Petra (in the earlier Greek writers Πέτρα or ἡ Πέτρα, but in the later αί Πέτραι) was the capital of the Nabathaean Arabs in the land of Edom, and seems to have given name to the kingdom and region of Arabia Petrcea. As there is mention in the Old Testament of a stronghold which successively belonged to the Amorites (Jg 1:36), the Edomites (2Ki 14:7), and the Moabites (Isa 16:1; comp. in Hebrews chapter 42: 11), and bore in Hebrew the name of סֵלִע, Sela, which has the same meaning as Petra in Greek, viz. "a rock," that circumstance has led to the conjecture that the Petra of the Nabathaeans had been the Sela of Edom. SEE SELAH. This latter name seems, however, to have passed away with the Hebrew rule over Edom, for no further trace of it is to be found; although it is still called Sela by Isaiah (16:1). These are all the certain notices of the place in Scripture. Arce is said by Josephus to have been a name of Petra (Ant. 4:4, 7); but probably we should read Α᾿ρκήμ for Α᾿ρκή (yet see Amer. Bib. Rep. for 1833, page 536, note). SEE ARKITE.
1. History. — The earliest notice of this place under the name Petra by the Greek writers is connected with the fact that Antigonus, one of Alexander's successors, sent two expeditions against the Nabathaeans in Petra (Diod. Sic. 19:94-98). The first of these, commanded by Athenaeus, and the second by Demetrius, changed the habits of the Nabathaeans, who had hitherto been essentially nomadic, and led them to engage in commerce. In this way, during the following centuries, they grew up into the kingdom of Arabia Petraea, occupying very nearly the same territory which was comprised within the limits of ancient Edom. In the first expedition, Athenseus took the city by surprise while the men were absent at a neighboring mart or fair, and carried off a large booty of silver and merchandise. But the Nabatheeans quickly pursued him to the number of 8000 men, and, falling upon his camp by night, destroyed the greater part of his army. Of the second expedition, under the comr mand of Demetrius, the Nabathaeans had previous intelligence; and prepared themselves for an attack by driving their flocks into the deserts, and placing their wealth under the protection of a strong garrison in Petra; to which, according to Diodorus, there was but a single approach, and that made by hand. In this way they succeeded in baffling the whole design of Demetrius. For points of history not immediately connected with the city, SEE EDOMITES; SEE NABATHAEANS. Strabo, writing of the Nabathaeans in the time of Augustus, thus describes their capital: "The metropolis of the Nabathaeans is Petra, so called; for it lies in a place in other respects plain and level, but shut in by rocks round about, yet within having copious fountains for the supply of water and the irrigation of gardens. Beyond the enclosure the region is mostly a desert, especially towards Judaea" (Geog. 16, page 906). At this time the town had become a place of transit for the productions of the East, and was much resorted to by foreigners (Diod. Sic. 19:95; Strabo, 1.c.). Pliny more definitely describes Petra as situated in a valley less than two miles (Roman) in amplitude, surrounded by inaccessible mountains, with a stream flowing through it (Hist. Nat. 6:28). About the same period it is often named by Josephus as the capital of Arabia Petrsea (War, 1:6, 2; 13, 8; etc.). Petra was situated in the eastern part of Arabia Petraea, in the district called under the Christian emperors of Rome Palsestina Tertia (Vet. Rom. Itin. page 74, ed. Wessel; Malala, Chronogr. 16:400, ed. Bonn). According to the division of the ancient geographers, it lay in the northern district, Gebalene; while the modern ones place it in the southern portion, Esh-Sherah, the Mount Seir of the Bible. Petra was subdued by A. Cornelius Palma, a lieutenant of Trajan (Dion Cass. 58:14). Hadrian seems to have bestowed on it some advantage, which led the inhabitants to give his name to the city upon coins; several of these are still extant (Mionnet, Med. Antiques, 5:587; Eckhel, Doctr. Num. 2:503). It remained under the Roman dominion a considerable period, as we hear of the province of Arabia being enlarged by Septimius Severus, A.D. 195 (ibid. 75:1, 2; Eutrop. 8:18). It must have been during this period that those temples and mausoleums were made, the remains of which still arrest the attention of the traveller; for, though the predominant style of architecture is Egyptian, it is mixed with florid and overloaded Roman- Greek specimens, which are but slightly modified by the native artists. In the 4th century Petra is several times mentioned by Eusebins and Jerome; and in the Greek ecclesiastical Notitiae bf the 5th and 6th centuries it appears as the metropolitan see of the third Palestine (Reland, Palaest. pages 215, 217); the last named of the bishops is Theodorus, who was present at the Council of Jerusalem in A.D. 536 (Oriens Christ. 