Are there Roman records of Petra?

The horses trot forward calmly. The gorge, barely three meters wide, but around seventy meters high in the rock, is not exactly suitable for creating trust. Your riders are no less excited to see what awaits them at the end of the gorge. Suddenly - brilliant sunlight! Behind the shadow of the exit rises a monumental facade, carved into the rock by bygone masters. Behind it, so the adventurers suspect, is the treasury with the Holy Grail.

So much for "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade", a film by Steven Spielberg, which was released in 1989 and made an archaeological site in southern Jordan world famous: Petra, the residence of the Nabataeans. Up to 1500 tourists a day explore the gorges, heights and valleys on the edge of the desert-like Araba, the border zone between Jordan and Israel. There, where the fertile Edomite high plateau breaks off, they too may hope to find one of the treasures that, according to Arab legends, await their discoverers in the rock tombs and houses. (The Edomite people ruled over a territory in the 8th - 5th centuries BC that was bordered by the desert to the east and the Arabah to the west. The Old Testament describes them as neighbors and opponents of Israel.)

It was thanks to this superstition that entering Petra was still forbidden for Europeans at the beginning of the 19th century. What interest could they have had in the ancient sites other than to salvage treasures through magic? The Swiss Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784–1817) was the first to break the ban. On behalf of the British Empire, he traveled to Arabia disguised as "Sheikh Ibrahim", collected information about trade routes into the interior of Africa and entered Petra in 1812.

As a real predecessor, Indiana Jones, so to speak, he described his impressions as follows: "... a hollowed tomb, the location and beauty of which must necessarily make an extraordinary impression on the traveler who had been walking on such a dark, almost subterranean path for almost half an hour ... The natives call this monument Kasr Fara'un or Castle of the Pharaoh and claim that it was the residence of a prince. But it was probably more of a princely tomb, but great must have been the wealth of a city which has such monuments in the memory of its rulers could dedicate. "

The British spy with a Swiss passport was right: the grandiose facade at the end of the 1.2 kilometer long and narrow Siq, a crevice, once adorned a temple tomb, carved by stonemasons and sculptors from Alexandria with three chambers from the sandstone rock. Art historians date the Chaznet Fara‘un (in the modern description) to the time 40–20 BC. Perhaps the residents laid their King Malichos I, who died 30 BC, to rest there? If so, the royal sarcophagus once stood in the central rear chamber. But valuable grave goods probably attracted thieves even then. Today all rock graves are empty.

With the Chaznet Fara‘un, the rock facades bordering the valley basin have their shining appearance. In the beginning Bedouins only pitched their tents there. There are no water sources in the basin, but access via the Siqwas easy to defend. If there was serious danger, they retired to one of the rocks. The Greeks called it Petra, which means rock. This name soon became synonymous with the entire valley basin, which over the centuries has been developed into a trading metropolis; the local name, RaqmuThe archaeologist only encounters the shimmering one in inscriptions. Today they identify the original rocky rock with the steep, high mountain known as Umm al-Biyara in the southwest of the valley basin.

Archaeologists have been excavating rock graves, shrines and the ruins of the metropolis of the Nabatean kingdom as well as the traces of later inhabitants on a few square kilometers since 1929. Cisterns and artificial watercourses supplied the population in the summer months. They protected the from the raging floods of Wadi Musa in winter Siq through a dam in front of the entrance. There is only one thing that the researchers have not yet discovered: written records. When reconstructing the past, they are dependent on inscriptions and artefacts, the archaeological findings on the history of construction and settlement as well as the testimonies of contemporary Greeks. Until a few years ago, these descriptions, as well as the architectural style in Petra, had nourished the conviction that the Nabataeans had become "Hellenistic" in character, but now the Nabataeans appear in a different light.

Alexander the Great had already heard that they were rich when he died in 332 BC. BC besieged the port city of Gaza, a loading station for the spices and spices brought over the famous incense route from India and southern Arabia. No caravan could get past Petra, and its residents controlled the frankincense trade - a profitable business. This resin from various shrub species develops an aromatic smell when heated, which has been used mainly for cultic purposes and in perfumes. The plants only thrived in certain parts of southern Arabia and the neighboring coast of East Africa. Not unlike the member states of OPEC today, the producers kept the price high through controlled cultivation. The dried resin was accordingly a coveted and dearly paid commodity in the entire Oriental and Greco-Roman world. Camels, the ships of the desert, covered the 3700 kilometer route to the Mediterranean in a good 85 days. Each could carry a maximum of 400 pounds of incense grains, the total value would correspond to up to 200,000 marks. That made up for all the levies and interim tariffs by far. Those who could control this trade became rich. Thanks to its location on the caravan routes, Petra developed into a trading metropolis. No wonder that the great powers of antiquity tried several times to also gain control over the incense trade. Nobody succeeded.

