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Petra—A City Hewn out of Rock

Petra—A City Hewn out of Rock

 Petra—A City Hewn out of Rock

MANY cities of the ancient world straddled important rivers, whose abundant water nourished and protected them. But there was one city on the northwest border of the Arabian Desert that rose to prominence because of the lack of water. Its name was Petra.

In the desert lands bordering the Mediterranean, caravan routes linked distant cities somewhat the way our modern highways cross continents. But just as cars need gas stations, so camels—despite their legendary endurance—require stops for water. Two thousand years ago, Petra was one of the most famous water stops in the Middle East.

Petra stood at the crossroads of two important trade routes. One linked the Red Sea with Damascus, and the other, the Persian Gulf with Gaza, on the shores of the Mediterranean. Caravans from the Gulf, loaded with their precious cargo of spices, had to brave the rigors of the Arabian Desert for weeks before finally arriving at the cool, narrow canyon—the Siq—that was the welcoming entrance to Petra. Petra meant food and lodging and, above all, cool, refreshing water.

Of course, the citizens of Petra did not provide these amenities free of charge. Roman historian Pliny reports  that gifts had to be given to the guards, the gatekeepers, the priests, and the king’s servants—apart from the payments for fodder and lodging. But the exorbitant prices that spices and perfumes could fetch in the prosperous cities of Europe kept the caravans coming and filled the coffers of Petra.

Conserving Water and Conquering Stone

Only some six inches [15 cm] of rain falls on Petra each year, and streams are practically nonexistent. How did the people of Petra obtain the precious water to sustain the city? They carved out channels, reservoirs, and cisterns from the solid rock. In time, practically every drop of rain that fell around Petra was collected and conserved. Their mastery of water management enabled the people of Petra to cultivate crops, rear camels, and build a commercial center whose tradesmen grew rich on the frankincense and myrrh that passed through their hands. Even today, a sinuous stone channel transports water the whole length of the Siq.

If the citizens of Petra knew how to work with water, they were also masters at masonry. The very name Petra, which means “Mass of Rock,” summons up visions of stone. And Petra was indeed a city of stone—unlike any other in the Roman world. The Nabataeans, the city’s builders, patiently carved their houses, tombs, and temples out of the solid rock. The red sandstone mountains in which Petra was nestled were well suited to this, and by the first century C.E., a monumental city had arisen in the middle of the desert.

From Trade to Tourism

Two millenniums ago, trade made Petra rich. But when the Romans found sea-lanes to the East, the overland spice trade collapsed and Petra was gradually abandoned to the desert. But the work of the desert masons did not disappear. Nowadays, about half a million tourists visit Jordan each year to behold the rose-red city of Petra, whose buildings still testify to a glorious past.

After the visitor walks through the cool, half-mile-long Siq, a twist in the canyon walls suddenly reveals the Treasury, an imposing structure whose facade was carved out of a massive cliff. Few will forget their first glimpse of it, one of the best-preserved buildings of the first century. The edifice was named after the huge stone urn that crowns the building and that supposedly stored gold and precious stones.

As the canyon widens, the tourist enters a vast natural amphitheater of sandstone walls riddled with caves. But the tombs are what capture his attention—tombs carved out of the cliff face, tombs so tall that they dwarf the visitors who venture into their dark interiors. A colonnade and theater testify to the Roman presence in the city during the first and second centuries.

Modern-day Bedouin, descendants of the Nabataeans, offer camel rides to the less energetic tourists, sell souvenirs, or water their herds of goats at the fountains of Petra, which quench the thirst of man and beast. The old paved highways of Petra are still reserved exclusively for camels, horses, and donkeys. Thus, today the city echoes with the same sounds heard in bygone days, when the camel was king and Petra ruled the desert.

As the sun goes down over the city, heightening the reddish color of the massive facades, the thoughtful visitor may ponder the lessons Petra teaches us. The city undoubtedly attests to man’s ingenuity in conserving limited resources, even in such an inhospitable environment. But it also serves as a telling reminder that material wealth can all too quickly ‘fly away toward the heavens.’—Proverbs 23:4, 5.

[Picture Credit Line on page 18]

Inset: Garo Nalbandian