Unveiling the secrets of Petra
Like their Bedoui n descendants, the Nabataeans were originally a nomadic desert people, with no architectural heritage of their own. The style displayed in Petra was a hodgepodge of influences absorbed along their trading routes: Egyptian, Assyrian, Hellenistic, Mesopotamian and Roman imagery injected with their own creative flourishes. Nowhere is the scale of their ambition more apparent than at Petra’s biggest monument, the Monastery, carved deep into the mountainside. It is easy to imagine the hours of chiselling and carving that went into its creation. Even reaching the Monastery requires work – it sits at the top of an 800-step rock-cut path, following the route trod by the faithful when this was a place of worship. The Monastery’s name is misleading – built in the 3rd century BC as a tomb, it was probably later used as a temple. Crosses etched into the internal walls show that the Byzantines used it as a church – Petra is a place that has borne witness to the rise and fall of one civilisation after another.
In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the fictional doctor’s quest for the Holy Grail led him to Petra. Dr Saad Twaissi, Dean of Archaeology at Petra’s Al-Hussein Bin Talal University, is the real deal, devoting his life to unravelling the mysteries of the site. ‘The first excavations of Petra were in 1929, and they have happened continuously since,’ he tells me in the perfect English he acquired during PhD studies in Bradford. ‘And yet still, we know little about the Nabataeans.’ With no surviving written sources, Petra’s built environment provides academics’ most valuable resource. ‘The great difference in the tombs tell us that it was a stratified society. From inscriptions inside them, we think that the average family size was five or six persons.’ The Nabataeans were polytheistic – with gods for fertility and trade, and so on – and believed that high places were sacred. It seems that women had a prominent role. ‘Women were always shown next to the king on the obverse of coins – this is rare, even in modern states, and was probably a consequence of their trading economy; with the men frequently away, women were left to organise society and consequently gained higher status.’
Saad’s particular interest is not in the grand façades that have made Petra famous, but the houses of the Nabataeans. ‘The rock-cut monuments are all tombs, or places of religious significance,’ he says. ‘Their homes, markets and temples were built with stone and therefore did not survive the seven earthquakes that destroyed so much of this place. The built city – the true city – still lives underground. I’d say only about five per cent of Petra is known to us now.’
Burckhardt saw only a fraction of that still – he didn’t even make it as far as the Monastery. Though a letter back to his colleagues reporting his discovery caused wild excitement, he never got to enjoy a moment of his fame. He lived out the rest of his life travelling the Middle East and Africa as Sheikh Ibrahim bin Abdullah, before dying from dysentery in 1817, at the age of just 32. In the two centuries that followed, countless others – explorers, scholars and the simply curious – have followed in his wake, but still Petra remains a place full of untold secrets.