If you’ve seen Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, you’ve seen the ancient city of Petra, Jordan’s City in the Rock, which was carved over 2000 years ago from the pink- and salmon-colored cliffs of South Jordan. Petra’s most famous monument, the baroque Greek-temple style Khazneh (“The Treasury”, at one time both temple and tomb), 40 meters high and perhaps half as wide, carved into the face of the sandstone cliff wall, was the resting place of the grail in the third Indiana Jones movie. I thought it was a movie set—a perfectly constructed, ornately carved façade set in a natural wall of stone—and it wasn’t until a year or so later when I saw the same image on NBC’s Today Show, with Bryant Gumbel talking about events in the Middle East, that I realized that it actually existed.
This is the road to Petra, and a handful of men could hold it against an army:
Entering this great ravine, the path runs along the dry torrent bed, and the sheer cliffs on either side rise higher and higher as it penetrates deeper into the heart of the mountain. Here is perpetual twilight, with an occasional glint of sun on the cliff face high above. In some parts the road is 20 feet wide, in others the rock almost touches overhead; and no sound is heard except the rattling of pebbles under the horses’ hoofs and the sighing of the wind through an occasional oleander bush. Along one side is a channel cut in the rock, now fallen or choked with soil in most places, which originally carried water to the inhabitants of Petra from the springs at Wady Musa. The road twists and turns, and can seldom be seen for more than a few yards ahead: it seems to be going on forever in a rather grim, hopeless kind of way.
Suddenly, startlingly, the end of the chasm is seen, and framed in the cleft is part of the rock-cut façade of a great tomb, dazzlingly bright in the sunlight. The change from the gloom of the Sig, as the road is called, is so sudden that for a moment the traveler is dazed and bewildered. Then gradually the consciousness absorbs the glowing beauty and perfect proportions of the sculpture, the subtle colouring of the rock itself and the soft green foreground of oleanders. This tomb is called the Khazneh or Treasury, and the Urn at the top carries the marks of many bullets which have been fired at it in the hope of shattering it and releasing the treasure which local tradition says is hidden there. The rock face in which it is carved is sheltered from winds and rain, and the Khazneh is in consequence the best preserved of all the monuments. Most others are badly weathered, for the soft sandstone quickly submits to the battering of wind- driven sand and rain, and the sharp lines of the sculpture are reduced to a vague outline.1
Petra was established sometime around the 6th century B.C.(B.C.E.) by Arabic nomads, the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans extracted tolls from caravans passing through their lands, gradually increasing their boundaries and eventually extending their rule as far north as Damascus. Contact with travelers from the outside world influenced their culture, and their style of architecture contains both Greek and Assyrian elements. The rock faces of their land were cut, smoothed and carved into houses, tombs, temples, places of sacrifice, and over 800 individual monuments.
The ingenuity of the Nabataeans was apparent in their development of a consistent and plentiful water supply for their community. A channel was cut in the rock, transporting water from the springs at Wady Musa (The Valley of Moses) into the heart of the city. Because this source was vulnerable in times of siege, channels were also cut into the hillsides to direct rainwater into vast cisterns.
Romans annexed Petra and made it a Roman province in 106 A.D.(C.E.), and Roman influence can be seen in later monuments. As more wealth was lavished on the city and it became increasingly embellished, it came to be known as one of the wonders of the world. Over time, however, as caravan land routes were abandoned in favor of travel by ship (across the Red Sea), the city experienced an economic lull and eventually lost its position of power. In the 12th century, Petra was visited by Crusaders, who built a fortress there, but it was eventually abandoned. In 1812 the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt studied Arabic, grew a long beard, and snuck into Petra disguised as a Muslim trader. When he left, he brought stories of what he had seen to the Western world:
The very memory of the great and mighty city was lost, its situation completely forgotten, and it became a legend of mystery and wonder. Explorers tried in vain to find its fabled glories, but the utter inaccessibility of the rocky fastness, and the wildness of the few inhabitants of the surrounding district, kept for centuries the secret of its entrance. Mysterious and elusive, it excited the imagination of all early travelers, and finally in 1812 Burckhardt succeeded in penetrating the veil. He was the first European to look upon the fallen glory that was Petra, or, at least, the first to return and tell an astonished world about it. 2
Petra lies on the edges of the mountainous desert of the Wadi Araba, about 2 hours north of Aqaba, 3-5 hours south of Amman. Excavations are still uncovering more of this beautiful city. Petra has been uninhabited for some time; the Bedouin people who had lived in the ancient city have been relocated by the Jordanian government to houses in the village of Wadi Musa or elsewhere, and efforts to protect and preserve Petra and its artifacts continue in the face of ever-increasing tourism.
Sorry about the western-centric opening to this write-up; I wouldn’t have known about this magnificent place if it hadn’t been for Indiana Jones.
1, 2 http://almashriq.hiof.no/jordan/900/930/petra/jda/petra.html
Thanks also to gn0sis for the update.