A successor to Alexander, the Macedonian Antigonus Monophtalmos has it in 311 BC. Tried. Although his troops made rich booty, they were pursued and lost the battle. Hieronymos von Kardia, a Greek historian, was involved in the raid as a general. His description of the Nabataeans is in the "world history" of Diodorus of Sicily from the 1st century BC. Chr. Handed down. The tribe is a good 10,000 people and lives between Syria and Egypt in an area without water. From this it would inevitably result that they lived mainly from raids and raids, but also raised camels and sheep. They are belligerent and freedom-loving and have never been subject to anyone. The Nabataeans lived in the open air, did not build houses, did not sow or drink wine. From today's perspective, the Greeks described the usual characteristics of nomads. Almost in passing, he mentions that quite a few Nabataeans bring frankincense and spices from Arabia Felix to the Mediterranean.

Trading exchange on the edge of the desert

Who were the Nabataeans and where did they come from? Opinions differ widely on this. In the absence of written sources from the people themselves, only guesswork is possible. Aramaic elements in language and culture make an origin from the Persian Gulf likely. Many archaeologists assume that this tribe was born in the 4th century BC at the latest. Immigrated to northwestern Arabia.

What is certain is that before the Nabataeans, the great Arab tribe of the Qedar controlled the incense trade. The Old Testament knows him and his Sheikh Geschem as opponents of Nehemiah, a Persian official of Jewish origin who was responsible for the reconstruction of the city walls destroyed in 586 in 445 BC. Was sent to Jerusalem and restored the province of Judah there. The neighbors of Jerusalem were rather hostile to this revival. As a clientele of the then powerful Persians - that is, under their rule, but with extensive autonomy - the Qedar had some privileges and even minted money in Gaza.

But when they moved in the early 4th century BC. After joining an anti-Persian uprising, they lost their primacy after its suppression and were replaced by the Nabataeans. They now used the income from the incense trade to strengthen their political, military and economic ambitions, to secure the caravan routes and to expand them with fixed stations, including Petra in the Edomite Mountains. They themselves became a great tribe under an emir who assumed the title of king.

Since only the Nabataeans are aware of the secret water points in the desert, reports Hieronymos, they retreated there from enemies, who then ran the risk of dying of thirst. This tactic was also felt by the Roman Empire, which began in 63 BC. He had subjugated Jews and Nabataeans, and was now preparing to take the lucrative frankincense trade into their own hands. Petra had come under Roman clientele, so had to do military service. When the Roman general Aelius Gallus in 25 BC BC set out with a large army to break the trade monopoly of Saba, the leading South Arabian power, the Nabataean "Chancellor" Syllaios went along as a scout. The goal of the expedition was definitely in his interest, because Saba had blocked the incense route to the north near Najran for about a century.

Of course, he did not want to strengthen Rome's influence. Syllaios let the 10,000 heavily armed legionnaires move unnecessarily through deserts, many died or reached their destination weakened. The army was just about able to destroy the forts of the Sabeans. But their scout led them back the wrong way until only a few soldiers survived. This venture was a disaster for Rome. A new campaign could not be carried out politically, and the empire gave up its ambitions in the incense trade. Petra, on the other hand, flourished, because without the annoying competition in the south, the income flowed richer again into the coffers. Syllaios did not atone for his betrayal until many years later, after he had also quarreled with Herod and the Syrian legate; he was executed in Rome.

Tricks and long peace

Petra benefited not only from the fate of its rulers, but also from the time of the Augustean Peace that had just begun. Two years before the campaign against Saba, Augustus (27 BC - 14 AD) had been appointed the first Roman emperor. He succeeded in uniting the empire and in preventing major armed conflicts until his death. There was prosperity everywhere, and Petra, now the capital of a kingdom, also participated, as the Greek geographer Strabo reported. In his opinion, the nomads had developed into rich house owners and warriors into merchants. Some of the Nabataeans' misjudgments are based on his views, which his compatriots may have shared. With a Hellenistic effect, the rock city attracted Romans and Greeks, be it as traders, scholars or tourists. The Arab hospitality should have made your stay a pleasant one. But like Strabo, they viewed the Arab metropolis from the perspective of their own cultural standards. And erred in many ways.

