What is “the rose-red city half as old as time?”

Siq, Petra - courtesy Argenberg - CC-BY

Siq, Petra - courtesy Argenberg - CC-BY

“… match me such a marvel, save in Eastern clime A rose-red city, half as old as time.”

[“Petra”, John William Burgon]

Petra was initially established around the 6th century BC, by the Nabataeans. They were a nomadic tribe who settled in the region and built the foundations of a commercial empire that extended into Syria and beyond. Petra was the principal city of ancient Nabataea and was famous for two things, its trade and its hydraulic engineering systems. It was autonomous until the reign of Trajan, but it continued to flourish under Roman rule. Inscriptions carved in stone list religious offerings of silver and gold, and the monumental rock-cut tombs at Petra show that the Nabataeans had great wealth and power. Petra was their crown jewel, and the the thriving capital of Nabataea.

One arrives in Petra through a cleft in the rocks called the Siq. Only a few feet wide and hundreds of feet high it virtually shuts out the sunlight. The floor of this cleft was originally paved but is now covered with sand.

The best-known of the monuments at Petra, the Khazneh, often called “The Treasury,” is the first sight to greet the visitor arriving via the Siq. The facade, carved out from the sandstone cliff wall, is more than 150 feet high, and is well-preserved.

With a change in trade routes, Petra’s commercial decline was inevitable. A devastating earthquake impacted Petra in 551AD, and all but brought the city to ruin. With the coming of Islam, Petra became a backwater community. Petra was revealed to the western world in 1812 for the first time since the Crusades when it was re-discovered by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.

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