Egypt: Petra, Part I: The History and Relationship with Egypt

Petra, Part I
The History and Relationship with Egypt
by John Southland

Petra, Jordan is a popular extension for many tour to Egypt, particularly when visiting the Sinai. This is a unique, pink and salmon colored 2,000 year old rock-carved city that served as the capital of the Nabataean Arabs and flourished form any hundreds of years. At its peak, Petra, which means "stone or rock" in Greek, may have had a population of between twenty and thirty thousand people. It is most famous for "The Treasury", otherwise known as Khasneh (Khazne Faraoun).

The Khasneh (The Treasury)

The Khasneh (The Treasury)

However, Petra is not only about the Nabataeans. The greater Petra region, though not necessarily Petra itself, was inhabited by people throughout the full sweep of human civilization. At Beidha, 15 minutes to the north, are the excavated remains of an entire Stone Age village dating to about 6,500 BC, when humankind was first making the transition from small bands of hunter-gatherers to settled villagers who cultivated cereals and domesticated sheep and goat. The Edomite village on Umm Al Biyara dates from 600-700 BC. Twenty minutes by car to the east is the Roman legion fortress at Udruh, which continued to be used in the Byzantine and early Islamic eras. There are even two 12th Century AD Crusader castles at Petra itself.

For seven centuries, Petra fell into the mists of legend, its existence a guarded secret known only to the local Bedouins and Arab tradesmen. Finally, in 1812, a young Swiss explorer and convert to Islam named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt heard locals speaking of a "lost city" hidden in the mountains of Wadi Mousa. In order to find the site without arousing local suspicions, Burckhardt disguised himself as a pilgrim seeking to make a sacrifice at the tomb of Aaron, a mission which would provide him a glimpse of the legendary city. He managed to bluff his way through successfully, and the secret of Petra was revealed to the modern Western world.

The History

Much of what we know about the Nabatean culture we learn from a well known source on ancient Egyptian history, the Roman scholar Strabo, but other sources include Diodorus, Siculus, Josephus and a few others. Of course there has been considerable modern archaeological study in the area that adds to our knowledge.

Tradition tells us that around 1200 BC, the area around Petra was controlled by a group of people known as the Edomites and that the area itself was known as Edom ("red"). These people were known for their wisdom, writings, metal working and a fine textile industry. They produced ceramics that were of a very high quality. But they also controlled the trade routes from Arabia in the south to Damascus in the north.

Sometime during the 6th century BC, the nomadic tribe (or perhaps even a confederation of tribes) known by ancient authors as the Nabatu migrated from western Arabia and settled in the area. It appears as though the Nabatu migration was gradual and there were few hostilities between them and the Edomites, though this incursion gradually forced the older inhabitants to migrate south into Palestine, or westward to settle in Judah where they became known as Idurnaeans. However, more than a few of the Edomites probably remained in the area, and together, they and the Nabatu led to the formation of the Nabataens of traditional history. In fact, even the Nabataeans and the Idumaeans continued to have important relationships, as evidenced by the family of Herod the Great, whose father was an Idumaean and mother a Nabataean. As the Nabateans forsook their nomadic lifestyle and settled in Petra, they grew rich by levying taxes on travelers to ensure safe passage through their lands. The easily defensible valley city of Petra allowed the Nabateans to grow strong.

From its origins as a fortress city, Petra became a wealthy commercial crossroads between the Arabian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures. Control of this crucial trade route between the upland areas of Jordan, the Red Sea, Damascus and southern Arabia was the lifeblood of the Nabatean Empire and brought Petra its fortune. The riches the Nabateans accrued allowed them to carve the monumental temples, tombs and administrative that we see today.