Petra was really a city in the sense of an administrative and cult center, but from an Arab point of view it was the tribal seat, residence of the Nabatean king / emir and above all the residence of the tribal god Dushara. Although there was a dynastic kingship, the ruler was not absolutely accountable but accountable to the tribal assembly. In addition, he had to pay due respect to the tribal nobility who carried him through positions in administration, donations and dinners. The Nabataeans had become house owners and merchants, but they preserved the customs and laws of the nomads. Archaeologists assume that a large part of the tribe wandered, either as shepherds or as caravan escorts, while others settled down in agriculture or trade. The jurisdiction of a people's assembly or a council of elders was also incumbent on the ruler, not the ruler. Ultimately, profit and booty - in social stratification - benefited all members of the tribe. The 580 family graves adorned with monumental facades in the rock could hardly be understood otherwise.

Gods in the rock

Petra may have been a kind of incense exchange. It was here that the prices for the world market were set and the major commercial transactions were carried out. In addition, all sorts of other goods were traded, from agricultural products to spices from the East. Anyone who, for example, was able to increase the tribal property of land or their personal stock of camels and horses through good business, enjoyed a high reputation. But if the people lost pastureland, plantations or arable land in the event of bad trade, this led to public condemnation. Because livestock and agriculture were simply vital in an empire that consisted almost entirely of desert. Cattle herds and lands were therefore considered status symbols.

So those who belonged to the tribe had a good life as long as they were doing well. But there were probably many less privileged people around Petra. It is true that slavery does not seem to have played such an important role as it did in later Arab rule or in Strabon's time on the latifundia of the Roman landowners. There were certainly great social differences compared with dependent servants, especially farmers who were native to the areas through which the Nabataeans ran their trade routes. But there is no evidence of any conflict between the layers. In addition, inscriptions testify that wealthy tribesmen made foundations to improve the situation of the rural population through irrigation systems; probably some kind of tax.

If not through slaves, the Nabataeans wanted to show in another way to the outside world that they had achieved something - after all, wealth was based, in their opinion, on the blessings of the gods. So they began towards the end of the 1st century BC. To erect temples for the first time in BC and to form figurative representations of their deities, while they previously - and will continue to - worshiped blocks of stone from a few centimeters to 1.20 meters high (so-called betyle). The phenomenon of an offensive self-portrayal through magnificent sanctuaries was also widespread among other Middle Eastern powers at that time; think of the temple districts of Palmyra and Jerusalem.

Roman-Greek mixed art

For the first time they built stone houses for themselves, even if many preferred the luxurious living in tents and rock caves. In terms of their furnishings, they could compete with the villas of Rome and Pompeii: colored and even gilded stucco work and frescoes in an illusionistic style adorned the interior walls and still impress visitors today. Some local artists have immortalized themselves in inscriptions - evidence against Strabon's thesis that all works of art must have been imported. The Greeks probably thought the Nabataeans were barbarians. His colleagues in the 19th and 20th centuries were not much more positive: Nabataean art was long considered a plagiarism of Greek and Roman art. Gradually archaeologists and art historians understand that it was a characteristic of the artists of ancient Petras to create an independent hybrid form from the specifications of the Hellenistic-Roman environment, which we now call the Nabatean style.

Not only the capital Petra experienced a construction boom: along the trade routes in the area of ​​influence of the Nabataeans, villages were created where there was previously desert, and smaller branches were developed into administrative centers. It seems that during this phase the settlement was also pushed further north. The Nabataean Empire finally extended from northwest Arabia, a little north of Medina, over the regions of Midian, Sinai, Negeb, Edom, Moab and excluding the Decapolis - independent cities in Jordan between the Golan and today's Amman - to the Hauran in southern Syria . Translated into today's political map, the empire touched the territories of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Syria. The Nabataeans were thus the center of the Arab world at their wedding. Their script, an intermediate stage between the Persian Empire Aramaic and Standard Arabic, became the official language of many peoples in the Middle East. (For the archaeologist, this unfortunately also means that the corresponding inscriptions do not allow conclusions to be drawn as to whether one is dealing with the Nabataeans.)

