A Visual Tour of Petra: Sandstone Tombs and Roman Control
Umm Sayhun, Jordan
New ideas in art and architecture influenced the Nabateans around the same time that their flourishing empire—more of a zone of influence, really—was expanding northward into Syria, around 150 BC.
As the Nabateans expanded northward, more caravan routes and, consequently, trading riches, came under their control. It was primarily this, rather than territorial acquisition or cultural domination, that motivated them.
Continuing the visit after the Treasury, you proceed down the worn tourist trail, or "Outer Siq."
Again, a great deal of gravel and silt has been deposited on the original surface. In 1998 an exploratory hole was dug here and it went down more than 30 feet before finding the original surface of the road!
The Street of Façades
As the Siq turns northwest and leads downwards towards the center of the ancient city, the number of niches and tombs increases, becoming a virtual graveyard set in rock. Cliffs are lined with tall, impressive tombs, with large façades or false faces on their fronts.
Deeper towards the ancient city center, along the eastern cliff faces of the Street of Façades, is the popular "Urn Tomb," named so from the urn adorning its top. Probably constructed around 70 AD, it's part of a collection of royal tombs in the area. The structure, with its open terrace built over a double layer of vaults, is also known as "The Court" (as it was repurposed as a courthouse during Roman times). In 446 AD it served as a Byzantine church.
The Great Temple
One of the largest Nabatean complexes in Petra, the Great Temple is a two-level structure dating from the 1st century BC. The temple remained hidden under dust and rubble until 1992, when it was rediscovered by Brown University archaeologists (who are still excavating the site today).
The Great Temple is the largest freestanding building uncovered so far in Petra, covering an area of 25,000 square feet. Archaeological evidence indicates the temple rose to approximately 60 feet in height.
During the Roman era, columns lined the full length of the street the Great Temple was positioned against, with markets and residences branching off on the sides. The slopes of the hills on either side are littered with the remains of the ancient city.
Trouble with Rome
The growing economic and political power of the Nabateans began to worry the Romans, and in 63 BC Pompey dispatched a force to cripple Petra. Nabatean King Aretas III either defeated the Roman Legions or paid a tribute to keep peace with them. Later, the Nabateans made a mistake by siding with the Parthians in their war with the Romans.
After the Parthians' defeat, Petra had to pay tribute to Rome. When they fell behind in paying this tribute, they were invaded twice by the Roman vassal King Herod the Great.
The second attack, in 31 BC, saw him take control of a large swath of Nabatean territory, including the lucrative northern trading routes into Syria. With their trading empire reduced to a shell of its former glory, the Nabatean Empire staggered on for almost another century and a half. The last Nabatean monarch, Rabbel II, struck a deal with the Romans that as long as they did not attack during his lifetime, they would be allowed to move in after he died.
Upon his death in 106 AD, the Romans claimed the Nabatean Kingdom and set about transforming it with the usual plan of a colonnaded street, baths, and the common trappings of modern Roman life.
With its incorporation into the Roman Empire, Petra began to thrive once again. The city may have housed 20,000-30,000 people during its heyday.
The (Roman) Theatre
Beyond the Street of Façades lies the Theater, which was constructed in the early 1st century AD by the Nabataeans and then enlarged and improved by the Romans shortly after their annexation of the Kingdom. The Romans did this by ruthlessly gouging away a street of houses or tombs in order to extend the rear of the auditorium, which could then accommodate upwards of 8,000 people.
This also improved the acoustics of the theater and supported a drain, which took the run-off water around the sides of the theater. Under the stage floor were store rooms and a slot through which a curtain could be lowered at the beginning of a performance. Through this slot a marble Hercules was discovered several years ago.
The standard Roman-design theater today lies open to the Outer Siq, but would originally have been enclosed by a wall and completely cut off from the street.
The Decline of Petra
The fortunes of Petra began to decline with the shift in trade routes to Palmyra in Syria and the expansion of seaborne trade around Arabia. The city was struck another blow in 363 AD, when the free-standing structures of Petra were thrown to the ground in a violent earthquake.
It is not known whether the inhabitants of Petra left the city before or after the fourth century earthquake. The fact that very few silver coins or valuable possessions have been unearthed at the site indicates that the withdrawal was an unhurried and organized process.
It seems clear that by the time of the Muslim conquest in the seventh century AD, Petra had slipped into obscurity. The city was damaged again by the earthquake of 747 AD, and housed a small Crusader community during the 12th or 13th century. It then passed into obscurity and was forgotten until Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered it for the outside world in 1812.