Khaznat al-Faroun at Petra, Jordan. Photo taken by Calvin College professor Bert DeVries

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Experience Experience
Return to the PETRA homepage April 4, 2005 - August 15, 2005
Lost City of Stone

About Petra: The Nabataeans

The People of Petra

The story of the Nabataeans is a fascinating, and integral, part of the Petra story.

At its height — in the century or so prior to and after the birth of Christ — the Nabataean empire included parts of Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. And the seat of the kingdom was Petra, a city that the Nabataeans literally carved by hand from the rose-red cliffs of what is now southern Jordan (just north of Saudi Arabia and just west of Iraq).

The Siq that leads visitors to Petra
Visitors to Petra must pass through a thin split in the mountain — a split known as the Siq that is almost a mile in length but only 10 to 20 feet in width.

Even today visitors to Petra note that the city is hidden in the cliffs, reachable through a thin split in the mountain — a split known as the Siq that is almost a mile in length but only 10 to 20 feet in width with walls on either side that rise hundreds of feet to the sky.

What historians find most amazing about the Nabataeans is that sometime before the birth of Christ they shifted from a nomadic lifestyle to become prosperous urban dwellers. And not only they did make this dramatic shift, they did so in a way that causes archaeologists 2,000 years later to marvel at their skill as architects, engineers, stonemasons and artists.

Indeed their prosperity (Petra was probably one of the wealthiest cities in the world in its day) in the middle of one of the harshest climates on earth is an untold story, one that the Petra: Lost City of Stone exhibition reveals through the artifacts of this amazing civilization.

Water's Vital Role

That story begins with water, one of the desert's most precious commodities. In an area that averages six inches of rainfall per year the Nabataeans were able to harness the rainfall and the desert springs to the extent that Petra had a daily supply of fresh water historians estimate was big enough for 100,000 people (even though the city population was only 20,000 people). The accomplished this engineering marvel through an intricate system of cisterns, pools and waterways that captured and then transported water to the city. Archaeologists estimate that the system carried about 12 million gallons of fresh springwater a day!

Among the items on display as part of Petra: Lost City of Stone are two watertight ceramics pipes that were part of the system. Each 16-inch segment measures seven inches in diameter and the pipes were all connected via a watertight system of bell and spigot joints, a technique that still exists today.

Caravans and Commerce

The Nabataeans also were savvy businessmen. Petra was located at the intersection of two commercial trade routes, one extending west from Asia and the other north from southern Arabia. Flowing through these routes (via caravans estimated to include as many as 2,500 camels that extended as long as five miles!) were a variety of goods: textiles, spices, precious metals, ivory and incense such as frankincense and myrrh. At Petra the Nabataeans offered water and a safe haven for merchants, but they also collected a fee for their services. The Nabataeans also collected a customs tax on goods that came into their kingdom via the Red Sea. And, note historians, evidence suggests that they were not above plundering the occasional ship that entered the shores of their land.

The Nabataeans became rich by acquiring control of the Arabian incense trade by 100 BC and they used their significant wealth to build a remarkable city in Petra.

Their great wealth, say historians, meant great facilities.

City of Stone

Petra's open-air theater provided seating for over 6,000 people.
Petra's open-air theater provided seating for 6,000 people.

Their aptly named Great Temple included a complex of courtyards that totaled about 9,000 square yards. The lower courtyard had a staggering 120 columns, each topped with a large, elephant-headed capital. There also was an open-air theater for 6,000 people.

The upcoming exhibit at Calvin (Why Calvin?) includes an example of an elephant-headed capital that was retrieved from the site by archaeologists.

The tombs at Petra were equally majestic, rising hundreds of feet high in some cases from the canyon floor. The facades of the tombs were all laid out prior to the work by a master architect on detailed blueprints. Then the work commenced — laborious, pain-staking work that began with the carving of a ledge into the cliff face. From this ledge the tomb's facade began as the work proceeded downward to the ground level. The facades were characterized by bold cornices and stately columns and intricate, detailed carvings.

Digging out the tomb — which was used for a multitude of purposes besides housing the deceased — was also a laborious process as literally tons of solid rock needed to be removed from the cliff to create a space inside the tomb. Interestingly the Nabataeans used this rubble to make flagstone pavement for the floor of the tomb.

