For the latest instalment on our lost cities theme I will be writing about the history of Petra. Petra is a historical city located in modern day Jordan, which is renowned for its archaeological heritage and now popular for tourists. It was designated as a UNESCO world heritage cite in 1985.
It was originally known as Ramqu. The area was thought to have been inhabited appropriately in the year as early as 9000BC. Petra was likely established in the 4th or 5th century BCE and is largely attributed to a nomadic Arab tribe, the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans settled the area as a prime trading route, particularly the spice trade, to buy and sell goods between the Mediterranean continent and Asia. This is where caravans of people would cross.
Trade was relatively successful for the Nabataean inhabitants, until over time nautical trading routes proved more popular. Petra gained some attention from outsiders, notably the Greeks and Romans. One of the first written accounts of Petra was documented by Greek historians. King Antigonus I a Macedonian ruler planned an invasion in 312 BC.
The site’s population grew to approximately 10,000-30,000 inhabitants. The Nabataeans were prevailed in attempts to takeover their land. They knew the terrain very well and how best to defend it from outsiders, that was until the Romans invaded in 106CE. Petra, henceforth was incorporated into the Roman Empire as a province.Trade was still customary in those parts, particularly the spice trade. However, over time this particular route steadily declined in popularity. What’s more in 363AD Petra suffered a terrible earthquake which significantly damaged the area. This halted further developments to the area in terms of commerce and population increase. Another earthquake would follow in 551.AD
During the Byzantine era Petra contained a number of Christian churches In the 7th century AD Petra was seized by neighbouring Muslims in Arabia. This was a significant time for the spread of Islam and its influence as Arabia was was unified by the prophet Muhammed in 622AD. During the Byzantine era Petra contained a number of Christian churches as the old city was the capital of the Byzantine province, Palaestina III and as a result was a part of the Byzantine empire sandwiching the Mediterranean to the Levant. These churches were excavated at the site and attributed to the Byzantines. Later in the 12th century the was evidence to suggest the area was an outpost of the Crusades, military campaigns from Christian Europe to the Islamic territories in response to their rapid spread. From then there are no accounts from the West about the Petra. However, that is not to say the area was unknown territory completely. Outside of the western world there are accounts during the end of 13th century that Petra was often visited by Egyptian sultans who were interested in the sandstone formations. Nevertheless, there are little to no accounts after this, that is not to say non eurocentric accounts. Nomadic tribes continued to live in the area.
Moving forward to the 19th century, The ‘discovery’ of Petra was attributed to a Swiss traveller by the name of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. He was the first European to describe the sandstone structures. The remnants of tombs and structures at Petra were visualised by David Roberts, a Scotsman who painted them in 1839. Unfortunately over time the site of Petra was highly vulnerable, its structures were weak and this attracted the attention of thieves hoping to amass its treasures. Petra was surveyed and excavated properly in 1922 by archaeologists along with help from a Physician, expert in local folklore and a scholar.
A number of scrolls written in Greek were found in the remains of a church, dated in the Byzantine era. These items were found 25 years ago in 1993. This discovery confirms Petra was not an isolated domain despite its land locked location. It shows other ethnic groups were interested in the area and remained for a time.
In the early twentieth century Petra was a focal point in the Arab-Ottoman conflict. In October 1917 during the First World War to intercept the Ottoman forces resources from the British advancement in Gaza, regarding the Sinai and Palestine campaign between the British and the Ottomans. The Arabs led a revolt from Petra against the Ottomans along with British support they managed to halt the Ottomans. Local Bedouin women also took part in the revolt.
Nowadays Petra is waiting to be discovered by tourists and is considered to be one of the New Seven Wonders of the world up with the likes of Machu Picchu in Peru and The Taj Mahal in India.