Almost a hundred years later, the inhabitants of the rock city had to cope with a new political situation: the free kingdom became the Roman province of Arabia. The harbingers had been on the horizon for a long time. A rebellion of the Jews between 66 and 70 AD meant that neighboring Judea, an autonomous Roman province since 6 AD, lost its remaining independence; with that the empire was getting ominously closer. Perhaps that was the reason for the last Nabatean king, Rabb’el II (70-106 AD).Chr.), To emphasize Arab basic values ​​in religion and culture over those of the Greeks and Romans, in particular to emphasize Dushara, the god of Petra, as his personal patron god and at the same time as the state god of all Nabataeans. Old, open-air sanctuaries of the Nabataeans now received the same, if not more, funding as the temples and were given supraregional importance.

From kingdom to province

The return to the worship of gods in Betylene was also reflected in epithets for the gods. So they now spoke of Dushara A’ra, that is "The One Anointed in the Stone". In the end, every Nabataean in all parts of the empire could "meet" and worship Dushara in sanctuaries in addition to the main regional god. At the same time, Dushara was propagated as a state and national god. Obviously, Rabb’el II tried to bind the Nabataeans more closely to Petra, perhaps even with the goal of turning the tribal principality into a state.

Were there also uprisings against Rome? Did Petra give the mighty empire her clientele? Whatever the reason: in 106 two legions surprisingly invaded the Nabataean Empire - the free kingdom became the province of Arabia. Although the conquest was not officially announced until five years later, presumably in order not to belittle the victory of the Roman emperor Trajan (98–117 AD) over the Dacians, the Roman military administration got to work immediately. Milestone roads opened up the country, including the via nova Traianafrom Bostra in Syria to Aila on the Gulf of Aqaba. Villages blossomed into cities. The historians are silent about the fate of the Nabatean royal family. However, without its top leadership and the former trade monopoly, the tribe rapidly lost its importance and merged with other Arab peoples.

Petra proved adaptable and probably became the capital of the new province (but it may also be Bostra in Syria, where the Roman provincial region was stationed). The city's coins no longer showed the Nabataean royal couple, but a female figure, the Tyche. It stands for an autonomous city. As such, Petra owned a city council and a council house. There is much to be said for identifying this building with a 1997 discovery in the center of Petra. In the so-called Great Temple, a monumental complex spanning two terraces, the excavators unexpectedly came across a theater-like semicircle of spectators that could hold a good 600 people. That corresponds to the usual size of a council at the time. The exciting thing about the archaeological findings is that this building must originally have been used differently. The archaeologists want to use further excavations to clarify whether a temple or the royal palace was located there before. The conversion of a sanctuary into a council house would of course be extremely unusual.

Trajan tried to give the city a Roman look. The old processional street along the Wadi Musa in the center of the basin was widened to a columned street with a covered sidewalk and shops behind it. A monumental flight of stairs led to the next slope terrace, where the market square is assumed. A Roman arch adorned the entrance. The dedicatory inscription from 114 AD named the new title of the city: "Metropolis of Arabia". Even more important in terms of architectural history was the so-called Temenos Gate, which must have been built under Trajan or Hadrian, perhaps using components from an older predecessor. It allowed entry into the holy district of Qasr al-Bint, the main temple of Petra, through three closable passages. Bust reliefs of deities and guardian spirits adorn the pilasters (flat, little protruding pillars) for propaganda purposes.

There is not much more of Roman urban elements in Petra; a fountain house was added a hundred years later. At first, Petra was an important city in the Roman administration. Outside the center, the local residential structure was preserved. The Roman provincial governor from 127 AD, T. Aninius Sextius Florentinus, was even buried in a rock tomb - he may have occupied it, because these sites were always the graves of rich Nabatean families. Dedicatory inscriptions to Roman deities and statues of Roman gods and emperors show the dominance of the new masters. Petra remained an important trading city, but much of the profit flowed to other cities or to the Roman treasury.

When the Roman emperors from the Severan dynasty took on various cities in the eastern provinces in the early 3rd century, Petra received little support, apart from the favorable tax status of a colonia and the construction of a well house. Obviously, it had largely lost its meaning. A general economic crisis in the Roman Empire made matters worse. When an earthquake struck the city in 363, funds weren't even enough to repair all of the damage.

In the course of the reforms under Emperor Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century, Petra lost its status as provincial capital to Bostra. That did not change either when the Roman Empire fell apart and Arabia fell to the Byzantine part with the new imperial capital Constantinople, which was inaugurated in 330. It only regained a bit of luster around 358, when a new reform merged the south of the province of Arabia with parts of the Negeb to form the province of Palaestina Salutaris (from 400 Palaestina Tertia); again Petra held the status of a capital.