3:725). From that time not the slightest notice of Petra is to be found in any quarter; and as no trace of it as an inhabited site is to be met with in the Arabian writers, the probability seems to be that it was destroyed in some unrecorded incursion of the desert hordes, and was afterwards left unpeopled. It is true that Petra occurs in the writers of the sera of the Crusades; but they applied this name to Kerak, and thus introduced a confusion as to the true Petra which is not even now entirely removed. It was not until the reports concerning the wonderful remains in Wady Musa had been verified by Burckhardt that the latter traveller first ventured to assume the identity of the site with that of the ancient capital of Arabia Petraea. He expresses this opinion in a letter dated at Cairo, Sept. 12, 1812, published in 1819, in the preface to his Travels in Nubia; but before its appearance the eminent geographer Carl Ritter had suggested the same conclusion on the strength of Seetzen's intimations (Erdkunde, 2:217). Burckhardt's view was more amply developed in his Travels in Syria, page 431, published in 1822, and received the high sanction of his editor, Col. Leake, who produces in support of it all the arguments which have since been relied upon, namely, the agreement of the ancient descriptions with this site, and their inapplicability to Kerak; the coincidence of the ancient specifications of the distances of Petra from the Elanitic gulf and from the Dead Sea, which all point to Wady Musa, and not to Kerak; that Josephus, Eusebius, and Jerome testify that the Mount Hor where Aaron died was in the vicinity of Petra; and that to this day the mountain which tradition and circumstances point out as the same still rears its lonely head above the vale of Wady Musa, while in all the district of Kerak there is not a single mountain which could in itself be regarded as Mount Hor; and even if there were, its position would be incompatible with the recorded journeyings of the Israelites (Leake's Preface to Burckhardt's Travels in Syria, pages 7-9; Robinson's Palestine, 2:576-579, 653-659).
2. Description of the present Site. — The ruined city lies in a narrow valley, surrounded by lofty and, for the most part, perfectly precipitous mountains. Those which form its southern limit are not so steep as to be impassable; and it is over these, or rather through them, along an abrupt and difficult ravine, that travellers from Sinai or Egypt usually wind their laborious way into the scene of magnificent desolation. The ancient and more interesting entrance is on the eastern side, through the deep narrow gorge called the Sik. It is not easy to determine the precise limits of the ancient city, though the precipitous mountains by which the site is encompassed mark with perfect distinctness the boundaries beyond which it never could have extended. These natural barriers seem to have constituted the real limits of the city; and they give an extent of more than a mile in length, nearly from north to south, by a variable breadth of about half a mile. Several spurs from the surrounding mountains encroach upon this area; but, with inconsiderable exceptions, the whole is fit for building on. The sides of the valley are walled up by perpendicular rocks from four hundred to six or seven hundred feet high. The northern and southern barriers are neither so lofty nor so steep, and they both admit of the passage of camels. A great many small recesses or side valleys open into the principal one, thus enlarging as well as varying almost infinitely the outline. With only one or two exceptions, however, they have no outlet, but come to a speedy and abrupt termination among the overhanging cliffs, as precipitous as the natural bulwark that bounds the principal valley. Including these irregularities, the whole circumference of Petra may be four miles or more. The length of this irregular outline, though it gives no idea of the extent of the area within its embrace, is perhaps the best measure of the extent of the excavations.
The valley of Wady Musa, which leads to the ruins, in a general westerly direction, is about one hundred and fifty feet broad at its entrance, and is shut in by cliffs of red sandstone, which gradually increase from a height of forty or fifty feet to two hundred or two hundred and ntty feet. The valley gradually contracts till at one spot it becomes only twelve feet broad, and is so overlapped by the perpendicular cliffs that the light of day is almost excluded. This is the ravine or Sik of Wady uIsa, which extends, with many windings, for a good English mile. This valley contains a wonderful necropolis hewn in the rocky walls. The tombs, which adjoin or surmount one another, exhibit now a front with six Ionic columns, now with four slender pyramids, and by their mixture of Greek. Roman, and Oriental architecture remind the spectator of the remains found in the valley of Jehoshaphat near Jerusalem. The entrance of the ravine is spanned by a bold arch, perhaps a triumphal one, with finely sculptured niches evidently intended for statues. This, like the other remains of this extraordinary spot, is ascribed by the natives either to the Pharaohs or to the Jins, i.e., evil genii. Along the bottom Of the valley, in which it almost vanishes, winds the stream. In ancient times its bed seems to have been paved; and it appears to have been, in many places at least, covered in, so that the street passed above it. In other wider portions of the ravine, especially where it opens out into the city, it was spanned by frequent bridges, its sides strengthened with stone walls or quays, and numerous small canals derived from it supplied the inhabitants with water. But now its banks are overspread with hyacinths, oleanders, and other shrubs, and the upper portions of it are overshadowed by lofty trees.
