No superlative can quite capture the wonder of Petra. This ancient Jordanian city, hand-carved into the rose rock of Jebel al-Madhbah mountain over 2,000 years ago, is among the greatest treasures of antiquity, and a worthy addition to the definitive New Wonders of the World.
Found in Jordan’s high passes between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, Petra is unlike any other ancient heritage site. This is a place where Hellenistic architecture marries time-honoured eastern traditions, and where, two millennia ago, a great crossroad between Egypt, Arabia, Syria-Phoenicia, India, China and Europe was forged, paving a way for the trade of spices, incense, and silk.
From the façade of Al Khazneh, The Treasury, to the remnants of the Nabataean’s ingenious water management system, which transformed this arid land into a fruitful settlement; Petra offers up a bounty of historical curiosities.
Here, we explore the history and legacy of great Petra, and showcase our exclusive experiences and encounters of this unforgettable Jordanian highlight.
A History of Petra: From the Nabataeans to Lawrence of Arabia
The earliest recorded mention of Petra comes from the Amarna letters of ancient Egypt, hand carved onto great stone tablets in the 21st century BC. Petra began as a spiritual sanctuary, ruled over by five kings whose bodies were entombed in sandstone deep in the narrow passage of Siq. As Nabataeans began to settle in the high plateau, a city grew up from the sand, quickly becoming the foremost settlement in the region.
Petra’s success in early antiquity owes much to the Nabataean’s resourceful water management infrastructure, which transformed the site from a lifeless desert into a fertile oasis. Historical documents show that the region was once vulnerable to flash flooding, and that the Nabataeans built a series of dams, cisterns, conduits and reservoirs to control and collect the flood water, safeguarding the city from drought and allowing it to prosper.
It was around this time, during the reign of the Nabataean’s regional dynasty, that many of Petra’s most famous landmarks were carved and constructed. With its towering sandstone rocks and narrow passageways, building temples and municipal buildings proved near-impossible. But, not wanting to abandon this ideal defensive site, the Nabataeans carved their homes, temples and royal palaces directly into the sandstone, creating a city within the rock, which has endured the ravages of time for thousands of years.
One of the most famous Nabataean buildings is Al-Khazneh, the Arabic name for ‘Treasury’. Constructed in the 1st Century AD, when Hellenistic, Roman and Greek architectural styles had started trickling into Arabic society, Al-Khazneh was originally used as a mausoleum and crypt, and decorated with sculptures and figures associated with the afterlife. While much of the Treasury’s intricate stonework has corroded, the temple remains the most impressive ruin in Petra, and an extraordinary feat of ancient world architecture.
Petra fell under Roman rule in 106 AD, when it became the autonomous capital of Arabia Petraea. With the construction of a new Roman Road, the city flourished as a trading post between east and west, and flowed with Indian spices, Chinese silks and Arabian incense. A century later, however, the Persians swept across the Jebel al-Madhbah mountains, forcing the settlers of Petra to abandon their homes and flee. After the invasion, the city never truly recovered, and as Palmyra grew in neighbouring Syria, Petra was left to linger on as a humble religious site.
As the Romans began to rely more heavily on sea-based trade, Petra continued to decline from late antiquity into the Early Middle Ages. In 363AD, an earthquake destroyed many of the city’s buildings, and its remaining inhabitants left in 663AD following the Arab conquest.
Throughout the Middle Ages, curiosity in the old city of Petra grew, and the site was often visited by the kings and sultans of Egypt and the Levant. Astonishingly, the site remained hidden from the Western World until the 19th century, when Swiss traveller Johann Ludwig Burckhardt discovered the lost city while trekking the Jordanian highlands.
In the decades that followed, Petra went under the microscope, scrutinised and investigated by archaeologists, historians and geologists from across the globe. Sadly, theft was rife, and many of the city’s ancient treasures were stolen and plundered before the turn of the 20th century.
In 1917, T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia as he’s since become affectionately known, led an Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire, with Petra playing a key role in the guerrilla-style tactics of the local Bedouin and Arab resistance fighters. With support from the British military, the rebels devastated the Ottoman force, and Lawrence’s name has since been interwoven into the historic legacy of this ancient old city.
Today, Petra stands as a true marvel of the ancient world, and a testament to the pioneering craftsmanship and ingenuity of those who helped build it two millennia ago. Described by UNESCO as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s heritage”, Petra is truly unique and wholly unforgettable.
Experience Ancient Petra with Scenic
Journey into the pages of antiquity with Scenic, as we transport you to the cradle of Jordanian heritage as part of The Essence of Egypt & Jordan escorted tour itinerary. From the Great Pyramids of Giza to the historic banks of the Dead Sea, revel in the tangible history of ancient civilisations, as you travel closer to mighty Petra and all its secrets and highlights.
After cruising the fabled Nile from Luxor to Cairo, you’ll fly to Amman, and from there on to Petra for an unforgettable two-night stay at the Movenpick Hotel. Marvel the mosaics of Madaba that stretch to the fringes of the ancient Nabataean city, before standing in the shadow of Al Khazneh, its ageless façade lit by the light of a thousand candles. The following morning, you’ll have all day to explore the sandstone monoliths that dot the chasms and plateau, from the impressive eastern entrance of Siq to the beautiful tombs of Little Petra, where countless Roman liegeman lie at rest.
Accompanied by an expert local guide, you’ll unearth Petra’s rich legacy and history, from its earliest origins to its role in the wartime exploits of Lawrence of Arabia – celebrating the immense history of this extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime heritage highlight.
History lover or not, few can refuse the opportunity to experience the captivating legacy of Petra. For more information or to book one of our unforgettable escorted tours, visit our Egypt & Jordan tours page or call our expert team today on 0808 149 9274.