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Petra, from the Greek word for "rock", has long been a crossroad for civilizations, cultures and nature throughout recorded history. By 7000 BC some of the earliest farmers in recorded history lived at the pre-pottery settlement of Beidha just to the north of Petra making the settled history of the area roughly contemporary with the city of Jericho. The Petra Basin is watered by the Spring of Moses, Ain Mousa, from which the nearby modern town of Wadi Mousa gets its name. It is here that the Prophet Moses, "Musa" in Arabic, is thought to have struck a rock with his staff to extract water. (Numbers 20: 10-13). The Prophet Aaron, brother of Moses, died nearby and is buried atop Mount Hor, known today as Jabal Haroun or Mount Aaron.

PetraDuring the iron age, approximately 1200 BC, the area was inhabited by the Edomites, Edom is the Aramaic word for "red", who controlled the trade routes between the Arabian Peninsula and Damascus in what is today Syria. According to the Bible, King David subdued the Edomites around 1000 BC. The Edomites continued to struggle against the Judeans and in one battle, the Judean King Amaziah "defeated ten thousand Edomites in the valley of Salt and captured Sela in battle" (2 Kings 14:25). Sela, also meaning "rock" in Greek, is sometimes thought to be the high outcropping of Umm al-Biyara in Petra.

The Edomites lived under Assyrian, Babylonian and eventually Persian influence until the 4th Century BC when the area seems to first have attracted the attention of the Nabataeans moving slowly north with their cattle and sheep from the Arabian Peninsula. The first recorded reference to the Nabataeans is from the 1st Century BC Greek historian Diodorus who writes that the Seleucid King Antigonus, a one-eyed successor to Alexander the Great, sent his general Athenaeus to attack "the land of the Arabs who are called Nabataeans" in 312 BC. The Nabataeans resisted the Seleucids and by the 2nd Century BC were firmly settled in the area with Petra as their capital.

Petra was ideally placed where the great south-north route from Arabia to Syria, today the King's Highway in Jordan, crosses a natural fault line running east-west through interlocking ridges of Nubian sandstone and Archean granite. Wadi Musa flows through that fault and empties into Wadi Araba in the Great Rift Valley south of the Dead Sea. For nomadic peoples and later traders, this fault line allowed access from the high desert stretching east to Mesopotamia, to the west across the Rift Valley and on to the ancient Mediterranean port and emporium of Gaza. The first trading establishment at Petra may date from as early as the 5th Century BC, but traders very likely passed through Petra as a watering-place much earlier .

PetraEven as nomads, the Nabataeans were traders, and it was trade that made Petra rich. Bitumen, metals and dyes went to Egypt for mummification. Spices from Arabia, frankincense from Yemen, and silks from India and China were traded. The Nabataeans half-built, half-carved a city of villas, monuments, tombs, temples, and extensive water conservation and hydraulic engineering systems heavily influenced by Egyptian, Greek, Assyrian and Roman architectural motifs. Petra flourished between the 1st Century BC and the 1st Century AD. The city expanded into a sizable urban center, uniquely blending eastern traditions and Hellenistic architectural styles, on either side of the colonnaded street in an elongated oval from the Qasr al-bint to the west to the Roman amphitheater to the east.

The Nabataeans prospered under Roman rule. Soon, however, Rome began to divert the traditional trade routes west to their Red Sea ports serving Egypt. The Nabataean Kings recognized these shifting patterns of trade and in response moved their capital north to Bostra near the border between modern Jordan and Syria. Rome subsequently incorporated the Nabataean Kingdom into the Empire and the Emperor Trajan made Bostra the capital of his new Provincia Arabia. Petra was a bishopric during the Byzantine period but was much diminished as an urban center. There are two Crusader forts in Petra which testify to the sites importance to the remaining caravan routes as late as the 12th Century, but from then on the city declined.


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