Monday, 22 July 2013

Preview: Petra

Around 20 million years ago, the tectonic plate beneath Arabia did a little shimmy and moved away from Africa. A gigantic rift formed, a rift we now call the Jordan Rift Valley. Within the Jordan Rift Valley appeared a "desolate and dry area", or in Arabic the Wadi Araba, and in here something special has formed.

Ok, it didn't exactly form by natural accord, but Petra in Jordan - we see the misnomered "Al Khazneh" or "the Treasury" pictured above - is certainly something special. In fact, something very special indeed - we have here a red hot favourite for being in my final Seven. Carved out of the cliffs, Petra is an ancient city built by a lost and mysterious civilisation around 2000 years ago, before slipping out of time for centuries. Once a thriving city of trade, very much alive with up to 30,000 inhabitants at its peak, Petra now has an unfair reputation as a city of the dead owing to what has survived the passing of time. That being the several hundreds of facades cut into the cliffs, some basic and some works of art, thought to be tombs but without any bodies left behind.

Although documentary and archaeological evidence is meagre, and although the area had seen more ancient habitation, it seems that Petra came into life around about the 300 BC mark. That was when the Nabataean people moved in and made it their own. The Nabataeans were nomads from the Arabian peninsula, and the origins of the Arabic script can be directly traced to them. They became wealthy through trading, and the area that became Petra was a terrific trade route - sheltered, with a water supply and a monopoly on passing traffic. Money seems to have been the primary passion of the Nabataeans, and although they certainly had their gods and religion, their strongest interest appears to have simply been turning a tidy profit. They seem to have been pretty successful at doing this. From what little we know, it's tempting - though speculative - to paint a picture of a vaguely utopian society. The Nabataeans were not a single ethnic group; rather, anyone who fancied joining them could do so. The civilisation was based upon a common ideal instead of a common descent. They were peaceful - war just got in the way of trade - and, rare for its time, kept almost no slaves. Women were allowed to own and inherit property. Unfortunately, the Nabataeans didn't keep any records, so what few records we have on them are from outside sources. Mostly, Petra in recorded history is reduced to passing references in other texts. Much is based upon a single source, the Greek historian Strabo - and he didn't even visit Petra.

However utopian their society may or may not have been, we can be sure they were extremely skilled water engineers. They had to be. The author Iain Browning regards this as "their most impressive achievement", ahead of the famous tomb facades. Local springs were insufficient to provide water for the 20-30,000 people and the surrounding land, but more remote and abundant springs were brought into play by long stretches of pipe, which fed into a complex irrigation network. Their skill turned Petra into an artificial oasis, and all the greatness that followed was a result of this.

The civilisation peaked in the early 1st Century AD, under a king called Aretas IV, speculated to have been one of the Three Kings bearing gifts at the birth of Christ. Petra was at its largest, trade and agriculture was thriving, and new satellite towns were appearing in the area. In the previous century, Petra had developed from being a notable trading station into a notable settlement, with domestic and commercial buildings filling the valley. Apoltical, Petra was a success story. But none of this escaped the attentions of the Roman Empire.

It would be nice and neat to date Petra's most famous structure, the Treasury, to this time, but nobody really seems to know. The best guesses place it in either the 1st Century BC or AD, but what does seem sure is that the Treasury was somewhat of a bolt from the blue. It was unprecedented: there was no build up to its creation. All the other impressive, large-scale facades came after. It's as though the Empire State Building appeared in New York in the 1800s, before skyscrapers were even a concept. Before the Treasury, there were plenty of niches and fairly straightforward tombs carved out of the cliff, but all with a logical progression of style, with the architecture making increasing nods towards a Greek influence. Then all of a sudden, the Treasury appeared, a huge and sophisticated monument of around 28 metres wide and 43 metres high, carved deep into the rock with a fine blend of Greek, Roman, and its own unique architecture. It was totally foreign to the native tradition. What inspired it? And who built it? We don't really know, but it seems likely the architect was not local. Whichever king it was built for - if it was a king - seems to have wanted to make a grand statement and recognised that foreign talent was the way to go. He struck lucky, getting the Imhotep, the Michelangelo, the Gaudi of his day, a genius of the 1st Century whose name is now lost.