Opposite the termination of the Sik, or narrow part of the ravine, just where it turns at its junction with a second ravine-like but broader valley, stands the chief attraction of the whole place, the finest monument in fact in all Syria. This is the Khuzneh — well preserved, considering its age and site, and still exhibiting its delicate chiselled work, and all the freshness and beauty of its coloring. Like all the other wonders of the place, it is carved out of the face of the perpendicular cliff, which here rises about 150 feet high. It has two rows of six columns over one another (one of the lower ones has fallen), with statues between, surmounted by capitals and a sculptured pediment, the latter divided by a little round temple crowned with an urn. The Arabs imagine that this urn contained treasure (khuzneh, hence the name of the entire structure), which they ascribe to Pharaoh. The interior does not correspond with the magnificence of the fa9ade, being a plain, lofty hall, with a chamber adjoining each of its three sides. It was either a mausoleum or, more probably, a temple.
From this spot the cliffs on both sides of the valley are pierced with numerous excavations, the chambers of which are usually small, though the fronts are occasionally of some size and magnificence; scarcely two, however, are exactly alike. After a gentle curve the valley expands still more, and here on its left side lies the theatre, entirely hewn out of the rock. Its diameter at the bottom is one hundred and twenty feet, and it has thirty-three rows of seats, capable of accommodating three thousand spectators. Strangely enough, it is entirely surrounded by tombs. One of the more northerly of these is inscribed with the name of Q. Praefectus Florentinus, probably the governor of Arabia Petraea under Hadrian or Antoninus Pius. Another has a Greek inscription not yet deciphered. Travellers are agreed that these excavations, some of the most striking of which are in time cliff directly opposite the theater, were mostly tombs, though some think they may originally have served as dwellings. Indeed several of them have loculi sunk in the floor as if for burialplaces. A few were doubtless temples for the worship of Baal, but subsequently converted into Christian churches. They extend all along the eastern cliffs.
Proceeding still down the stream, at about one hundred and fifty paces from the theatre the cliffs expand rapidly, and soon recede so far as to give place to a plain about a mile square, surrounded by gentle eminences. The brook, which now turns again to the west, traverses the middle of this plain till it reaches a ledge of sandstone cliffs, through which it pierces, and is lost in the sands of the Arabah. This little plain was the site of the city of Petra, and it is still covered with heaps of hewn stones, traces of paved streets, and foundations of houses.
The chief public buildings occupied the banks of the river and the high ground, especially on the south, as their ruins sufficiently show. One sumptuous edifice remains standing, though in an imperfect and dilapidated state. It is on the south side of the river, near the western side of the valley, and seems to have beena palace rather than a temple. It is called Kasr Faruin, or Pharaoh's palace, and is thirty-four paces square. The walls are nearly entire, and on the eastern side they are still surmounted by a handsome cornice. The front, which looks towards the north, was ornamented with a row of columns, four of which are standing. An open piazza behind the colonnade extended the whole length of the building. In the rear of this piazza are three apartments, the principal of which is entered under a noble arch, apparently thirty-five or forty feet high. It is an imposing ruin, though not of the purest style of architecture, and is the more striking as being the only proper edifice now standing in Petra.
A little east of this, and in a range with some of the most beautiful excavations in the mountain on the east side of the valley, are the remains of what appears to have been another triumphal arch. Under it were three passages, and a number of pedestals of columns, as well as other fragments, would lead to the belief that a magnificent colonnade was connected with it. In the same vicinity are the abutments of a massive bridge.
On an eminence south of this is a single column (obscenely called Zab Farun, i.e., hasta virilis Pharaonis) connected with the foundation walls of a temple, whose pillars lie scattered around in broken fragments, some of them five feet in diameter. Twelve of these, whose pedestals still remain in their places, adorned either side of this stately edifice. There were also four columns in front and six in the rear of the temple. They are prostrate on the ground, and Dr. Olin counted thirty-seven massive frusta of which one of them was composed.
Still farther south are other piles of ruins — columns and hewn stones — parts, no doubt, of important public buildings. The same traveller counted not less than fourteen similar heaps of ruins, having columns and fragments of columns intermingled with blocks of stone, in this part of the site of ancient Petra. They indicate the great wealth and magnificence of this ancient capital, as well as its unparalleled calamities. These sumptuous edifices occupied what may be called the central parts of Petra. A large surface on the north side of the river is covered with substructions which probably belonged to private habitations. An extensive region still farther north retains no vestiges of the buildings which once covered it. Public wealth was lavished on palaces and temples, while the houses of the common people were slightly and meanly built, of such materials as a few years, or at most a few centuries, were sufficient to dissolve.