Apparently, they had very little problems defending the city, with no real contention until the Greek period, by which time Petra was the capital city of the Nabateans. At the same time that the Ptolemies came to power in Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great when his kingdom was divided, the Seleucid King, Antigonus, took control of Babylonia. Though the Ptolemies easily controlled Egypt, Antigonus' general, Athenaeus, rode against the Nabateans in 312 BC, but was eventually repelled. Antigonus' son, Demetrius, made other attempts to invade the region. But in fact, the Nabateans were able to expand their zone of influence even further north to control more trade routes due to the infighting that occurred between the Greek generals who divided up Alexander the Great's empire. Petra became the center for the spice trade that extended from Arabia to Aqaba and onward either to Gaza in the northwest, or to the north through Amman to Bostra, Damascus, and finally to Palmyra and the Syrian Desert. They also traded in gems, balsams, bitumen and even participated in the China silk trade.

The Seleucids and Ptolemies needed the use of these trade routes, and because of the Greek influence in the region, the Nabateans needed to deal with them. So while Antigonus could not conquer the Nabateans, the Greek culture did in fact take hold in the region of Petra, influencing art and architecture.

Yet, besides trade, the Nabataens created one of the most advanced hydraulic systems at that time in the world, developing water conservation systems and a system of dams to divert the rush of swollen winter waters that created flash floods in the area. Sophisticated ceramic pipelines, reservoirs, gravity feeds and cisterns served the urban environment, while outside the city, dams closed wadis in order to collect water during the rainy season, stone terraces retarded runoff and trapped topsoil and irrigation lines fed crops.

A similar degree of technological sophistication is evident in other aspects of Nabataean life: architecture, ceramics, metallurgy, chemistry, mathematics, construction, and even toxicology. Graeco-Roman architectural forms were borrowed, adapted and interpreted from a unique Nabataean viewpoint, and lavishly employed in their structures, especially in the faades of funerary monuments. Common ware pottery of the period was simply copied. However, Nabataean fine thin wares, both plain and painted, were locally produced and were perhaps the finest ceramics produced in the Middle East up to that time.

Petra, Part I

In addition, The Aramaic-speaking Nabataeans created a new writing form to add to those in use in the Middle East of their day. They developed a running "cursive" or semi-ligatured script, which was used for both lapidary inscriptions and more common graffiti. This writing form would later evolve into the "Arabic" writing still in use today.

With the rise of the Romans, by 63 BC the growing economic and political power of the Nabateans began to be worrisome. Pompey dispatched a force to attack Petra, which was then ruled by the Nabatean King Aretas III. However, this plan also apparently failed, though to what extent we are unsure. Either the Nabateans outright repelled the attack, or they agreed to pay tribute to the Romans. Regardless, during the Parthian-Roman war, the Nabateans made the mistake of siding with the Parthians.

After the Parthians defeat, we do know that Petra had to pay tribute to Rome. and when they fell behind in paying this tribute, they were invaded. King Herod the Great attacked the Nabateans twice, with some success in the second invasion in 31 BC. He took control of a large area of Nabatean territory, including the lucrative northern trading routes into Syria.

Petra, Part I

The so called Nabatean Empire was considerably reduced by the Romans, yet they managed to retain their smaller kingdom for almost another century and a half. The last Nabatean monarch, Rabbel II, struck a deal with the Romans that as long as they did not attack during his lifetime, they would be allowed to move in after he died. Upon his death in 106 AD, the Roman Emperor Trajan claimed the Nabatean Kingdom and set about transforming it with the usual plan of a colonnaded street, baths, and the common trappings of modern Roman life. The Romans built a Triumphal Arch spanning the Sig (the entrance to Petra) and many free standing buildings and monuments, though these continued to show a Nabataean flair. The Nabataeans actually maintained a high level of political independence and were freer than many neighboring societies to interpret outside elements in a distinctly Nabataean manner. In fact, for a while at least, the wide reach of the Roman Empire actually opened doors for Nabataean traders.

In 313 AD, the Romans recognized Christianity as the state religion and in 330 AD, Constantine established the Eastern Roman Empire with its capital at Constantinople. With this, the Byzantine influence began to invaded Petra.

