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The Nabataeans: Builders of Petra

posted on: Feb 21, 2018

The Nabataeans: Builders of Petra

By Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

Everyone who travels to Petra in southern Jordan is likely to ask, “Who are the Nabataeans and why did they chisel this city into the rock of a mountain side?” Casual observers cannot be blamed if they think that these people must have inherited a rich legacy in the art of construction.

Yet, this is not so.  Arab nomads, known as the Nabateans, who hailed from the Yemen and settled in southern Jordan in the 3rd century B.C., founded the city.  In the ensuing years, Petra evolved into a thriving centre of commerce, which included the countries of modern Egypt (parts of), Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and northern Saudi.

The city is one of the most fantastic sites that has come down to us from the ancient world.  Today, it is noted for its many monumental facades chiselled by hand into the towering sandstone cliffs – some 30 m (98 ft) high.

Called by the Arabs ‘Raqueen’, mentioned in the Bible as ‘Sela’, and in Chinese scrolls as ‘Lecan’, Petra, the name that the Greeks gave the city, began to be cut out of solid rock, beginning about 500 B.C. by the Nabataean Arabs who were, in the main, merchants.  They chose the site for their capital due to its impregnable location.  Surrounded by sheer and rugged sandstone hills, it could be easily protected from all directions.  The only entrance was through a narrow fissure called ‘Siq’, ripped through the rock in a prehistoric quake and averaging about 5 m (16 ft) wide and, in places, 100 m (328 ft) high.

The Nabataeans: Builders of Petra

Straddling the major trade routes in the ancient world, its location gave the Nabataeans access to the levying of taxes on caravans that carried the frankincense and myrrh of Arabia and the silks and spices from the Far Fast to the north and west.  Its inhabitants became immensely wealthy and continually expanded and enriched their sandstone city until it became one of the most opulent urban centres in the Middle Fast.

The city became a crossroad of the ancient world – a point of transit between India, Yemen, Egypt, Greece and Rome.  Camel caravans crossing the desert and going in all directions had to pay the Nabataeans a fee for the passageway. Subsequently, the Nabataeans, once former nomads, developed great skills in agriculture, architecture, and engineering, as well as in stone cutting and, of course, trade.  By 100 B.C., because of caravans carrying incense, precious metals, spices and textiles such as silk, great wealth was attained and this was used to enhance their spectacular city.

The Nabataeans: Builders of Petra

They transformed the forbidden desert landscape into a wealthy and bustling metropolis, carving from solid rock thousands of homes, burial chambers, public buildings, religious banquet halls, theatres and temples to create a fairytale city – unique for its time and even today.  The structures were so great in number that remains of 3,000 of these buildings can still be seen among the ruins.  Originally covered with stucco and brightly painted these structures in their heyday must have been a splendid sight.

In one of the harshest climates on earth, they were able to harness the sparse rainfall – annually about 15 cm (6 inch) – and the desert springs through an elaborate network of dams, irrigation channels, pools and terracotta pipelines.  From this complicated system of water conservation, they were able to supply fresh water to Petra’s population, which peaked at 20,000 around 50 A.D.  They also built terraces and had enough water to grow crops and raise livestock in the surrounding countryside.

The Nabataeans were not chauvinists. They were always open new ideas.  From the traders coming from the four corners of the globe, they picked up foreign methods, which they incorporated into their art and architecture.  They incorporated segments of the art and mythology of India, ancient Greece and Rome into their culture.  Later Byzantine Christian ways were introduced and widely adopted.

The Nabataeans: Builders of Petra
Nabataean god Dushares

As for religion, the Nabataeans had a relatively small pantheon of gods – the chief two being the male Dushare and the female al-Uzza, which they carried with them from their Bedouin days.  The wealthy had a fad for tombs and sacred halls.  Some 600 tombs and 100 sacred halls for ceremonial feasts chiselled into the cliff walls have been identified.

The fabled riches of Petra caught the attention of the empire-building Romans who during the reign of Trajan, after cutting off its water supply, occupied the state of Nabataea in 106 A.D.  The Nabataean sculptors continued chiselling and carving the mountainsides until the Empire fell apart in the 4th century A.D.  During the Byzantine era Christianity took root and large churches were built.  In the 7th century, Petra became a part of the Arab/Islamic Empire.

Subsequently, by the year 1000 A.D., Petra faded into obscurity and for centuries was only known to a few Bedouins.  In 1812 a Swiss explorer, Jean Burckhardt, found the ‘lost city’, bringing it to the attention of the world.

Today, Petra is a major tourist destination and one of the major archaeological sites in the Middle East.  Visitors come from the four corners of the world to gaze with wonder at the many facades, featuring elaborate designs, on the cliff side high above the canyon floor.  The handiwork of the Nabataeans still strikes visitors with awe.  Yet, with less than 5% of Petra unearthed, travellers have much more to look forward to in the future.