The acropolis is thought to have occupied an isolated hill on the west. The whole ascent of the hills on the south, up which the toilsome passage-way out of this museum of wonders winds, is elaborately pierced with tombs, temples, or dwellings. At the north-west extremity of the cliff surrounding the plain is the Deir or cloister, the second most remarkable sculpture of the entire place, hewn likewise out of the face of the rock. A ravine somewhat like the Sik, with many windings, leads to the base, and the approach up to it is in places by a path five or six feet broad, cut with immense labor in the precipitous rock. Its facade is larger than that of the Khuzneh; but, as in that building (if such we may call it), the interior does not correspond, being merely a large square chamber, with a recess resembling the niche for the altar in Greek ecclesiastical architecture, and bearing evident signs of having been converted from a heathen into a Christian temple. The cliffs on the north-east side of the basin, which here extends up a considerable valley, are in like manner cut into temples, tombs, or other architectural forms of great variety.
Laborde and Linant also thought that they traced the outline of a naumachia or theater for sea-fights, which would be flooded from cisterns in which the water of the torrents in the wet season had been reserved — a remarkable proof, if the hypothesis be correct, of the copiousness of the water-supply, if properly husbanded, and a confirmation of what we are told of the exuberant fertility of the region, and its contrast to the barren Arabah on its immediate west (Robinson, 2:169). Stanley (Syr. and Pal. Page 95) leaves little doubt that Petra was the seat of a primeval sanctuary, which he fixes at the spot now called the "Deir" or "Convent," and with which fact the choice of the site of Aaron's tomb may, he thinks, have been connected (page 96). As regards the question of its identity with Kadesh, SEE KADESH; and, for the general subject, see Ritter, 14:69, 997 sq.
The mountain torrents which at times sweep over the lower parts of the ancient site have undermined many foundations, and carried away many a chiselled stone, and worn many a finished specimen of sculpture into unshapely masses. The soft texture of the rock seconds the destructive agencies of the elements.
Even the accumulations of rubbish which mark the site of all other decayed cities have mostly disappeared; and the extent which was covered with human habitations can only be determined by the broken pottery scattered over the surface or mingled with the sand — the universal, and, it would seem, an imperishable memorial of populous cities that exist no longer. These vestiges, the extent of which Dr. Olin took great pains to trace, cover an area one third as large as that of Cairo, excluding its large gardens from the estimate, and very sufficient, he thinks, to contain the whole population of Athens in its prosperous days.
The attention of travellers has, however, been chiefly engaged by the above-noted excavations, which, having more successfully resisted the ravages of time, constitute at present the great and peculiar attraction of the place. These excavations, whether formed for temples, tombs, or the dwellings of living men, surprise the visitor by their incredible number and extent. They not only occupy the front of the entire mountain by which the valley is encompassed, but of the numerous ravines and recesses which radiate on all sides from this enclosed area. They exist, too, in great numbers in the precipitous rocks which shoot out from the principal mountains into the southern, and still more into the northern part of the site, and they are seen along all the approaches to the place, which, in the days of its prosperity, were perhaps the suburbs of the overpeopled valley. Some of the most peculiar are found in the valley above the entrance of the Sik. Were these excavations, instead of following all the sinuosities of the mountain and its nurerous gorges, ranged in regular order, they probably would form a street not less than five or six miles in length. They are often seen rising one above another in the face of the cliff, and convenient steps, now much worn, cut in the rock, lead in all directions through the fissures and along the sides of the mountains, to the various tombs that occupy these lofty positions. Some of them are apparently not less than from two hundred to three or four hundred feet above the level of the valley. Conspicuous situations, visible from below, were generally chosen; but sometimes the opposite taste prevailed, and the most secluded cliffs, fronting towards some dark ravine, and quite hidden from the gaze of the multitude, were preferred. The flights of steps, all cut in the solid rock, are almost innumerable, and they ascend to great heights, as well as in all directions. Sometimes the connection with the city is interrupted, and one sees in a gorge, or upon the face of a cliff, fifty or a hundred feet above him, a long series of steps rising from the edge of an inaccessible precipice. The action of winter torrents and other agencies have worn the easy ascent into a channel for the waters, and thus interrupted the communication.
