Located on the slope of Jebel al-Madhbah, the mountain flanking Wadi Araba on the east, the descending plain of Petra was first used as a Nabatean settlement in 312 BCE. It did not rise to its revered status of Nabatean capital, however, until the first century BCE. It was then that the splendid facades were carved into the faces of the rose-colored sandstone walls. Central to the Nabteans’ success as traders, this desert oasis was not only a well-disguised stronghold, but it also possessed significant amounts of the region’s most valuable resource: water. Today, visitors can still see remnants of water management systems throughout the ruins of the city.
The city’s location along bustling trade routes brought in a broad spectrum of cultural influences from Greek, Egyptian and Syrian regions; evidence of each of these influences has since been uncovered with various archaeological findings. In the first century, the Nabateans found themselves allied with the Hasmonean kingdom; but Nabatean autonomy did not last long, for the eastward-moving armies of Rome aggressively sought to incorporate other territories. Through successive raids and a decisive victory at Philadelphia (modern Amman), the Hasmonean King Herod formed a compulsory alliance between Rome and Nabataea. Under this alliance, Petra continued to flourish as a center of trade and culture, acting as a buffer between the Roman holdings in the West and the unconquered desert of the East. Eventually, the Roman Emperor Trajan seized the city, renaming it Arabia Petraea.
Later, while under Byzantine control, Petra’s economic influence and stability began to dwindle as new sea trading routes supplanted older, land-based ones. The city was dealt a final blow when a devastating earthquake in the seventh century disabled many of its buildings and much water management infrastructure.
Western knowledge of the site was completely nonexistent until Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt happened across it in 1812. The surrounding region is known to be part of the ancient land of Edom, and the mountainous terrain possesses much significance for followers of Abrahamic traditions: many sites associated with Moses and his brother Aaron mark the landscape. The valley and town closest to Petra, in fact, are named Wadi Musa (Arabic for Valley of Moses); it is here that Moses is said to have passed through and struck a rock to bring forth water for his followers. Today, the town houses most of the lodging and tourist amenities for visitors to the site. Just northeast of Petra lies Jabal Haroun, considered by some to be the biblical Mt. Hor and the place where Aaron was laid to rest.
There is truly an enormous amount to do and see in and around Petra. Visitors should be certain to visit the treasury, the royal tombs, and the monastery. If time allows and visitors are not intimidated by a scramble over some rocks, a trip to see the remains of a Nabatean amphitheater southeast of the main site is also well worth the trouble.