ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Mysterious Petra Rediscovered

An ancient hidden valley city remains in its secret world.

In 1812 a young Swiss man, rather poorly disguised as an Arab pilgrim, convinced a local guide in Jordan to lead him into an area where few had visited in many centuries. At first the guide was reluctant and later suspicious, so the intrepid explorer, named John Lewis Burkhardt, explained that he had made a holy vow to sacrifice at the tomb of Aaron.

Satisfied with this explanation, at least for the time being, the Arab guide led the Swiss man into rugged sandstone mountains. Burkhardt’s visit was a short one since the guide’s suspicion grew stronger. The explorer made his sacrifice, and upon threats from the guide, he fled the area in haste. Yet there had been enough time for him to rediscover Petra.

Petra is a place of enduring mystery. Perhaps it is the way the Siq frames the magnificent Treasury building, or the aspect of the gaunt hills cut by deep wadis or rivers… Perhaps it is the twinkling lights from tourist tents in the blackness of the valley’s nights… Or it could be the very history of the celebrated ghost town which adds to Petra’s aura. There is just something about the city that draws all who see it like a magnet.

In Biblical times Petra, then known as Selah, was a hidden valley city, a natural fortress set in the awesome mountains of southern Jordan, east of the Dead Sea. This area – then known as Edom – was wrested from its original inhabitants by Esau, the son of Isaac, who was tricked out of his rightful inheritance by his twin brother, Jacob.

In the 8th century B.C., the Nabateans took over the caravan route of the King’s Highway through Edom, raiding the passing caravans and then retreating into the surrounding mountains to stash their loot in the hidden valley. Making Petra their capital, the Nabateans had such a successful robber policy that in the three centuries before Christ’s birth and the two following, they built up one of the greatest trading kingdoms in the Middle East.

During the first half of the first century B.C., Petra was ruled by King Aretas III, the “Philhellene.” The king’s love for Greek culture was reflected in the city’s appearance. At this time, Petra began to take on the aspect of a Hellenistic city.

The wealth and beauty of the kingdom ruled from Petra inevitably inspired the greed of the Roman Empire, and after many unsuccessful attempts, the Romans finally incorporated the Nabatean lands into their Province of Arabia.

From this point on, Petra was a typical Roman town, having a colonnaded street, a theater, a fine road system, temples and baths. Virtually all of these structures remain in Petra today.

In the third century when the Roman Empire was beset by economic and political troubles, Petra shared in its tragic fate, and eventually sank into obscurity.

And so, Petra lay forgotten for twelve centuries, until Burkhardt’s rediscovery in 1812. Slowly, Petra became known throughout the world as a strange, fascinating, magnificent place.

The entrance to the lost city is a crack in the mountains called the Siq. Through this opening the magnificent Khasneh, or Treasury comes into view. Once in the city itself, it becomes apparent why Petra never again will be forgotten.

The beautiful facades of the buildings are carved in a variety of Greek, Roman and Assyrian designs, and the sun dances off them making the striated rock faces glitter. The ancient craftsmen had to devise a special system to make these unforgettable designs: starting at the top, they carved deep enough into the stone to construct a two-foot wide scaffold as they worked their way to ground level.

Most of Petra was carved out of living rock, and so, only the freestanding buildings have suffered from earthquakes. The mood of Petra’s elusive, timeless mystery has been described by Crystal M. Bennett:

“The multicolored striations of blue, white, yellow and black give the sandy rocks a scenic brilliance and magnificence. The colors change with the play of light so that Petra never presents the same aspect for more than a few minutes. This ever-changing color presents a challenge to the photographic skill of visitors, whose number daily increases. With the setting sun they depart; the echoes of the clatter of horses’ hoofs and the shrill cries of the Arab guides gradually die away. Night falls swiftly; the mountains become a dark purple to black, with a glow here and there from fires within the Bedouins’ caves and tents. Petra retires once again into its secret world.”*

* Archaeological Discoveries in the Holy Land

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