All the rest of Petra's grand architectural statements come from the Treasury - this is now regarded as the Nabataean Classical period, seven monuments in all, each individual, unusual, and unique. These define Petra. Unlike the Treasury, they were likely done by local architects, copying the ideas but not always understanding the rules and proportions, hence some are regarded as being somewhat clumsy, architecturally speaking. If they were constructions rather than excavations, they would be hopelessly impractical and wouldn't stand up. But they do exactly as intended - they make an impression. The ancient Nabataean merchant, just as today's tourist, would not have scrutinised the proportions, they would just have said, "Whoa, check it out."

Presumably these grand facades were royal tombs; presumably they were tombs. The chambers inside are pretty plain and unembellished and don't offer up many clues. One of them, at least, has a helpful inscription. None, alas, have human remains. Another remark by Strabo was that Nabataeans didn't have much regard for corpses, treating them as irrelevant and "no better than dung". The facades might not be tombs for corpses, but memorials to the dead. The plain interiors may have used as a banquet hall, for a feast in honour of the dead. Or so a theory goes. The Nabataeans didn't think to write any of this down.

In 106AD, the Romans took over Petra, peacefully, and this seems to have taken the edge off the city and society. The decline may not have been as rapid as is sometimes made out, but Petra started to slowly lose significance. The rock-cut architecture stopped after a while, and the population decreased. It was all very gradual - if it had been sudden, we would have evidence, but because people took their possessions with them as they left, there is little in the way of coins or valuables for archaeologists to sift through. Churches appeared, and it adopted Christianity in the 5th Century. After the Romans - by now the Byzantine version - finally left in 630 AD, Petra was a forgotten backwater. It witnessed the rise of Islam, and later the Crusades, but only as a bystander, and from the 13th Century was entirely forgotten by Europe and the West. In fact, only a few local Bedouin tribesmen hung around, getting alternately scared by its ghosts and frustrated that it didn't have any hidden treasure. This seems to be where the Treasury's name derives - stone urns at the top of the structure were rumoured to be full of treasure. Eventually, in 1812, the Swiss adventurer Johannes Burckhardt - who also discovered Abu Simbel in Egypt - rediscovered it, and ever since Petra has become more and more recognised and revered by the world.

No doubt, Petra comes with high expectations. It's got everything - size, beauty, improbability, myth, mystery, and age. I try to avoid hype, and certainly try to avoid unduly hyping things up, but Petra is surely one of my strongest candidates for a World Wonder. Ok, I don't think anything will match the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall, but Petra is a major heavyweight among world landmarks. I'm clearly looking forward to it - but am also scared. Expectation can be a difficult thing to live up to, and Petra has a lot of it.

I'll be visiting Petra as early as December this year, maybe January of next, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own opinion.

“Petra” Jane Taylor
“Footsteps” Bruce Norman
“The Lost Civilisation of Petra” Udi Levy
"Petra" Iain Browning
"Lost Cities of the Ancient World" Joel Levy
"The Nabateans" David W. Tschanz


  1. I find it fascinating when people carve structures out of the rock, it seems so much more labour intensive than simply building something stone by stone, and yet they did it anyway. Have you heard of the churches in Ethiopia that are actually carved into the ground? They basically dug a big hole, leaving what was to become the chuch as a chunk in the middle, and when they reached the requisite depth they hollowed out the middle bit.

  2. Yep, the Lalibela churches are on my list, although I've not done much reading about them yet. Also check out Kailasanathar in India, there's a link on the right of this page somewhere, which I visited last year - it's a pretty amazing example of rock-cut architecture.

