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April 28, 2010

Petra - How living rock became a home

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

More by this author...

PETRA, Jordan -- The Qur'an refers to many pre-Islamic peoples who rejected the divine guidance brought by those prophets and messengers who were sent among them. One of those groups, the people of Thamoud, constructed secure and mighty buildings that were literally carved into the rocky sides of mountains.

They were a skilled and abundantly productive people whose gifts and prosperity came from God, although they did not acknowledge Him. According to the Qur'an, their Prophet was Saleh, but they rejected Saleh's message to worship only the One God and thus became corrupt.  Eventually, a powerful earthquake destroyed many of their cities.

The story of Thamoud and their Prophet Saleh is mentioned in the Qur'an in three chapters; (7: 72-79), (15: 80 - 84) and (126: 141-159).

While the Qur'an does not mention Petra by name as the capital city of Thamoud, it is highly likely that the builders of Petra and the people of the Prophet Saleh were one and the same.

The ancient stone city of Petra is the most famous attraction in Jordan. It is nestled in the mountains south of the Dead Sea, about 260 kms west of Amman.

Archaeologists today know it as the capital of the Nabataean Arabs (the people of Thamoud in the Qur'an) who inhabited the area during ancient times and carved their homes, temples, tombs and other buildings out of solid rock. Petra and its early name Sela both mean "stone" in Greek.

The Anglican theologian, antiquities expert and amateur poet, Dean Burgon (1813 - 1888) was enchanted by contemporary descriptions and drawings of Petra -- so much so, that he penned a prize-winning sonnet about the fabled city, despite never having seen it. The most famous couplet of his poem reads: "Match me such a marvel save in Eastern clime, a rose-red city half as old as time."

As in ancient times, visitors of today approach the centre of Petra along the Siq, a deep and winding 1.5 km cleft in the rock that varies in width from 5 to 200 metres. No motorized vehicles are permitted; one can walk the distance, ride on horseback, or be taken in a horse-drawn carriage.

As you go through the Siq, steep mountain walls tower more than 200 meters up on both sides, creating a scene like no other.

But the Siq can be as deadly as it is beautiful; in 1963 a sudden downpour sent torrents of water down the narrow gorge and 28 people were drowned in a flash flood from which there was no escape.

You can easily take hundreds of pictures of the fascinating rock formations along the way before even entering the amazing main square of the city.

When you do finally reach the end of the Siq, the cleft suddenly opens out upon the most impressive of all Petra's monuments, called Al-Khazneh, which is Arabic for "the Treasury."

One of the most elegant remains of any known ancient site, it is carved out of solid rock from the mountainside and its façade rises more than 40 meters high. Estimates of its age range from 100 BCE to 200 CE.

Al-Khazneh actually served as a royal tomb, but gets its financial description from a legend that pirates once hid their treasure there. Later, Bedouin raiders periodically fired guns at the building in unsuccessful attempts to find the mythical "treasure" and their bullet holes are clearly visible today.

Buildings hollowed out of "living rock" have been found in a number of places throughout the world, but Petra is unique for the size and complexity of its architecture. Almost all of its hundreds of buildings have been hewn out of solid rock; only a few are free-standing edifices.

Another unusual aspect of Petra is that it has been inhabited almost continuously. Until 1984, many of its buildings were home to local Bedouins; they were relocated to modern housing near the adjacent town of Wadi Mousa. In 1985, Petra was officially declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

For centuries, however, Petra was one of the ancient world's "best kept secrets," known only to local Bedouins and Arab traders. But in 1812 Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784-1817), a Swiss-born, British-educated explorer and convert to Islam, visited the ancient city and sent copious notes on this and other explorations back to Europe for publication.

Archaeologists believe that the site of Petra has been inhabited off and on from prehistoric times. It only became a major centre, however, when the nomadic Nabataeans migrated from the western Arabian Peninsula during the sixth century BCE and settled in the area.

They successfully developed and expanded Petra as a wealthy crossroads town -- a commercial centre for Arabian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman traders which connected the Red Sea, Damascus and southern Arabia. But the growing economic and political power of the Nabataeans began to worry the Romans, so in 31 BCE King Herod the Great took control of a large area of Nabataean territory, including Petra.

Nabataean society impressed the Roman scholar Strabo, who wrote that their community was governed by a royal family that leaned toward the spirit of democracy; their king was so just that he often rendered a public account of his rule to a citizens' assembly.

With its incorporation into the Roman Empire, Petra reached the heyday of its growth and regional stature, with a population estimated at between 20,000 and 30,000. But the great rock city's fortunes began to decline with a shift in trade routes north to Palmyra in Syria. Then in 363 CE, nature struck an even harder blow than changing human fashions: Petra was devastated by a major earthquake that destroyed its free-standing structures. Fortunately, the great rock-carved buildings were preserved.

By the time Muslims moved north to Petra during the seventh century CE, it was no longer a prosperous trading centre. In 747 CE, the city was damaged again by an earthquake and lapsed into insignificance, interrupted only by the arrival of a small Crusader community during the 12th or 13th centuries. For the next 600 years or so, it languished in forgotten obscurity until Burckhardt rediscovered it in 1812 (only five years before his death of exhaustion and disease at the young age of 33).

In honour of Petra, I recommend the book "Petra and the Holy Land" which contains copies of the beautiful lithographs made by the Scottish traveler,

David Roberts (1796-1864).

After seeing Petra, one poet wrote admiringly: "Under the arch of Life where love and death, terror and mystery, guard her shrine, I saw beauty enthroned; and though her gaze struck awe, I drew it in as simply as my breath."

Petra still casts her magic spell of ancient grace and beauty on present-day travelers; for many, it is one of those "must-see" lifetime destinations.

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