (Lea) Yes, Petra is a amazing and beautiful place. First time i knew this place was from a movie Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, it served as a secret temple hidden for hundred of years, and the place where Harrison ford finally locates the Holy Grail.

    I'm glad that you like this article :D

  3. I hope to be here one day after I retire from my work. thank u for this post. interesting to know places through your posts.keep it up.

    btw, i have a tag for u here at

    I hope u will post this when u have the time. thank u in advance.

  4. (Imelda) Yeah, me too. Someday i wanna go there. Thank you very much for tagging me :)

  5. Wow! that is an awesome architecture! If it's a stuff, that's an antique! great one! Thanks for sharing.. muahhugs

  6. (Cacai M) You're welcome. Indeed this is an awesome architecture :)


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