Petra was the impressive capital of the Nabataean kingdom from around the 6th century BC

The kingdom was absorbed into the Roman Empire in AD 106 and the Romans continued to expand the city. An important center for trade and commerce, Petra continued to flourish until a catastrophic earthquake destroyed buildings and crippled vital water management systems around AD 663. After Saladin’s conquest of the Middle East in 1189, Petra was abandoned and the memory of it was lost to the West.

Ancient City of Petra • History

Pliny the Elder and other writers identify Petra as the capital of the Nabataeans, and the center of their caravan trade. Enclosed by towering rocks and watered by a perennial stream, Petra not only possessed the advantages of a fortress, but controlled the main commercial routes which passed through it to Gaza in the west, to Bosra and Damascus in the north, to Aqaba and Leuce Come on the Red Sea, and across the desert to the Persian Gulf.

Evidence suggests that settlements had begun in and around Petra in the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt (1550–1292 BC). It is listed in Egyptian campaign accounts and the Amarna letters as Pel, Sela or Seir. Though the city was founded relatively late, a sanctuary existed there since very ancient times. Stations 19 through 26 of the stations list of Exodus are places associated with Petra. This part of the country was Biblically assigned to the Horites, the predecessors of the Edomites. The habits of the original natives may have influenced the Nabataean custom of burying the dead and offering worship in half-excavated caves. Although Petra is usually identified with Sela which means a rock, the Biblical references refer to it as “the cleft in the rock”, referring to its entrance. The second book of Kings seems to be more specific. In the parallel passage, however, Sela is understood to mean simply “the rock”.

On the authority of Josephus  Eusebius and Jerome assert that Rekem was the native name and Rekem appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls as a prominent Edom site most closely describing Petra and associated with Mount Seir. But in the Aramaic versions Rekem is the name of Kadesh, implying that Josephus may have confused the two places. Sometimes the Aramaic versions give the form Rekem-Geya which recalls the name of the village El-ji, southeast of Petra. The Semitic name of the city, if not Sela, remains unknown. The passage in Diodorus Siculus which describes the expeditions which Antigonus sent against the Nabataeans in 312 BC is understood to throw some light upon the history of Petra, but the “petra” referred to as a natural fortress and place of refuge cannot be a proper name and the description implies that the town was not yet in existence.

The name “Rekem” was inscribed in the rock wall of the Wadi Musa opposite the entrance to the Siq, but about twenty years ago the Jordanians built a bridge over the wadi and this inscription was buried beneath tons of concrete.

More satisfactory evidence of the date of the earliest Nabataean settlement may be obtained from an examination of the tombs. Two types have been distinguished: the Nabataean and the Greco-Roman. The Nabataean type starts from the simple pylon-tomb with a door set in a tower crowned by a parapet ornament, in imitation of the front of a dwelling-house. Then, after passing through various stages, the full Nabataean type is reached, retaining all the native features and at the same time exhibiting characteristics which are partly Egyptian and partly Greek. Of this type there exist close parallels in the tomb-towers at el-I~ejr in north Arabia, which bear long Nabataean inscriptions and supply a date for the corresponding monuments at Petra. Then comes a series of tombfronts which terminate in a semicircular arch, a feature derived from north Syria. Finally come the elaborate façades copied from the front of a Roman temple; however, all traces of native style have vanished. The exact dates of the stages in this development cannot be fixed. Few inscriptions of any length have been found at Petra, perhaps because they have perished with the stucco or cement which was used upon many of the buildings. The simple pylon-tombs which belong to the pre-Hellenic age serve as evidence for the earliest period. It is not known how far back in this stage the Nabataean settlement goes, but it does not go back farther than the 6th century BC.

A period follows in which the dominant civilization combines Greek, Egyptian and Syrian elements, clearly pointing to the age of the Ptolemies. Towards the close of the 2nd century BC, when the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms were equally depressed, the Nabataean kingdom came to the front. Under Aretas III Philhellene, (c.85–60 BC), the royal coins begin. The theatre was probably excavated at that time, and Petra must have assumed the aspect of a Hellenistic city. In the reign of Aretas IV Philopatris, (9 BC–40 AD), the fine tombs of the el-I~ejr [?] type may be dated, and perhaps also the great High-place.

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