The Rose Red City

The ancient city of Petra lies in the dramatic barrier of russet-coloured mountains that run beside the rift valley of Wadi Arabah from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba."Rock"is what Petra means,echoing its biblical name of Selah;and these wild and wierdly-shaped rocks which surround it seem at first sight so impenetrable that it is hardly surprising that for over 1000 years the city was lost in obscurity,known only to the bedouin.

Possibly as early as 580 BC the Nabataeans, nomads from Arabia,began filtering into these mountains, filling the gap left by the Edomites who had moved into the richer,more fertile lands to the west of Wadi Arabah,which almost deserted after King Nebuchadnezzar had taken Jews to captivity in Babylon.

The Nabataeans made their capital in Wadi Mousa,a valley blessed with abundant water and natural defences.All the major trade routes of the day converged in their new territory.From here they took over and controlled the caravan routes-to their enormous profit.

They also developed an astonishingly harmonious architecture which, even though it borrowed ideas from other cultures,remained wholly Nabataean.A very early borrowing was the Assyrian crow-step design,used to decorate tomb facades.Petra may appear as a vast city of the dead;it was an even vaster city of the living in its time, but the buildings for the living proved less durable than the carved tombs for the dead.

Only a fraction of ancient Petra has as yet been uncovered,and many mysteries remain unsolved,one of them over the so called & quot;djin & quot;blocks of which there are 25-perhaps early tombs,or representations of the god Dusares.This group of three is near the entrance to the Siq,the mile-long cleft in the mountain that leads into the city.

Passionate in the defense of their freedom,and foe long possessing the wealth and the diplomatic skills to maintain it,the Nabataeans remained independent long after the other peoples of Jordan and Palestine had submitted,first to the heirs of Alexander,then to Rome.It was not until AD106 that the Nabataean kingdom was taken over by the Romans and became their Province of Arabia.

Try as the Romans did to improve matters,Petra's economy and culture were now by decline,and a remote survival became the order of the day.It survived the Byzantine period,when it gained new distniction as the seat of a bishopric,later raised to metropolitan status.Even after the Arab conquest of 636 it kept a certain eminence because it was on the caliphs' pilgrimage route from Damascus to Mecca.But with the earthquake of 747,and the transfer of the caliphate to Baghdad soon after,the story of ancient Petra become to an end.
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