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A City Built In The Rock ?


In the heart of the Jordan desert is one of the strangest and most wonderful human constructions: a city built in the rock. The site of Petra is so fascinating and captivating that it has been used as a filming location for the fantasy adventure film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as the famous archeology professor goes in search of the Holy Grail. Even today, Petra shows all the ingenuity that even men living in ancient times could deploy. The city of Petra is full of mystery and grace, but why was a city built in the rock?


Home of the Nabataeans


Built in the 8th century BC by Edomites, Petra was later occupied by the Nabataeans (a nomadic people of Arabia) because of its strategic position. Directly located on the road of caravans shuttling between Egypt, the Mediterranean and South Arabia to transport goods and products of all kinds, Petra becomes a commercial power whose influence is felt as far as Palestine. At its peak, Petra is home to nearly 30,000 inhabitants and is one of the most prestigious cities in the Middle East. It was at this time that the Nabataeans built the most famous monuments of Petra: the Al-Khazneh, the Treasure House, the City Center, the Roman Theater (which can accommodate 5000 people) and a large number of burials.

Roman theatre

Due to a commercial decline, Petra was gradually abandoned by the Nabataeans before falling into the hands of the Romans in the early second century. Falling into ruins following many earthquakes, Petra will serve as a bastion for the crusades of medieval era before becoming a place of legend. The mythical city of Petra will only be rediscovered at the end of the 19th century by archaeologists on an expedition to the Jordan desert.

Petra city center
Siq Petra

Military motivations?

Some say that Petra was first built for military reasons. Built at the exit of a narrow gorge of 1,200 meters (a passage called the Siq) dug between two very high walls by Paleozoic flood, the site of Petra is difficult to access and easy to defend. In order to invade the city, an enemy first had to control surrounding mountains. And since the buildings of Petra are built inside cliffs, it was almost impossible for an invader to estimate defense capabilities of the city. Those wanting to seize Petra had no choice but to blindly engage into the Siq in peril of their own lives, a very risky enterprise.

The myths of Petra

Petra tomb

Many legends surround the city of Petra and give it a tinge of mysticism. At the time of its rediscovery, while the place was still only accessible to Muslims, some morbid gossip started to spread the rumor that bones of the last crusaders who had dared to speak of Petra were found on the site.

Other legends report that priceless treasures belonging to ancient Egyptian pharaohs like Akhenaten would be hidden in the rubble of Petra. Several sarcophagi have also been found in the Al-Khazneh, suggesting that Petra possibly served as a place of eternal rest for some egyptian sovereigns.

Moreover, Nabataeans left absolutely no traces that would allow historians and archaeologists to restore their appearance. Human sacrifices would have forced inhabitants to abruptly leave the city while the worship of the dead reached its climax.

Petra would also have biblical origins and for all these reasons enjoys a reputation as fascinating as it is grim.