Many cities in ancient times stretched on either side of great rivers, the abundant water of which nourished and protected them. But there was a city on the north-western border of the Arabian desert that became famous for its lack of water. Her name was Petra.
In the desert areas bordering the Mediterranean Sea, caravan routes connected remote cities in a manner similar to how our modern highways cross continents. But just as cars need gas stations, despite their legendary resistance, camels need stops to drink water. Two thousand years ago, Petra was one of the most famous drinking fountains in the Middle East.
Petra was at the crossroads of two major trade routes. One linked the Red Sea with Damascus and the other the Persian Gulf with Gaza on the shores of the Mediterranean. Golf caravans, laden with their precious cargo of spices, had to withstand the rigors of the Arabian desert for weeks before they finally reached the cold, narrow canyon, the Siq, which was the welcome gateway to Petra. Petra meant food and shelter and above all fresh and refreshing water.
Of course, the citizens of Petra did not offer these services for free. The Roman historian Plínio reports that gifts should be given to the king's guards, porters, priests and servants in addition to the payment of food and shelter. But the exorbitant prices spices and perfumes could reach in affluent European cities have led caravans to fill Petra's coffers.
Conserve water and conquer the stone
In Petra there is only about six inches of rain each year and the streams are virtually non-existent. How did the people of Petra get the precious water to support the city? They dug canals, reservoirs and cisterns into the rock. Over time, virtually all of the raindrops that fell around Petra were collected and preserved. His mastery of water management enabled the people of Petra to farm, raise camels, and build a mall whose merchants were infused with frankincense and myrrh that passed by their hands. A winding stone channel still carries water along the Siq today.
If the citizens of Petra knew how to work with water, they were also masters of masonry. Petra's own name, which means "Rock Mass", is reminiscent of visions of stone. And Petra was truly a city of stone like no other in the Roman world. The Nabataeans, the builders of the city, patiently dug their houses, tombs and temples in solid rock. The red sandstone mountains that Petra stood on were well suited, and in the first century AD a monumental city had emerged in the middle of the desert.
From trade to tourism
Two millennia ago trade enriched Petra. But when the Romans found sea routes to the east, the overland spice trade collapsed and Petra was gradually abandoned in the desert. But the work of desert masons has not gone away. Today, about half a million tourists visit Jordan every year to see the pink city of Petra, the buildings of which still bear witness to a glorious past.
After the visitor has walked through the 800-meter-long Siq fresco, a curve in the walls of the canyon suddenly reveals the treasury, an imposing structure whose facade has been carved into a huge cliff. Few are forgotten the first time they saw it, one of the best preserved buildings of the first century. The building takes its name from the huge stone urn that crowns the building and is said to have kept gold and precious stones.
As the canyon expands, tourists enter a huge natural amphitheater with sandstone walls full of caves. But it's the graves that stand out: graves that are carved into cliffs, graves that are so high that dwarf visitors venture into their dark interiors. A colonnade and a theater testify to the Roman presence in the city in the 1st and 2nd centuries.
Modern Bedouins, descendants of the Nabataeans, offer camel rides for less energetic tourists, sell souvenirs or feed their herds of goats in the wells of Petra, which quench their thirst for people and animals. The old cobblestone streets of Petra are still reserved exclusively for camels, horses, and donkeys. Therefore, the city now resonates with the same sounds that were heard earlier when the camel was king and Petra ruled the desert.
As the sun sets over the city, highlighting the reddish tone of the imposing facades, the attentive visitor can ponder the lessons Petra teaches us. Undoubtedly, the city is a testament to man's ingenuity in conserving limited resources, even in such an inhospitable environment. But it also reminds us that material wealth can "fly into the sky" very quickly.