An ancient city in the desert wastes of Jordan, Petra was forgotten and unknown to the West from the time of the Crusades until 1812, when a young explorer followed rumors to track it down. He bribed a suspicious Bedouin tribesman to take him to the place where Abraham's brother, Aaron, was supposedly buried, saying that he wished to worship there. What he saw overwhelmed him in its beauty and untouched splendor.
Petra was settled several thousand years before Christ, but somewhere around the fifth century bce it became a Nabatean stronghold. A complex water-supply system allowed them to create an elaborate farming setup in the desert and a public water supply in the town. At its height, around 40 ce, Petra controlled Damascus and a large area in what is now Syria. A shift of the Arab trade routes caused a gradual decline, and Petra later passed to the Byzantine Christians and then to Arab Muslims.
Petra is stunning. Set within a ring of mountains, its red sandstone tombs and buildings cover an area of more than a square mile. Fed by a spring and easily defended, the site provided a protected trade route and a natural place for settlement. The stream, Ain Musa, is believed by local people to be the result of God's command to Moses to strike the dry rock when the Jews wandered in the desert and lacked water. It would be remarkable merely as an ancient settlement, but it was also the center of a deeply religious culture that has left some of the most striking evidence of ancient religion.
The Nabatean's chief deities were the goddess Al-Uzza (Mighty One), symbolized by a lion, and Dushara, the high god. This god was represented (as was the Hebrew god, Jehovah) as a square block of rock, often referred to as “God's House,” Beth-el in Hebrew. Dushara's symbolic animal was the bull. Al-Uzza was the people's deity, while Dushara was the court god of the nobility and the official cult. In the hills surrounding Petra are a number of sanctuaries known as “high places.” These feature large altars of sacrifice and shaped stones representing Dushara and Al-Uzza. Around them are niches for lamps, and religious meals were held at these spots. Whether these meals were like modern picnics or sacrificed animals were eaten in some sort of ritual is not known. There are also many tombs, some massive and ornate, and these include formal eating places with benches on which diners reclined during anniversary dinners in honor of the dead. Some of these could accommodate a large group of relatives and friends.
A visitor enters Petra via the Siq, a gorge that follows the stream for slightly more than a mile. Many votive niches were carved into the canyon walls to hold offerings, some with stylized carvings of Al-Uzza. At the entry are three massive djinn (spirit) blocks, square blocks of stone sacred to the Bedouin, the nomadic people who live in the area. The visitor then comes upon the Obelisk Tomb, the first of the major burial chambers. It contains five graves set into the walls, carved into the living rock. The final entrance into Petra is very narrow and confining at first, then opens with a shock onto the brilliant, ocher-red Kasneh, a tomb with a beautifully carved classical facade. It has become the symbol of Petra. An eleven-foot-high urn is carved above its doorway. The Kasneh was probably a temple. It has an inner chamber and sanctuary beyond its courtyard and numerous tombs, some holding as many as seventeen graves.
The center of Petra was the main public fountain, dedicated to the water spirits and surrounded by shops, which have disappeared. At the end of the street, known today as the Colonnade, is the ceremonial gate leading to the sacred precincts. Within it is the Kasr el Bint, the holiest temple in Petra, built around the time of Christ. The temple is a mammoth building that honored Dushara, represented by a large god-block (no longer present). A huge hand has been excavated, indicating that the block was later replaced by a statue of the god. Some of the painted plasterwork that once covered the temple can still be seen on the walls and pillars.
A cult was once devoted to the spirit of water and was probably connected with the mountain Umm al-Biyara (Mother of Cisterns), which still has eight large holding tanks for water. A short distance away is the mountain el-Barra, with a shrine on top regarded as Aaron's tomb; it is jealously guarded by the Bedouin and not open to visitors. There are more than 500 tombs in the Petra area, the most important of which is the Royal Tomb, used as a Christian church from the fifth century ce because of its vast size.
Petra also has one of the best-preserved religious sites in the ancient world, the High Place of Sacrifice. On the ceremonial path to the high plateau where it sits are two obelisks a hundred feet apart and twenty feet high, carved from the same mountaintop, an enormous chore that indicates the importance of honoring the deities. At 625 feet above Petra, the High Place was used for both animal and human sacrifice and was equipped with drainage to flush away the blood. A god-block, now disappeared, presided over the scene.
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