Petra's History

This unique city, with its monumental façades sculpted out of solid rock, is a large, open art gallery produced by gifted people, the Nabataeans. They weren’t by no means its first, nor last, inhabitants.  Archaeological research has revealed traces of human use of the area dating back to the Epipaleolithic era. Petra became the intruigng place that we know today during the Nabataean period between 1 BC and 6 AD.

 Located in the southwest Jordan, Petra is halfway between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea in a mountainous region, named the Shera` mountains.  These mountains dominate the Wadi `Araba to the west. For over 200,000 years Petra has been a place for human habitation: the prehistoric periods are well documented, as are the later Islamic periods.  Remains of Palaeolithic campsites, together with flint artefacts some 80-40,000 years old have been found in the surrounding hills.  About 13,000 years ago, an early seasonal village was established at Beidha, just north of Petra.  At about 7,000 BC, the site was rebuilt and occupied year-round by a group of Neolithic farmers. The presence of mineral resources also made the region important.  Both bitumen and copper, the metal that opened up for humankind the technology of metals, have been mined and marketed since the most ancient times.

In the first millennium BC, the Edomites rose to prominence.  During the 7th century BC, they built settlements, some fortified, in the mountains.  Most notable of these are Umm al-Biyara and Tawilan, high above the Petra basin.  Subject to Assyria, Babylonia and then Persia, Edom in the 3d century BC became a nucleus of an Arab state, the Nabataean kingdom.  The Nabataeans made Petra the capital of their rich and powerful kingdom, filling it with spectacular buildings and carved façades, and making water flow to every corner of it. In AD 106, the Nabataeans acquiesced to the Roman general, Trajan.  Petra became part of the Roman Province of Arabia.  After the transfer of the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium in 330 under Constantine, Petra became the seat of a bishopric and by the 5th century AD, the administrative centre of the Byzantine province of Palaestina Tertia.  Though Petra's wealth had gradually declined -- because of the redirection of trading goods via sea routes, and because of the greater traffic on the northern land routes that passed through Palmyra -- it remained a prosperous and important centre, and a provincial capital.  The papyrus scrolls,  found in the Petra church in 1993, show a flourishing economic and social life there throughout the 6th century. It was not until the next century, in the years following the Islamic take-over that trade routes were re-directed and Petra declined further.

In the early 12th century, when the Crusaders first ventured across the rift valley from their capital of Jerusalem, it was to Petra that they came in recognition of its strategic advantage and established an outpost to defend their eastern border.  The fortress they built here, known as Moses' Valley, now Wu'eira was the last of all the eastern fortresses to be abandoned when the Crusaders withdrew to the Mediterranean in 1189. It was taken over by Salah al-Din.  From then on Petra dropped out of western consciousness.  With the abandonment of the site of Petra and the destruction of the water collecting and supply systems that made it possible to live further down the valley, the stable settlement remained in the mountainous areas, along the circle of springs in the traditional villages surrounding the Petra Archaeological Park.  People continued for a long time to use the traditional stone Arab houses, to cultivate the land on terraces and to keep the water supply system working. It was not until 1812 that Petra was once again visited by a westerner, by the Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.  Travellers that followed gave vivid descriptions of its monuments and the conditions of the country during the Ottoman rule.