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Petra is only accessible through the Siq, a narrow crevice-canyon lined with niches that once held statues of gods and spirits that protected the city. This incredible canyon winds its way through the rocks for almost 1.6km (1 mile) before opening to Petra’s wonders of rock and light. If you walk through the shadowed Siq at twilight, listen for the sound of the evening owl, once the symbol and guardian of the city.

The Nabateans, who carved the elaborate palaces, temples, tombs, storerooms, and stables of their city into the solid rock of this hidden valley, dominated the Trans-Jordan area from the 3rd century b.c. through Byzantine times. A Semitic people from northern Arabia, they moved into the Negev and the southern portions of what is now Jordan in the 6th century b.c. The Nabateans commanded the trade route from Damascus to Arabia; through Petra, caravans passed, carrying spices, silk, jewels, gold, and slaves from as far away as Yemen and East Africa. As a trading people, they developed cosmopolitan tastes and easily incorporated Hellenistic and Roman design into their architecture and into their lifestyle. The fabulous facades carved into the rose sandstone cliffs of Petra are exotically Hellenistic rather than classical Greek or even Roman, and reflect a mixture of Western and Eastern, Semitic and European influences.

Nabatean religion was centered on two deities: Dushara, the god of strength and masculine attributes, and al-Uzza, also known as Atargatis, the goddess of water and fertility. Slowly, these deities took on the characteristics of Greek and Egyptian gods; al-Uzza, especially, became associated with elements of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love; Tyche, the goddess of fortune; and the Egyptian mother goddess, Isis.

In addition to their hidden capital at Petra, the Nabateans developed lucrative trading and caravan cities at Avdat and Mamshit, in the Negev. Using careful methods of conserving dew and rainwater, and developing methods of irrigation that are being studied by modern agronomists, the Nabateans made the desert bloom and managed to sustain a population in the Negev and south Jordan far larger than the population of that region today.

Until the 1st century a.d., the Nabateans maintained their independence. Nabatean neutrality and aloofness was legendary. In 40 b.c., the young Herod, who had recently been made governor of the Galilee and Judea by the Romans, was overthrown by Jewish insurgents. Desperate and pursued, Herod made his way with a small entourage across the desert to Petra to beg for sanctuary and reinforcements. Despite the fact that Herod’s mother had been a Nabatean princess, the ever-cautious rulers of Petra denied him permission to enter the Siq and the confines of the city (the indefatigable Herod eventually made his way to Rome, obtained reinforcements, put down the rebellion, and ruled as Rome’s “King of the Jews” until his death in 4 b.c.). In a.d. 106, the Nabateans were finally annexed into the Roman Empire, and it continued to be the center of a profitable trading route, with connections to all parts of the ancient world.

In the early 4th century, Christianity became the dominant religion of the Nabateans. Important churches were built in every Nabatean community; the bishops of Petra participated in ecumenical councils that helped shape the development of the early Church. As the Roman Empire collapsed, and the amount of trade moving on the exotic desert routes through Petra shrank, the city’s economy faltered. A series of earthquakes in late Byzantine times hastened the Nabateans’ decline. After Petra’s conquest by Islamic armies in a.d. 633, it became a forgotten backwater. It was briefly fortified by the Crusaders, but after its surrender to Saladin in 1189, it was abandoned and sank into oblivion. Not until 1812, when the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt bribed Bedouin tribesmen to take him to Petra, was the long-forgotten, uninhabited city restored to the knowledge of the world. Only since 1958 has a careful exploration of the site been undertaken.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.