How do I describe Petra. It is certainly one of the wonders of the world, now a Unesco World Heritage Site. An ancient place. There is some evidence of habitation as far back as the Bronze Age. When Moses and the Israelites swept through, the Edomites were a full-blown tribal kingdom. In Numbers 20:7-11 Moses sent a message to king Rekem of Petra requesting permission to pass through his territory, which was denied. Israel took a long detour around it since God had forbidden them to engage with Edom as they were the descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother (Dt. 2:4-5).
King Saul fought the Edomites and defeated them. We see a man named Doeg the Edomite play into the biblical story in his betrayal of young David in 1 Samuel 21:7; 22:11-19. David later fought the Edomites to control their copper mines. There are continued battles between Israel and Edom for hundreds of years. The prophets foretell a dire future for Edom (Obad. 1-18).
That future has come to pass today, for Petra is no longer a living kingdom. However, its remains are truly remarkable. During the heyday of the Nabatean Kingdom they had amazing stone carvers who carved tombs in the rocks of this valley that are to this day stunningly beautiful facades.
The Nabateans worshiped the old Arabic pre-Islamic gods which were represented by very simple box faces, eyes and nose only, carved on a flat, two-dimensional surface.
There was a city in this place featuring a Roman style colonnaded street, a large open theatre which seated 6,000 people, an enormous municipal center and a temple dedicated to the fertility goddess, Dushrat.
In the time of Christ, the Nabateans grew very wealthy through a thriving spice trade. They were skilled hydraulic engineers, controlling the flash floods which carved out this valley. They built dams and funnelled the water they needed in by an amazing system of water conduits.
The valley is entered through a fabulous narrow gorge called the Siq. It is surprisingly beautiful as it winds it’s way, a deep cleft through the rocks which tower above. Sometimes it becomes so narrow as to be quite darkened at the bottom. The rock itself glows with stratified streaks of iron oxidized colours; red, purple, orange, yellow and green.
On the way in there are the remains of a life-sized carving of a camel caravan that would have typified the traders who entered this place to do their business. Spices like frankincense and myrrh, which passed through Petra, may have been more valuable to the Roman world than gold.
Petra began to die as the prophets foretold, through natural and man-made disasters. There may have been an enemy which swept through. There were two earthquakes which did serious damage to buildings and infrastructure. But mostly they faded because of economic reasons when the spice trade began to follow a new Roman road elsewhere.
It was lost from history at the end of the crusades which cut Europe off from the Arab world. Petra became the home of goats and Bedouins for six centuries.
In the 16th century a Swiss explorer by the name of Ludwig Burckhardt was on his way to Timbuktu to find the source of the Niger River. He had heard the legend of this fabulous hidden city in Arabia. The Bedouins were hostile toward Europeans. He studied their language and culture to the extent that he could disguise himself as a poor travelling Arab. He persuaded a guide to take him there. I can only imagine his excitement as the Siq opened up to reveal Petra’s most glorious facade known as “The Treasury.”
We spent two days exploring this place. On the second day we climbed up to Ed Deir, Petra’s largest facade. It is also known as “The Monastery” because the Byzantines used it as a church during the fourth and fifth centuries. There is a challenging climb up including over 808 steps. We took the easy way and hired a donkey which got us to the top early and still fresh. The Monastery stands 50 meters wide and 45 meters high. The carved stone Urn that tops it is taller than a two-story house.
There are cave homes everywhere on top of this mountain, some of which were the homes of Christian hermits who sought a life of solitude and contemplation.
We met a student up there who told us about a hermitage, off the beaten path, that had been occupied by Christians during the Byzantine period. They know it was because there were three crosses carved on the walls. It took some exploration but we found this cave and sure enough, there were three crosses carved in the rock by someone who had followed Christ and who had dedicated themselves to a life of prayer. Holly and I spent some time together praying outside this 1500 year-old cave where once there lived a man of God.
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