Christianity, which Constantine I (280–337) made the state religion in the Eastern Roman Empire, soon appeared in Petra. Its function as the capital, its location in the "Holy Land" and above all the Aaron's tomb on the Jebel Harun justified the claim. Bishops tried to bring Christian teachings to the people of Petra. The church fathers reported, however, of their persistence in clinging to the old faith.

It was not until the middle of the 5th century that Christianity was able to establish itself in Petra. In 446, Bishop Jason had the so-called urn tomb, probably the tomb of a Nabatean king, converted into a cathedral. Two other churches of that time were only discovered during excavations a few years ago, the basilica and the "Church on the Ridge", both located on the north bank of Wadi Musa in the center. The basilica had magnificent mosaics.

Knight in Petra

But it was a real sensation when the charred remains of a private archive were found there in 1993. Finnish and American scientists have saved and preserved the remains of 152 papyrus rolls. The puzzle of its reconstruction is still ongoing, but some details are already known. The writings deal with the economic situation of the city and the surrounding area in the 6th century. According to this, contrary to old beliefs, the victory of Christianity was accompanied by an economic boom that lasted through the entire 6th century. Nevertheless, the state church seems to have already used the distant Petra as a place of exile for criminals and enemies of the church. Towards the end of that century, times began to change again, as the southern nave of the basilica was used as a store for a short time. When a fire broke out there, the archive in a side room fell victim to him.

Obviously, in the 7th century it was no longer possible to maintain water pipes and other vital facilities, the residents eke out their lives in ruins. Petra was desolate. Natural disasters may have fueled this, we don't know.

Only the crusaders left their mark again. The Aaron's tomb was one reason, the strategic location on the border with Egypt another. In the 12th century knights built two castles, but without recognizing the place as the old Petra. They only knew the Christian interpretation as the valley of Moses and the mountain of Aaron. The graves were believed to be the houses of the Israelites accompanying Moses. The fortresses were lost to the Muslims in the same century. Only the veneration for the grave of Aaron, who is considered the prophet Harun in Islam, survived. Under the pretext of wanting to visit it, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt managed to enter Petra in 1812.

Even before the Crusaders, Bedouins had taken possession of the ancient ruins, especially the rock houses and tombs. They guarded their legendary treasures for many centuries and refused entry to strangers. Only a few years ago their descendants moved into a nearby, new village. As managers of hotels and cafes, artisans and souvenirs sellers, as owners of horses on which tourists go to Siqride, and leaders now live on the legacy of one of the first great Arab powers of which modern Jordan is rightly proud.


Petra. By Maria Giulia Amadasi Guzzo and Eugenia Equini Schneider, Hirmer Verlag, Munich 1998.

Petra. Ancient rock city between Arab tradition and Greek norm. By Thomas Weber and Robert Wenning (eds.). Publishing house Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 1997.

Rain in a roundabout way

How was it possible that a metropolis emerged in the Petra basin, even though there were no sources for drawing water or for horticulture? The Nabataeans proved to be masters in hydraulic engineering. The precious liquid reached the center via several pipes from springs in the highlands that were miles away. A line from the Moses source, at the entrance of today's city of Wadi Musa, is led into the city via canals and an arched aqueduct around the mountain range of Jebel al-Hubtha, where it led to a huge cistern of 300 cubic meters at the so-called floor grave. Researchers estimate that this pipe alone supplied the cisterns connected to it with 1.5 million liters of water.

Two water pipes, which start from large ponds at the end of Wadi Musa and were probably also connected to the source of Moses, run along the rock walls of the Siq. One of them consisted of clay pipes in a bed of mortar; a transition basin generated the required water pressure. Another line from the Braq spring in the southeast of the city was also brought over a long distance into the city, where it fed a basin near a monumental lion relief in Wadi Farasa near the High Place of Sacrifice and led with another branch to Qasr al-Bint. In addition, the winter rain was stored in numerous cisterns. For this purpose, the channel-like drainage edges on almost all rock heights were used as drainage systems. Conversely, the residents had to tame the raging Wadi Musa in winter and divert its floods in front of the Siq. A dam walled up at a narrowing was used for this purpose.

Water was not only needed to feed the residents and their animals or to irrigate the gardens - one must imagine Petra as an artificial oasis city at this time - but also in cult. Wherever water emerged from the cracks in the rock, the Nabataeans thanked a deity for the life-giving water.

From: Spectrum of Science 3/2001, page 76
© Spektrum der Wissenschaft Verlagsgesellschaft mbH

This article is included in Spectrum of Science 3/2001