Petra History

Entry Passage to Petra
Photo by: Emilio Creative Commons

The ancient city of Petra is among the most fascinating locations on earth. Smithsonian Magazine called it “One of the 28 places to see before you die.” Located in present day Jordan, the ancient city of Petra has a history that extends far back in history. Petra was unknown to modern culture until 1812 when a Swiss explorer stunned the world by discovering the ruins of this desert city.

First Establishment

Petra is known to have existed since around 1350 B.C. This is because a settlement in this location was mentioned in a series of 18th Dynasty Egyptian war campaign records known as the Armana Letters. At this early date it would be a stretch to consider Petra a true city. Rather, it was a kind of outpost or center of gathering where Arabic nomadic tribes met as a rest stop. It was also considered a sanctuary and refuge, a kind of oasis in this vast desert region. A network of true oasis locations are within the surrounding regions of Petra. It was the use of these life-giving water sources that enabled the city of Petra to flourish.

Biblical accounts say the region of the Petra settlement was in a land controlled by the Horites, descendants of a people that would later form the Kingdom of Edom. The Horites were cave-dwelling people and are mentioned in the Torah. The location of Petra was sometimes referred to as “The Rock” in biblical and other ancient texts.

An Unlikely City Arises

The true city of Petra is believed to have been established by a people called the Nabataeans, who were an ancient race of northern Arabic people, now culturally extinct. It is believed that the Nabataeans created Petra as their capitol city around the year 312 B.C. This location was ideal for two main reasons. First, massive rock formations in the area create a natural fortress which provides protection from attack. Second, the location has a source of water, although not year round. A natural stream flows through Petra and floods once a year. At other times of the year, the stream may get very low or dry and water is scarce. Yet, the Nabataeans were masters of storing water when it was available and then selling it to thirsty desert caravan travelers. The water itself was a source of considerable power and wealth.

Ups and Downs

Petra thrived as a center of trade for a number of centuries, but the beginning of its end came with Roman conquest starting around 100 A.D. The city was attacked by the Roman Emperor Trajan in 106 A.D. Under Roman rule the city began to decline. The oasis networks that made up the trade routes became far less important as Rome increased trade by other means, including building roads. Another blow to Petra was a series or earthquakes which destroyed many of its important buildings and infrastructure. A powerful earthquake in 363 A.D. did extensive damage to a large part of the remaining city and its buildings. In effect, the city of Petra died and literally disappeared from the stage of history. It would be more than 1,500 years before Swiss traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered the ruins of Petra.


Many of the ancient buildings of Petra have survived, and hundreds of thousands travel there to gaze in wonder at the ruins. Petra is sometimes called a “Rose City” because of the brownish-red tone of the rock or sandstone that dominates this location. Facades and dwellings are carved directly into the faces of sandstone cliffs.

There are also a series of tombs and temples that are unlike any other in the world. Petra is a city of considerable religious significance. Here a traveler can visit a stream called Ain Mousa, which translates in English to “The Spring of Moses.” It is believed this is the location wherein Moses struck a rock with his staff to cause a stream of water to gush forth. The brother of Moses, Aaron, is also said to have died and been buried in Petra.

Other Features

Petra has become famous for a number of specific sites, such as The Siq. This is an incredible sand-blasted canyon with high, smooth rock formations creating a narrow pathway through which hikers and mule riders travel to reach the city proper. On these smooth, flowing canyon walls can be found symbols and carvings dating back to the extinct Nabataean culture. Another major site is The Greek Temple believed to have been built in the 1st Century B.C. These spectacular ruins are near the center of Petra and are in the process of being excavated. Still another significant site is called “The Monastery.” This columned-and-domed structure is an ancient Nabataean temple. The Nabataeans worshiped a variety of gods, the primary of which was Dushara, a rough equivalent to the Greek god Zeus.


Petra receives about three thousand visitors per day, or about 500,000 travelers per year. It is an extremely popular location for hikers, especially those who also harbor an intense interest in ancient history and architecture. Those who visit Petra frequently say it is like “entering another world,” and that one can almost feel the vibrations of the millions of people that lived and died there, or passed through in lonely caravans over uncounted centuries.

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