Petra—Isaiah 34:5

The ancient city of Petra, located in a basin surrounded by the ridges and rugged mountains of the Edomite highlands southeast of the Dead Sea, was an Edomite mountain-top town during the Old Testament. An Arabian people known as the Nabataeans moved into the area during the second half of the first millennium BC and, with brilliant engineering and scientific expertise, expanded and developed Petra by the first century BC into a showcase capital city of the Near East. While some scholars associate Petra with Sela‘ (Sela‘ and Petra translate as “stone” or “rock” from both Hebrew and Greek), the site as-Sila‘ to the north is the more likely candidate (see the entry on Sela‘). While the Bible does not explicitly speak of Petra as the Nabataean capital, the mention of Nabataean king Aretas (2 Cor. 11:32) does allude to the vital role the Nabataeans played in first-century geopolitics.

The Nabataeans rose to prominence through their involvement in and ultimate control of the spice trade between Arabia and the West. Using their technical skills in hydrology and architecture, they carved a city out of sandstone and created lush gardens and pools in an arid desert landscape. Petra and Nabataean culture continued after their annexation by Rome in 106 as part of the Province of Arabia Petraea until 363, when Byzantine Christianity began to transform the city’s culture after a major earthquake.

After another quake in 551 and the Islamic conquest of the seventh century, Petra lost its strategic value as a trading hub for the spice and trade routes. Apart from a relatively brief Crusader presence, the city sat abandoned and largely forgotten until the visit of Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. Inspired by Burckhardt’s accounts and drawings by other visitors, Petra became a destination for nineteenth and early twentieth-century travelers. Serious archaeological excavation, documentation, and preservation efforts, apart from the work of George and Agnes Horsfield in 1929, only began during the 1950s.

Evidence of Nabataean hydrological engineering, including elaborate channels, tunnels, terraces, dams, and huge cisterns exist throughout the entire site, notably along al-Siq, a dramatic three-quarter mile long deep cleft through the eastern ridge that serves as the usual tourist entrance into the city and at the so-called “Garden Tomb” in the Wadi Farasa. The most famous of its many monumental rock-cut tomb façades are the erroneously named al-Khazneh (Treasury) and the larger ad Deir (Monastery).

Unfortunately, nearly all of Petra’s free-standing buildings collapsed long ago except the Qasr al-Bint Faroun, an Egyptian styled temple dedicated to Dushara, the chief Nabataean deity, and dating to the late first century BC. Extensive excavations throughout Petra’s city center have revealed a monumental colonnaded and paved street and related temenos and a Byzantine basilica with well-preserved mosaic floors. Scholars discovered a cache of carbonized papyrus scrolls in an adjacent building. Despite excavations and restoration work at the Temple of the Winged Lion, the Great Temple, the adjacent garden and pool complex, the Roman theater, and numerous domestic structures, most of the ancient city remains unexcavated. Recent discoveries include a high 184 x 161-foot colonnaded platform with a broad stairway and topped by a smaller 28 x 28-foot structure along Petra’s south ridge. Researchers provisionally date the platform to the second century BC. A Finnish team excavating at nearby Jebel Haroun (biblical Mount Hor) uncovered a Nabataean sanctuary and Byzantine monastery.


Machowski, Petra: An Archaeological Guid.

Markoe, Petra Rediscovered: Lost City of the Nabataeans.

McKenzie, The Architecture of Petra.

Rababeh, How Petra Was Built.

Ruben, The Petra Siq: Nabataean Hydrology Uncovered.

Taylor, Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans.