About twenty-four centuries ago, in the northwestern Arabian Penninsula, a group of people, known to some as the Qedarites, lost significant territory along with their privileged position in the frankincense trade. This was historically important because, back then, frankincense was a cure-all like penicillin is today, plus it was an essential smudging agent in many of the religious ceremonies performed by various different clergy far and wide at that point in history. The overall point I’m getting at is that the Persians lost interest in the former territory of the Edomite Kingdom, circa 400 BCE, and it left a power vacuum in that region of the world. So, after the death of Alexander the Great, while the Seleucids battled the Ptolemies, Bedouin Nabataeans from southern Arabia migrated to the north to fill the void. In the process, they brought with them camel caravans and the valuable goods they carried.
After living in small towns made up of tents, the Nabataeans quickly moved into cities made up of chisel-cut caves with verandas made of wood and cloth. In search of a sense of permanence, they built Petra in what is now Jordan and Hegra in what is now Saudi Arabia. The former was at the northernmost tip of the Nabataeans’ control of the incense trail and the latter at the southernmost point of it. They also strategically positioned the capital city at the nexus of the incense trail, halfway between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. As a result of this, they were able to dominate the frankincense trade all the way from Dedan to Gaza. This was especially significant because it was the last stop for caravans carrying goods before being shipped to the Mediterranean markets, and the Nabataeans took full advantage of that fact. Petra was also on the silk road, making it the shipping hub of the ancient world. By connecting Rome and China, the Nabataeans were ideally situated between two global superpowers. This enabled them to establish far-flung trade connections and eventually become what the Roman writer Pliny called “the richest race on Earth”.
At first, in the harsh desert environment of what is now Jordan, the ancient Nabataean Bedouins made encampments amid a vast valley of rock. By the 4th century BCE, they had become incredibly active in the trade caravanning industry, particularly in regards to the import and export of frankincense as well as myrrh. The former is made from the resin of the Boswellia tree, which typically grows in the dry, mountainous regions of the Middle East. It can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin, steeped into a tea, or taken as a supplement. At the time this was used in everything from unguents to potions, as part of ritual sacrifices and even medical procedures. The commodity was ubiquitous in antiquity, which made the Nabataeans fabulously wealthy, giving rise to a 400-square-mile metropolis/necropolis with a 2-square-mile downtown. It was a bustling capital city complete with 120 traditional communal three-couch banquet halls, each of which seated 13 people. Meanwhile, Hegra only had 1 banquet hall which has ever been discovered.
Petra was home to about a third of the population of Rome at the time, which contained a million people back then. During that period of time, the Arab Nabataeans and the neighboring Jewish Maccabees became allies. This was important because the former had sympathized with the latter, who were being mistreated by the Seleucids. In response to this, the Nabataeans went to war with the Seleucids in the 2nd century BCE. The tactic they often used was simple but highly effective. They just lured their enemies into the Arabian Desert to let them either die of thirst or surrender. They would also let people, like the Persians, wander into their territory and wait for a couple of days until they were severely dehydrated and then the Nabataeans would conveniently show up with containers of water for sale, at exorbitant prices of course. Then two days later they would show up again, and again, and again. On top of that, they made everyone who passed through Petra pay a toll. They levied incredibly heavy fees on all of the foreigners who made use of the incense trail and the silk road. This contributed to a vast fortune for the Nabataean nobility.
They were extremely successful rulers and had been for generations. In the 1st century BCE, the ancient Greek historian Diodorus referred to accounts from three centuries earlier by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, who had had a first-hand encounter with the Nabataeans. He related how the resourceful Bedouins survived in a parched desert environment and managed to defeat their enemies by hiding in the canyons until the intruders would finally give up after dehydration quickly set in. To do this, the Nabataeans dug secret cisterns and rainwater reservoirs lined with waterproof concrete. Then, they covered up the entrances which were marked by signs known only to themselves. In line with this, Petra contained no less than 8 freshwater springs, 36 dams, more than 100 cisterns, and 125 miles of ceramic pipelines. They even covered their gutters in stucco. There was an absolute bonanza of Adam’s ale totaling 11 million gallons, and it was all part of their brilliant master plan. The city also boasted about their decorative water features, such as their famous fountains which made them the Las Vegas of their time.
The problem was that the annual rainfall of only just a few inches could come all at once. It would pour down into the gorges with ferocious force. So, they had to protect themselves from flash floods using things like reinforced dams and overflow reservoirs. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Petra was designed around an expertly engineered hydraulic honeycomb network that was able to provide about thirty thousand people with two gallons of water per person each day. This vast surplus of the life-sustaining resource allowed the Nabataeans to collect flood waters and silt, in dammed sections of land, that became fertile soil that could then be cultivated. So, they developed agricultural terraces to grow wheat fields, grape vineyards, and olive orchards. They also grew limes, figs, pomegranates, and much much more using watershed terracing. As part of this, they went so far as to build a pool-complex that became a brash display of their seemingly ever-growing fortune. It housed a central island pavilion with channels surrounding the structure and leading down to a garden below, right in the midst of a desert canyon.
At the height of their civilization, under the reign of the inbred couple King Aretas IV and his sister-wife Queen Shaqilat, the Nabataeans built a monumental capital city to rival the other empires, eclectically borrowing from the other cultures in a seamless synthesis. They even ran their plumbing in line with the cornices on their tombs, which were painted in bright red, white, and blue to sharply contrast the living sandstone backdrop. The Nabataeans were idyllically situated at a crossroads in every sense of the word, and their dream-like domestic design clearly reflected that fact. They used this appropriated iconography to build an easily defended basin fortress that was strategically located among natural barriers. As part of that, the most glorious facade in the ancient capital city was part of a tomb for Queen Shaqilat and also a temple in honor of the fertility goddess, the patron deity Al-Uzza, whose name means “the mightiest one”. There is also a pair of obelisks, atop the “High Place of Sacrifice”, representing God (Dushara) and Goddess (Al-Uzza). More importantly, Shaqilat was seen as the living embodiment of Al-Uzza. This is why her temple-tomb is so prominent in the capital, being the first thing that one sees upon entering the city, after exiting the Siq Gorge.
As part of the religious practices of the Nabataeans, the Sunrise Temple (“Treasury”) was a sacred site where citizens would offer the goddesses libations in a shallow basin and drain directly below the threshold of the building. The stylized facade was the first thing that people beheld as they exited the winding mile-long entrance to the capital city. Like all of the enormous tombs, Al-Khazneh, the so-called “Treasury”, was made from the top down. After chiseling out a crude stone staircase, and climbing up a hundred thirty feet, sculptors and painters worked their way down, expertly carving out and applying color to the living rock as they went. This innovation used geological and architectural aesthetics in a novel way that became distinctly Nabataean. As such, typical tombs had Greco-Roman doorways, Nabataean capitals, Egyptian cornices, and Mesopotamian merlons. These contained a number of royal family members. For instance, there were 13 people interred in Queen Shaqilat’s Tomb under the Solstice Sunrise Temple, Al-Khazneh.
As part of the grand design, the Sunset Temple, known as the “Monastery”, was also part of the religious rain-based solar festivals of the Nabataeans. At sunrise on the winter solstice, sunlight would illuminate the Treasury, and, during the double sunset, it would light up the Monastery twice. In line with this, once a year, the queen and her priestesses would pray for rain. Then, when it finally came, all of the rainfall was considered to be holy water of a sort. In many ways, the Nabataeans were water-worshipers. As part of that, they made use of cube statues called “djin”, meaning “cistern”, but also “spirit”. In fact, thaumaturgic magic and sacred geometry both seem to have been a big part of their way of life. Plus, their practical know-how helped the Nabataeans to masterfully harvest a life-sustaining resource and thereby create a manmade oasis in the middle of one of the harshest places on the planet. As such, the calendrical buildings and the yearly procession from one to the other was a central ritual in their rather elemental and egalitarian, albeit elitist society. For decades, from sunrise to sunset on the shortest day of the year, the whole city would engage in celebration as a procession of citizens went up one staircase to the Sunset Temple and then down another as more and more people came and went.
Unfortunately, it all came to an end in the year 106, when Emperor Trajan annexed the capital city, turning Petra from a Nabataean capital into a Roman province. So, by the 2nd century, the rather opulent pool-complex was filled in and turned into the city dump. After the revolutionary Nabataeans came full circle, through the rise and fall of their civilization, they fragmented back into groups of Bedouin tribespeople. Then, the massive Galilee earthquake of 363 shook the area and nearby regions on May 18th and 19th. This destroyed parts of Petra as the colonnades came crashing down. A century after that, in 447, Roman Catholics took over the Sunset Temple, turning it into the “Monastery”. The Christians rededicated the building in the name of their monotheistic God, and many of the fearful natives denounced their old deities and converted to Catholicism. To make matters worse, in 520, the dams were weakened and the cobblestone streets were ripped up in a catastrophic flash flood that tore down any stucco buildings that had remained standing. By the end of the 7th century, the site was completely abandoned. Fortunately, in 1985, the Petra Archaeological Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Then, about twenty years later, Petra finally became one of the seven wonders of the world.