Petra 360º

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Petra: Center of the Nabataean Empire

Chiseled out of the rose-colored sandstone cliffs of southwestern Jordan, the ancient city of Petra protects long-held secrets as it once protected its inhabitants. Built as the capital of the Nabataean kingdom some 2,000 years ago, Petra prospered as a crossroads for camel caravans overloaded with spices and perfumes. During four centuries of power, the Nabataeans filled the city with palaces, temples, and tombs and built a network of channels and cisterns to harness precious rainwater. Much of this ancient infrastructure is still used by Bedouin today. At its height, the city bustled with 30,000 people scattered over 400 square miles (1,000 square kilometers).

The Roman Empire overthrew the Nabataean kingdom in A.D. 106, and a major earthquake in 336 destroyed half the city, but Petra recovered, becoming the seat of a Byzantine bishopric. Shifting trade routes and another severe earthquake in 551, however, proved too devastating. By 700, the once thriving metropolis was gone. Although the Crusaders built a fort at Petra in the 12th century, they soon abandoned it, and the city remained forgotten to the Western world until Johann Burckhardt, a Swiss scholar disguised as a Muslim pilgrim, visited it in 1812 and recognized it as the city of ancient lore.

Archaeologists continue to make major discoveries at Petra, estimating that as much as 85 percent of the city remains hidden under debris. But with more than 500,000 visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, they must also search for ways to protect the lost city.

Above: Al Khazneh (the Treasury) is the centerpiece of Petra. The Treasury's rose-colored facade, carved into the sandstone, greets visitors as they emerge from the Siq, a narrow 250-foot-high (76-meter-high) crack in the rock—and the main road into the city. Some 12 stories high, its original purpose remains a mystery, but it was likely used as a tomb or temple and built between the first and second centuries. Bedouins, who believed that the urn at the top of the Treasury held a pharaoh's treasure, tried for centuries to shatter it with gunshots and stones, chipping the intricate carvings.

Special thanks to the Petra National Trust and the Petra Archaeological Park for their assistance on this project.

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