Petra, an ancient site located in present-day Jordan, has more than a thousand tombs carved in the area’s rocky terrain. These tombs, carved by the Nabataeans between the first century BCE and the second century CE, were places that housed, commemorated, and protected the dead.
An overview of Petra is shown above.
Europeans first discovered Petra in the early nineteenth century when Johann Burckhardt, a Swiss-born and British-sponsored explorer, entered the area. The Europeans were fascinated with the classical façades carved into the red rock and gave them fanciful and imaginative names without realizing that these were tombs.
Petra had water available which made it an important stopping place for desert caravans crossing the desert from Arabia and Iraq with cargos of luxury goods bound for the Mediterranean markets in the Levant. For many of the nomadic tribes involved in trade, such as the Nabataeans, this site also came to be used as a burial site.
In the seventh century BCE, the Nabataeans were a nomadic group occupying the region of Tayma and Madain Salih in northern Arabia. They controlled an area on an important trade route which brought incense and spices into the Levant. In the fifth century BCE, they took over the site of Petra which had been an Edomite settlement. Petra became their new capital and rapidly developed into a commercial empire.
The ancient kingdom of Edom dates to sometime in the seventh century BCE. Its economy and wealth appears to have been initially based on copper mining.
At Petra, water was provided by a complex system of channels and cisterns. In addition, the Nabataeans widened the narrow approach to Petra (which comes through the gorge known as the Siq) and paved the surface with limestone slabs. The Siq is up to 200 meters (656 feet) deep and at times it is as narrow as 3 meters (10 feet).
The entrance trail to Petra is shown above.
Petra is best known for its tombs which have been elaborately cut into the walls of the narrow canyon area. With regard to architecture, Petra exhibits a combination of Assyrian, Babylonian, and Hellenistic styles. Thousands of tombs were carved into its rocky terrain, the most impressive of which are the approximately 600 façade tombs near the city center. The tombs provided a safe and eternal place for the dead and the decorated façade provided a memorial to the deceased and to the family. The tombs were owned by high status individuals and were intended for the burials of their families.
The façade tombs were once plastered and painted: this would have created a dramatic impact. Behind the façade would be a spacious, square-shaped burial chamber carved out of the rock. Graves were cut into the floor of these chambers for the deceased. Buried with them were ceramic vessels, coins, jewelry, figurines, and bells. These burial goods may have been personal items belonging to the deceased or they may have had a symbolic role with regard to Nabataean concepts of the afterlife. The Nabataeans are well-known archaeologically for their production of extremely fine eggshell-like painted ceramics.
Some of the graves are deep and contain superimposed burials. This indicates that they had repeated use over time.
Close to the entrance to the tomb were often an-iconic carvings of Nabataean gods. These carvings did not form images of the gods, but still indicated that the tombs were under the protection of the gods.
The tombs were regularly visited by groups of people who performed specific rituals in commemoration of the dead. Basins are a common feature at the entrance to the tombs, which suggests that there may have been some sort of ritual purification on entering the sacred space. The rituals may have involved libations in honor of the dead as there are circular receptacles, usually described as cup-holes, which have been carved in the floor of the tomb at the entrance or sometimes in front of specific burials.
Archaeologists feel that the living regularly feasted at the tomb sites. The cisterns and reservoirs at Petra provided the large amount of water necessary for feasting and cleaning. In addition, there are small rooms which contain no apparent burial or ritual installations which may have served as preparation and storage areas for the feasts.
Al-Kaznah (also known as the Treasury) is the first site to greet visitors as they enter Petra. The two-storied pillared façade has been carved into the cliff face. Inside there are four chambers.
The Siq opens up into a large open area. The Nabateaens carved a number of tombs into the rock faces of the wadies that run into this area. This central area housed Petra’s urban center.
Street of Facades (Colonnaded Street) is shown above. This is a formal road lined with columns and flanked on either side by temples, markets, and other public spaces. At one end there is a fountain and at the other end there is a triple arch which provides the entrance to the great temple known as Qasr al-Bint.
The Great Temple is shown above. This large complex was constructed in the mid-first century CE and continued to be used until about the sixth century.
The Nabataeans had writing. Their script represents a mixture of Aramaic and early Arabic. They had a cursive style which resembles the Qufic script.
Shown above is an example of the Qufic script from a seventh century manuscript.
A map of Petra is shown above. Petra was declared to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. UNESCO has described it as
"one of the most precious cultural properties of man's cultural heritage."Today it is one of Jordon’s most visited tourist attractions.
The Obelisk Tomb is shown above.
The Silk Tomb is shown above.
Al Dier is shown above.
The Uneisha Tomb is shown above.
Urn Tomb is shown above.