The Jordanian government has announced a $US 1.4 million plan to upgrade visitor facilities at the ancient Nabataean city site of Petra three hours south of the capital Amman. According to local authorities, the project will “enlighten tourists through a wide range of exhibits depicting various aspects of economic, cultural and social life of communities that lived there in a historically accurate way.” The aim is to provide insights into how the Nabataean culture operated 2,000 ago and will be a significant addition to Jordan’s premier tourist site which attracts 30,000 visitors every month.
Petra was the glittering capital of the Nabataean empire which reached its zenith under King Aretas IV (9BC to 40 AD). These dates straddled the lifetime of Jesus and Aretas was involved in hostilities with Herod, the Roman client king of Judea over a domestic spat when Herodias displaced Aretas's daughter as Herod's wife.
The city was established three hundred years earlier by a formerly nomadic people called the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans migrated from Arabia as shepherds and caravan traders who benefited from horse breeding. They settled and farmed rich irrigated productive land on a trade route, centred on the previously unpopulated area round Petra. It became known as 'a rose red city half as old as time'. The capital was strategically situated only twenty kilometres from the crossroads of two vital trade routes; one linking the Persian Gulf (and the silks and spices of India and China) with the Mediterranean Sea (and the empires of the Greeks and Romans), the other connecting Syria with the Red Sea.
Over the next two centuries, Petra became a major centre of commerce in the Negev desert dominating the spice route down to Arabia and Yemen. It carved out a bustling trade in incense, ivory, textiles and other precious goods that flowed by camel caravan from China, India and Southern Arabia to Mediterranean markets. It was the Nabataean ability to harness the limited water supply of the region that was the key to their success. The city’s elaborate water management system is still not fully understood.
By the time the Romans took over the desert metropolis in 106AD, a complex integrated system of hand-carved stone flumes (some lined with ceramic pipes), reservoirs and 200 cisterns was capable of supplying as much as 12 million gallons of water a day to the settled valley.
Petra was half built and half carved into the rock at the interior of a circle of mountains riddled with corridors and gorges. The largest monument is the Treasury building, the Al Khazneh. It is Petra’s signature building most often photographed through the narrow siq (the gap in the gorge) which leads to the monument.
Petra’s decline began after the Roman takeover as the Romans found new sea trade routes replace the caravans. But it remained a capital of a Roman province and a bishopric when Rome converted to Christianity. A major earthquake in 363AD destroyed much of the city’s infrastructure and crippled the water system. Petra sits on the western edge of the Arabian plate, southeast of the Dead Sea. The sandstone outcrops extend north on the eastern side of the transform fault segment of the Dead Sea rift zone. When the water system crumbled, the Nabataean dams and canals no longer diverted flow from the tombs and town and the community no longer had the wealth to rebuild the city. A second earthquake a hundred years later left the city in ruins. It lay forgotten until rediscovered by 19th century archaeologists.
Petra has made the cut in the "official" new seven wonders of the world (alongside Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the Colosseum, Rio’s Christ Redeemer and Mexico’s Chichen Itza). The interactive exhibit idea was inspired by Fawwaz Hasanat, head of the Petra Hotel Association, after his visit to the Pharaonic Village in Cairo. The Cairo village uses over 100 actors and actresses to perform daily activities and arts of the ancient Egyptians including agriculture, pottery, sculpture and weaving as well as fishing and wine-making. “It was something we lack in Jordan,” said Hasanat. “We have an amazing civilisation of Nabataeans, which deserves to be highlighted in that way.”