In about 363 AD, when a violent earthquake destroyed most of its free standing structures, basically half the city, Petra lost much of its population. Yet, Petra continued to be a vital urban center into late antiquity, when it was the seat of the Byzantine bishopric. This period is fairly well attested to by recent finds of papyrus scrolls in a newly excavated Petra church.

We know that the Christian occupation of the region took place probably during the mid 5th century, around 447 AD due to red painted consecration inscriptions in the "Palace Tomb" notes. Documentary evidence also exits in the 6th century attesting to the Christian population of Petra. These tell of a community that accommodated the theology of both a Christian and pagan aristocracy. It was a period when, as in Egypt, many structures were recycled for use as Christian establishments, and there was even new building activity.

However, with the changing trade routes, Petra's commercial decline was inevitable and its demise was further impacted by a severe earthquake in 551 AD, which all but ruined the city. It continued to decline with the Muslim invasion of the 7th century, though the new evidence presented by the unearthed Christian papyrus suggest that the region's vitality may have continued well into the 7th century. However, when, in 747 AD, it was again struck by a major earthquake, if fell almost completely into obscurity.

Jebel Harun (Haroun, or Aaron's Mountain)

Jebel Harun (Haroun, or Aaron's Mountain)

Yet the area housed a small Crusader community during the 12th century, a time when the area seems to have reverted to and from Christian and Muslim rule. By that time, the area had become known as the Valley of Moses, probably due to the linking of the site to the biblical tradition of the Exodus by early Christian residents. However, around 1144, it is very possible that the area of Petra had already seen a large conversion to Islam, and by at least 1219, it was completely lost to Christianity and the western world. Though Muslims continued to visit the area, and especially to make pilgrimages to the Tomb of Aaron on top of nearby Jebel Harun, by then a Muslim shrine, it was completely forgotten about by the outside world.

Nabataean Political and Theological Relations with Egypt

Egypt was perhaps the most important trading partner of the Nabataeans. Myrrh and other spices from Arabia Felix and the Dead Sea bitumen, used for embalming purposes, were exported to Egypt, along with many other goods.

In fact, there was a Nabataean settlement in the Wadi Tumilat east of the Delta, and Nabataean ships crossed the Read Sea to discharge their goods in Egyptian harbors. Numerous Nabataean inscriptions have been found in the desert valleys between the Red Sea and the Nile valley. Enno littmann has published a map showing six probable Nabataean tracks to the Nile. Therefore, it is quite understandable that Egyptian theological elements can be found in the Nabataean culture, as well as at least one Nabataean god in the Egyptian culture.


It would appear that the Nabataeans imported their cult of Kutbay, "scribal god" who can be equated with the Egyptian Thoth, to at least Tell-Shuqafiya and in the northern Sinai, at Qasr Gheit or Qasrawet. At this latter Nabataean site, two temples have been recently excavated. The western temple, dated to the 1st century BC is described as "characteristically Egyptian both in ground plan and architectural elements". But an altar base which was found in this temple is inscribed with a Nabataean dedication. The central temple is Nabataean in plan. It has good parallels in the temples of the Winged Lions of Petra, and in the recently excavated temple of Sahul, near khirbet edh-Dharih. The architecture of this temple is described as "elaborate" and dates to the 1st century Ad, but the site was occupied from the 2nd century BC to the 4th century AD.

A recent evaluation by Susan Gelb of the University of Texas at Austin suggests that the Temple of the Winged Lions in Petra may in fact be a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, built to honor the Roman emperor, Hadrian. He traveled to the ancient city in 131 AD and the city was renamed at that time as a tribute to his visit. It was customary to build monuments to rulers on such a trip, yet none have been discovered in this city. A study of recently discovered papyrus fragments of this period, and other ancient shrines at Petra, support Isis, otherwise known as Allat, who was also the protectress of Petra, as the patron deity of the temple. However, other archaeologists tell us that Allat was not Isis herself, but an adoption of attributes from this well known Egyptian goddess.