Petra PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
The Siq
The "Treasury"
"Qasr al-Bint"
Civic Center
"Deir" ("Monastery")
High Place


The Petra's main growth occurred in the 1st century AD, but before that an event occurred which was destined to cause its decline. This was the rise of Octavian (later called Augustus) to exclusive power in Rome. Augustus made peace with the Parthians. The more northerly trade route via the Euphrates was back in action.

With regard to goods that were destined for Rome, It no longer made sense to send them south to Petra and then north again. Why not just go straight across via the Euphrates-Aleppo-Antioch connection? This was roughly what happened to much of the India-Rome trade. ("Roughly," I say, because the desert city of Palmyra, newly developed by Arab tribes, proved powerful enough to divert the traffic its way.) The northerly route attracted more and more commerce. Wadi Sirhan, a well-watered north-south passage through the desert, came into greater use. Its traffic bypassed Petra. (See map below.)

That was one factor in Petra's decline. There was another. Shortly after Augustus' death in 14 AD, the Romans discovered a secret that Arab mariners had probably kept for centuries. Suppose that, between May and October, you sail from Egypt through the Red Sea straits. If you then put out for the open sea (instead of hugging the south Arabian shore as sailors were wont to do), the monsoon winds will carry you to India in about three months. They will carry you back between November and April. Using this principle, the Romans took control of the maritime trade with Indian cities. They could also stop at the entrance to the Red Sea, picking up frankincense and myrrh. Although there were pirates to contend with near the coast (each merchant vessel had security guards), this method was much more efficient than overland shipment by camel. A single ship could hold the equivalent of many camel loads.

What really hurt the Nabataeans, however, was this: The Romans used harbors on the western shore of the Red Sea. From here they shipped the goods on a short overland journey to the Nile, whence they continued to Alexandria by boat. Thus Petra lost much of the vital Egyptian trade. Strabo records the change:

The loads of aromatics are conveyed from Leuke Kome [on the east coast of the Red Sea - see map below] to Petra, and thence to Rhinocolura [near Gaza]…and thence to the other peoples; but at the present time they are for the most part transported by the Nile to Alexandria; and they are landed from Arabia and India at Myus Harbour [Myos Hormos on the map]; and then they are conveyed by camels over to Coptus in Thebaïs [Thebes], which is situated on a canal of the Nile, and then [north] to Alexandria (Geography, Book 16, Ch. 4, 24).  

The situation is indicated by the map. In line with Ball , I have not included a "Silk Road" from China. 

NE trade routes after 70 AD

Given the general northward shift of commerce and, in the south, the Roman diversion of trade to the Nile, Petra lost much of its importance. Commercially, it must have become something of a backwater. In 70 AD or soon thereafter, the last Nabataean king, Rabel II, moved north to Bostra at the outlet of Wadi Sirhan. Here he could be closer to the action. What's more, the Nabataeans owned much land in the area, which was (and is) superb for viticulture. To Rabel's name, in inscriptions, is added the epithet: "who brings life and deliverance to his people." What he appears to have done, indeed, was to lead a transition to agriculture in the former trading cities on the Petra-Gaza route, including Petra itself. At this time, for instance, Avdat got its ingenious runoff-collection system, enabling it to grow crops in the desert. But no one farms the desert unless there is another good reason for being there, and Avdat had lost this. By 150 AD it was defunct, along with the other cities in the central Negev. (Nabataean Mampsis thrived at this time, however.).

Petra survived without interruption, for it was still the major city in its area. In 106 AD, upon Rabel's death, Trajan annexed the Nabataean realm to Rome, apparently without need for a conquest. (Roman coins called Arabia adquisita, not capta.) He incorporated it into the new Provincia Arabia, whose capital he set at Bostra. A few years later Trajan paved a road 250 miles long from Bostra through Petra to Aela (Aqaba) on the Red Sea. This Via Nova Traiana kept Petra in the picture, but close to the margin. The big money was being made elsewhere.

Little is known about Petra in the following centuries. The emperor Diocletian (284-305), who reorganized the Roman Empire (and persecuted Christians) lopped off the southern part of Provincia Arabia, including Petra, and attached it to the province of Syria Palaestina. Under Byzantine rule the city had its own bishop, who attended the Sardis conference of 343 on the Arian controversy . Twenty years later, in 363, an earthquake hit the region very hard. The columns of the "Great Temple" fell and were not restored. 

When the land was again reorganized, toward the end of the 4th century, Petra was included in Palaestina Tertia (Third Palestine), of which it may have been the capital. The question is debated.

Christianity had recently become the Byzantine imperial religion, but it does not seem to have penetrated Petra in a major way until the mid-5th century, when the city was visited by the monk Bar Sauma . The story goes that Petra had suffered from drought for four years, but on his arrival, Bar Sauma prophesied rain. At once the heavens opened and the population converted.  

The Urn Tomb became a church. But Petra's new Christians could also build their own, for there were plenty of materials still lying around from the earthquake of 363.  Some of the stones from the "Great Temple" and other toppled buildings were used. The ruins of a large church may be viewed today on the hill just north of the colonnaded street. It had (in its initial version) a single apse on the east and an atrium on the west, beyond which was a baptistry in the form of a cross. Each arm of the cross that we see today has steps, and there is a small basin embedded nearby. Jane Taylor interprets this as follows. The convert descended the steps and stood in the font. A priest took water from the basin and poured it over his or her head. The convert then ascended to the other side as a Christian.     

South aisle of the Petra Church

In a storeroom beside this church, in 1993, about 140 papyri were found, dating from the 6th century AD. They had been carbonized in a fire, and the decipherment has been an enormous labor of reading black on black. So far they appear to be legal documents in Greek concerning property transactions, taxes, dowries and resolutions of disputes. Those deciphered range in date from 513 to 594, "portraying three generations of an affluent land-owning Petra family" (Taylor, p. 208). One gets the impression, Taylor writes (p. 207), of a city that has "a rich economic and social life with flourishing agriculture and active institutions." The papyri do not mention trade.

And then the record goes blank. During the next three hundred years, much of the scavenging and grave robbing occurs. An Arab historian of the 10th century mentions that Christian monks are living on nearby Haroun Mountain, which a tradition identifies as Mount Hor of Numbers 20:27-29:

Moses did as the Lord commanded: and they went up into Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation.  
Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them on Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there on the top of the mountain: and Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain. When all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they wept for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel. 

Two centuries later the monks of the monastery at Aaron's grave appear in a chronicle, asking the Crusaders to protect them from Saracen raids. The Crusaders built a castle east of the Siq. It fell to Saladin's army in 1189. A pilgrim, in 1217, saw no one in Petra, but he found two monks still living by the grave on Haroun. The Mamluke Sultan Baibars passed through in 1276. The account of his journey makes no mention of inhabitants.

After this, total silence. Petra was lost to to the western world. Those who had read the ancient historians knew that a place of this name had once existed, but they did not know where. The clergy of Jerusalem told a young Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt that Petra was the place which we today know as Karak. But then Burckhardt went looking. One day in 1812, a man from the village of Wadi Musa guided him through the Siq.