The situations of these excavations are not more various than their forms and dimensions. Mere niches are sometimes cut in the face of the rock, of little depth and of various sizes and forms, of which it is difficult to conjecture the object, unless they had some connection with votive offerings and religious rites. Bv far the largest number of excavations were manifestly designed as places for the interment of the dead; and thus exhibit a variety in form and size, of interior arrangement and external decorations, adapted to the different fortunes of their occupants, and conformable to the prevailing tastes of the times in which thev were made. There are many tombs consisting of a single chamber, ten, fifteen, or twenty feet square by ten or twelve in height, containing a recess in the wall large enough to receive one or a few deposits; sometimes on a level with the floor, at others one or two feet above it, and not unfrequently near the ceiling, at the height of eight or ten feet. Occasionally, as above mentioned, oblong pits or graves are sunk in the recesses, or in the floor of the principal apartment.
Some of these are of considerable depth, but they are mostly choked with stones and rubbish, so that it is impossible to ascertain it. In these plebeian tombs there is commonly a door of small dimensions, and an absence of all architectural decorations; in some of larger dimensions there are several recesses occupying two or three sides of the apartment. These seem to have been formed for family tombs. Besides these unadorned habitations of the humble dead, there is a vast number of excavations enriched with various architectural ornaments. To these unique and sumptuous monuments of the taste of one of the most ancient races of men with whom history has made us acquainted, Petra is indebted for its great and peculiar attractions. This ornamental architecture is wholly confined to the front, while the interior is quite plain and destitute of all decoration. Pass the threshold, and nothing is seen but perpendicular walls, bearing the marks of the chisel, without mouldings, columns, or any species of ornament. But the exteriors of these primitive and even rude apartments exhibit some of the most beautiful and imposing results of ancient taste and skill which have remained to our times. The front of the mountain is wrought into favades of splendid temples, rivalling in their aspect and symmetry the most celebrated monuments of Grecian art. Columns .of various orders, graceful pediments, broad, rich entablatures, and sometimes statuary, all hewn out of the solid rock, and still forming part of the native mass, transform the base of the mountain into a vast splendid pile of architecture, while the overhanging cliffs, towering above in shapes as rugged and wild as any on which the eye ever rested, form the most striking and curious of contrasts. In most instances it is impossible to assign these beautiful fagades to any particular style of architecture. Many of the columns resemble those of the Corinthian order; but they deviate so far, both in their forms and ornaments, from this elegant model, that it would be impossible to rank them in the class. A few are Doric, which are precisely those that have suffered most from the ravages of time, and are probably very ancient.
But nothing contributes so much to the almost magical effect of some of these monuments as the rich and various colors of the rock out of which, or more properly in which, they are formed. The mountains that encompass the vale of Petra are of sandstone, of which red is the predominant hue. Their surface is a good deal burned and faded by the elements, and is of a dull brick color, and most of the sandstone formations in this vicinity, as well as a number of the excavations of Petra, exhibit nothing remarkable in their coloring which does not belong to the same species of rock throughout a considerable region of Arabia Petraea. Many of them, however, are adorned with such a profusion of the most lovely and brilliant colors as it is scarcely possible to describe. Red, purple, yellow, azure or sky-blue, black and white, are seen in the same mass distinctly in successive layers, or blended so as to form every shade and huc of which they are capable — as brilliant and as soft as they ever appear in flowers, or in the plumage of birds, or in the sky when illuminated by the most glorious sunset. The red perpetually shades into pale, or deep rose or flesh color, and again approaches the hue of the lilac or violet. The white, which is often as pure as snow, is occasionally just dashed with blue or red. The blue is usually the pale azure of the clear sky or of the ocean, but sometimes has the deep and peculiar shade of the clouds in summer when agitated by a tempest. Yellow is an epithet often applied to sand and sandstone. The yellow of the rocks of Petra is as bright as that of saffron. It is more easy to imagine than to describe the effect of tall, graceful columns exhibiting these exquisite colors in their succession of regular horizontal strata. They are displayed to still greater advantage in the walls and ceilings of some of the excavations where there is a slight dip in the strata.
See Irby and Mangles, Travels, chapter 8; Robinson, Bibl. Research. 2:512 sq.; Laborde, Voyage (Par. 1830-33), page 55 sq. (this work is chiefly valued for its engravings); Bartlett, Forty Days in the Desert, page 126 sq.; Roberts, Sketches (Lond. 1842-48), volume 3; Olin, Travels, 2:1 sq.; Palmer, Desert of the Exodus, page 366 sq.; Ridgaway, The Lord's Land, page 139 sq.; Porter, in Murray's Handbook for Sinai and Pal. page 81 sq.; Badecker, Palastina und Syrien, page 304 sq. SEE IDUMEA.