Thursday, August 14, 2008


Pétra (the name means “rock”) in southern Jordan lies about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of the Dead Sea on the border of the mountainous Wadi Araba Desert. Although there is evidence of earlier occupation of the site, the city was founded around the sixth century b.c. as the practically inaccessible capital of the Nabataean Arabs who dominated the region and controlled international trade routes between Asia, southern Arabia, and the markets of the Mediterranean basin. Wealthy and powerful Pétra was partly built, partly carved from the beautiful pink sandstone of its mountain fastness. Its remarkable buildings, representing the hybridization of several cultural sources over almost a millennium, make it one of the great architectural achievements of history. When it was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1985, it was acclaimed as “one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world, where ancient Eastern traditions blend with Hellenistic architecture.” Added to that distinction must be the Nabataeans’ hydraulic engineering achievements, comprising extensive water-conservation systems and sophisticated measures to avoid flooding of their city.
Following unsuccessful attempts by the Seleucid Antiochus and the Judean Herod the Great to absorb Pétra into their kingdoms, in 64 and 63 b.c. the Roman general Pompey conquered Nabataea. It remained independent (but taxed), a neutral zone between the desert nomads and Rome’s territory. Pétra burgeoned over the next century. The city was wholly Romanized under Trajan in a.d. 106, when Nabataea became Arabia Pétraea. Twenty-five years later, Hadrian renamed the capital Hadriane Pétra and installed Sextius Florentinus as governor. Early in the fourth century, great changes swept the Roman Empire: Christianity was recognized by the state and in 330 Constantine moved his capital to Byzantium, renaming it New Rome (now Istanbul). Pétra, while devastated by earthquake in the mid-fourth century, flourished until late antiquity, after which it began to decline. Its last contact with the Western world until the nineteenth century was in the 1100s, when Crusaders built and briefly occupied a small fortress there.

In 1812 the Swiss orientalist Johann Ludwig Burckhardt learned of Pétra from local Bedouins, and in the years that followed many Europeans visited and recorded it. The romance of the place was irresistible, as the theologian Dean John W. Burgon wrote in 1845: “Match me such marvel, save in Eastern clime. A rose-red city ‘half as old as Time.’” Serious archeological investigations began toward the end of the nineteenth century, yielding a number of publications, including Alois Musil’s Arabia Pétraea (Vienna, 1907–1908) and Brunnow and A. von Domaszewski’s Die Provincia Arabia (Strasbourg, 1904–1909).

The main access to Pétra, is along a trail—originally paved—known as the Alley (Al-Siq); in places it is only about 16 feet (5 meters) wide, but it winds between sheer cliffs hundreds of meters tall. The Alley opens into a large open space, also surrounded by high wails, and directly opposite a building that exemplifies Pétra’s unique architecture and is probably the city’s most famous building: the Treasury (Al Khazneh). Carved from the pink sandstone, the 100-foot-wide (30-meter) facade soars to 130 feet (40 meters). Its architecture is manifestly Roman influenced; the lower story, its classicism mutated by Nabataean inventiveness, has a pedimented loggia with some freestanding, some attached Corinthian columns. In the attic story, two side pavilions with half-pediments flank a circular central pavilion with a conical roof, crowned with an urn. Decoration and ornament abound. A single door leads to a large square room, precisely excavated from the rock. Typically for Pétra (and just as atypical for Rome), the interior is as frugal as the outside is embellished.

The cliffs near Al Khazneh are honeycombed with cave tombs. The widening Muses Valley (Wadi Musa) leads first to the east, its walls pitted with smaller tombs, past an 8.000-seat Roman theater. Nearby, steps lead westward to the High Place of Sacrifice. At a point where the wadi swings to the north, there rises the King’s Wall, a cliff face from which three large structures known as the Royal Tombs have been carved. The first and most impressive is the Urn Tomb, cut deep into the rock and standing upon a two-story arcade. The others are badly weathered, but there are clues to their former glory: the Corinthian Tomb, redolent of Al Khazneh, and the Palace Tomb, modeled on a Roman urban palace.

The elongated “downtown” heart of Roman Pétra, flanking a once paved, colonnaded street along the Wadi Musa, lies about 300 meters north of the King’s Wall. The center dates mostly from Nabataea’s golden age—say, from about 300 b.c. to a.d. 150—but there are also relics of the Roman and Byzantine Christian cultures, with an underlying Nabataean accent, indicating the ability of the Nabataeans, common to many trading peoples, to assimilate foreign cultural expressions. An open marketplace and public fountain once stood at its southern end. Opposite is the gateway to the sacred precinct (temenos) of the freestanding Temple of Dushara, the chief deity of the Nabataeans. The Temple of the Winged Lions, northeast of the gateway, was dedicated to his partner, the fertility goddess Atagartis. A climbing pathway to the northwest leads to the Monastery (El-Deir), a rock-hewn building similar to Al Khazneh, even larger but more crudely detailed. In fact, there are the remains of over 800 structures around Pétra. Most are rock-hewn: besides the temples and tombs, there are other funerary monuments, public baths, houses (of course), public buildings, paved streets, and all the elements of a thriving metropolis.

The Nabataeans were masters of hydraulic engineering. More than sixty water sources served Pétra. A channel was carved into the cliff face of Al-Siq to catch water in the winter and carry it to the many storage, cisterns—some as large as 1,500 cubic feet (40 cubic meters)—within the city. A clay pipeline was also built, conveying water about 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the Muses Spring. The cisterns had built-in filtration systems and were linked by a network of channels. It has been estimated that the total supply, used for drinking, cooking, bathing, and even irrigating crops, could support the population of 25,000 for several months.

In 1958 P. J. Parr and C. M. Bennett of the British School of Archaeology began highly objective excavations of the center of Pétra. Subsequently the Pétra/Jerash Project, a cooperative venture of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, the Universities of Jordan and Utah, and a team of Swiss archeologists, continued work at the site. In 1998 and 1999 a consolidation and site protection program, part funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and an American Express Award through the World Monuments Fund, was implemented under the management of Dakhilallah Qublan and Pierre Bikai of the American Center for Oriental Research.

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