    Apparently, one thing that makes cutting buildings from rock (rather than actually constructing them from blocks) easier is that there's far less concern about the thing falling down. Unless you cut away far too much rock, it's going to be structurally sound. Also, it saves on the sometimes huge effort of finding a quarry, cutting the blocks, transporting them, etc. Still, I wouldn't want to be the guy who turned up for work with a hangover and after half the day realised I'd been cutting away at the wrong part.

  3. I hadn't thought of that. With a built structure you can always take things apart and correct any early mistakes. When carving something out of the rock you really need to get it right the first time.

    Anyway I hope you don't mind me changing the subject from this thread (but not from your site) but today I started thinking about what my 7 wonders would be. It wasn't as thorough as your method, and I decided to narrow it down to your last criteria (criterium?): "je ne sais quoi". In other words, which structures have I seen that made me go "Ooh! Now that's something!". Needless to say they are not all necessarily wonders, but sometimes you see something that has an effect on you. And here are mine (and there are only four actually, but they are the most memorable). And in no particular order.

    1. Cathedral of our Lady, Freibourg im Breisgau, Germany

    Freiburg is a lovely mid-sized medieval town, I went there with my German class for a school visit in 1994. The cathedral is gothic. I remember what impressed me the most were the stained-glass windows: I'm not religious (never have been) but I can understand now how religious art can contribute to a religious experience or fervour. Also what amused me as a then 15-year old was a rather original gargoyle: instead of being a torso, it's the other half. I'll let you guess from where the rain water pours out.

    What made the visit all the more interesting was that it was the 50th anniversary of a major bombing raid on the town and they put large photos of that period in the actual places that had been bombed. The cathedral fortunately was not hit.

    2. Eiffel Tower

    I went there in the early 90s with my family. Although I had seen the Eiffel Tower in photographs since as long as I can remember (as has everybody) I can remember when I first saw it peeping over the rooftops as we arrived in central Paris. It's one of those things that made me think "ah, so we really are in Paris".

    3. Saint Mary's Church, Chesterfield

    I have never visited this church, but have seen it several times from a train (my grandparents lived in Lincolnshire). It has a crooked spire, and each time we steamed (dieseled? electrified?) past I would stare at it until it went out of view, the reason being it has a crooked spire (built using timber that was too green and subsequently warped). There are at least two legends attached to this church.

    One is that the devil, having been duped about getting the soul of the first living creature to enter the church, twisted the spire in a fit of rage (incidently, look up the legends behind each bridge called the Devil's Bridge, in various countries - you'll find that the devil must be very naive, consistently falling for the same trick over and over again).

    The other is that the architect, despondent about the spire twisting, decided to commit suicide. But when he saw that people marvelled at it he perked up, and decided to build another one, this time purposefully trying to make the spire twisted. He failed, became despondent as a result, and committed suicide.

    Interesting stories anyway. And that spire is quite mesmerising to look at.

    4. Empire State Building and Twin Towers (from a distance)

    I was in the United Staes in 1999 and was in a car going from Maine to Washington DC. We drove past New York and I could see the skyline from a distance (it was dark and the city was lit up). What stood out was the Empire State Building, as it is further away from the cluster of skycrapers in southern Manhattan, and of course the Twin Towers which were easily recognisible due to their height and twinly status. Like I wrote regarding the Eiffel Tower in Paris, this was a "This really is New York" moment. Perhaps made more poignant in retrospect when a couple of years later 9/11 happened.

    There are others, but these ones stand out to me.

    1. Interesting post. Ultimately, all my Wonders are judged on a fairly instinctive combination of "wow factor" and "je ne sais quoi" - the criteria are just my way of analysing what these actually are.

      Entirely agree about the Eiffel Tower, ESB and WTC - they are kind of the celebrities of the building world and seeing them immediately identifies exactly where you are, hence why they're used in films so much. I'd never heard of St Mary's Church, but love it - it's got that Tower of Pisa quirkiness. Freiburg Cathedral I'd not heard of either, but my feelings on Gothic architecture have been recorded on this blog a few times, and I could quite easily have a whole Wonder subsection on Gothic cathedrals. In my own experience to date, it's been Cologne Cathedral that had that wow moment.