The Rise and Fall of Petra

P 1
Photo by J. Gafni, May 2014

I’ve just returned from a trip to Petra, the rose-red Nabataean city, where history still remains in its ruins. Petra is considered one of the New Seven Wonders in the world, and in 1985 it was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Its history began as early as the 6th century BC and includes a long and prosperous role along the Silk Road.

The Nabataeans were ancient Arab tribes originating in the Arabian Peninsula two milleniums ago. They left behind their nomadic lives and settled in southern Jordan, while continuing to use their caravans to trade along ancient Arabian routes. They levied tolls and protected caravans carrying precious cargo of frankincense, myrrh, silks, spices, ivory, and hides from Asia and Africa.

Petra’s fame in present days is due in part to Steven Spielberg’s movie Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.

Our day in Petra began with a flight from Tel Aviv to the city of Eilat in southern Israel, for $377.00 per person. The fare included the flight, a bus ride, a guide, and a delicious lunch. Then we paid a tax of $60.00 each to cross the border into Jordan. After customs, our passports were stamped, and a two-hour bus ride took us to Petra. Our guide, Ahmad, gave us a lengthy and knowledgeable lecture before we set out on this extraordinary day.

When we arrived, Ahmad announced to everyone, “We will walk down for one hour, spend an hour at the ruins, then it’s another hour back up the slopes.” After two to three hours visiting the sights, the walk uphill in the heat of midday was forbidding.

“If some of you are tired, you can take a buggy ride uphill, pulled by horse, donkey, or camel,” Ahmad added. A ride would cost $40.00 per person.

We walked through a Siq, a road winding through a canyon. The walk down was pleasant and the temperature bearable. Ahmad stopped periodically to explain that some structures sculpted from sandstone are now weathering and losing their contours. But the most important building was still hidden from our view.


 Image posted to Flickr by Erazo-Fischer, June 2007

The Siq, or path that led to the temples of Petra, was built by the Romans, who also used the Silk Road to bring goods and spices from China. Dates and pistachio nuts came from Persia. Somalia traded in myrrh, frankincense, and aloes. Colorful glass vessels were brought back from Egypt, and sandalwood from India. Porcelain, lacquered boxes, and silk were exchanged by the caravans. Venetian pottery made its way to China along the route. All the trading that took place in many cities along the northern and southern routes of the Silk Road positioned Petra to cater to this bounty. Petra flourished.

P 2
Image posted to Flickr by Erazo-Fischer, June 2007

As we followed the Siq, throngs of tourists milled at each stop, with their own guides explaining why the Nabataeans chose this city to conduct their trade. Jordanian tourist guides tried to exchange Israeli tourists’ shekels to Jordanian dinars. The difficulty was repeated several times, because no one knew how many dinars to exchange.

Meanwhile we arrived at the bottom of the hill, and a monumental palace façade fronted a magnificient structure of rose-colored walls and columns carved right out of the mountain rock. Al-Khazneh in Arabic, or the treasury, is the pride of Petra. The emphasis is Graeco-Roman with columns and pillars above the second floor. At the entrance to the palace, guards stood dressed in Roman costumes. Ahmad told us that there was nothing but an empty cave inside.

P 7-1
Photo by J. Gafni, May 2014

Past the main palace structure, our group turned left and we descended further to more palace facades with little cave openings at top. Ahmad explained that these structures served as tombs for dignitaries and nothing was ever found in the caves behind the facades. So much for finding another King Tut! Except for a tomb built between 126 and 130 AD bearing a Latin inscription of Sextius, a Roman governor, no other tomb is marked.

P 4

 Photo by J. Gafni, May 2014

At the end of the road flanked by more tombs we came to a Roman theatre built by the Nabataeans in the first century AD. The theatre could hold up to 7,000 people.


Photo by bpavacic in Petra, Jordan on 26 May 2006.

The Silk Road was the global highway for many centuries in the ancient world, until the end of the Mongolian era when their empire fragmented. By 1453, when the Ottomans took control of the Byzantine Empire, the Silk Road was no longer used to trade goods between the Far East and old Europe. Some research suggests that the Black Death helped drive the last nails into the coffin of The Silk Road. The lack of commerce from this void gave rise in the following centuries to Portuguese explorations endeavoring to reach China by sea.

All the trading done on the Silk Road benefited the Nabataeans and enriched them. Unfortunately, their decline brought an end to a thriving trade that benefited not only Petra, but many of the other cities along the Silk Road.

About the Author
Lilian was born in Cairo, Egypt, of a Sephardic background. Her family immigrated to Israel in 1956. They spoke Ladino at home in addition to French and Hebrew. Lilian served two years in the Israel Defense Forces then transferred to the Negev Desert where she met her husband Joel. Afterwards they moved to California to raise their two children.