The Petra: Lost City of Stone exhibit includes examples of stonework from the tombs; it also includes a short but fascinating video that depicts the process by which the Nabataeans designed, excavated and built the tombs.

The Nabataeans also were quite eclectic in their influence, borrowing from Rome, Persia and Greece as they designed their temples, tombs and everyday tools, dishes and more.

Daily Life


Door frame


And they were quick learners. Although nomads for generations when the Nabataeans settled down they quickly learned pottery skills in order to have dishes and other utensils. Indeed within a few decades they were creating pottery that rivaled that of Rome and Greece both for delicacy and decorative elegance.

Several pieces of this pottery will be on display as part of Petra: Lost City of Stone.

Another amazing piece that is part of the exhibition is a large Roman vase, its handles shaped like panthers. Made of pavonazzetto marble, the vase was likely imported from Phrygia in what is now Turkey and was probably the work of a Roman master craftsman. Interestingly the vase spans two distinct cultures in Petra.

The Nabataeans likely used the vase as a garden or courtyard ornament. But archaeologists discovered the vase in a Byzantine church at Petra (the Church of the Virgin Mary). And therein lies a story.

Under Roman Rule

Things changed for the Nabataeans and Petra around AD 106 when Nabataea, including Petra, was peacefully taken over by Rome, which had been gathering size and strength 1,500 miles to the west of Petra even while Nabataea thrived. Rome was wealthy, but had a voracious appetite for territory, as well as what appeared to be an invincible army, and in AD 106 Emperor Trajan laid claim to all of Nabataea. For a time things stayed relatively unchanged, but gradually Rome shifted the trade routes of the Middle East and soon Petra began to decline. When the city was struck by a major earthquake in AD 363 a new chapter in the city's history began.

The Byzantine Era

That chapter brought Christianity to Petra. And although Christianity came slowly to Petra legend has it that the conversion process was completed by a Syrian monk named Barsauma in AD 423. A hermit, Barsauma was said to always wear an iron tunic — for maximum discomfort — and his life consisted of roaming the countryside destroying pagan temples and converting the pagans to Christianity.

The bust of Dushara
The bust of Dushara weighs some 2,100 lbs. and was uncovered at the base of the Temenos Gate.

Petra was one such pagan stronghold during its halcyon days. Among the gods were the female fertility goddess Al-'Uzza and the male deity Dushara. In fact, the biggest item on display as part of Petra: Lost City of Stone is a 2,100-pound bust of Dushara.

When Barsauma came to Petra the area was part pagan and part Christian but completely in the midst of a crippling drought. The monk said he would end the drought and soon thereafter a downpour began. The city completely converted to Christianity. And it was that Christian influence that led to the salvaging and rebuilding of much of the work the Nabataeans had done that had been destroyed by the earthquake, including items such as the panther-handled Roman vase.

When archaeologists discovered that marvelous vase it was in a church. The speculation is that the Christians likely salvaged the vase — and many other things — after the great earthquake and found uses for the items as part of their new religion. In the case of the vase it had been converted for use as a water basin for ritual cleansing.

The Petra: Lost City of Stone exhibition includes another item central to the Christianity of the day: a pulpit from the Blue Chapel at Petra (so named because it was built with blue Egyptian granite that the Nabataeans had used in an earlier building). A volunteer in the excavation of the marble pulpit was Calvin graduate Neal Bierling (the excavation was directed by Patricia Bikai) and the pulpit will be on display in Grand Rapids! As part of the exhibition both Bierling and Bikai will speak.

Petra Today

Archaeologists and historians note that written records of the Nabataean kingdom are rare. No histories appear on the temple walls and the cities appear to have no libraries (although evidence suggests that all the people could read and write). Some historians believe that the Nabataeans were originally from Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq). Others suggest that there were two distinct groups of Nabataeans: those from Iraq and another group known as the Nabataeans of Damascus (the Nabataeans controlled Damascus during the time of the Apostle Paul).

At Petra: Lost City of Stone, however, the lack of written records for this amazing civilization is not an issue. Over 200 objects — art, architecture and artifacts — speak volumes for the Nabataean people.

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