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Petra is located in Jordan, south of the Dead Sea, next to the town of Wadi Musa. Now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site & classified as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, it lies hidden behind a barrier of mountains in the rift valley east of the Wadi Araba desert. Petra’s most notable landmark is the Canyon of the Crescent Moon, or Treasury (El-Khazneh), which is carved into the living rose-red sandstone.


No site in Jordan captures the visitor's imagination and takes his breath away as dramatically as Petra. The amount of labor involved in carving the magnificent structures in the colorful soft rock boggles the mind. When first-time visitors learn that all of the structures they see were burial places, and that the Nabateans' housing did not survive, many cannot hide their bewilderment.


The Nabateans first came here in the sixth century BC, and for many years their capital was here. They gained control of lucrative trade routes and carved their edifices into the colored stone at Petra (which actually means "stone" in ancient Greek.) Among the legends about the place, one holds that when Moses struck a rock and drew water (Exodus 17), it was here, in a place that has come to be called, appropriately, Ayoun Mousa, or Moses' Spring.


The Nabateans enjoyed centuries of prosperity in their city of stone, and maintained a sort of coexistence with the Romans long after the latter had gained control over most of the region. In 106 AD, however, the Romans took over Petra as well. Earthquakes in 363 and 747 caused severe damage, and Petra was cut off from the West for over 1,000 years. The Beduin who lived among the stones guarded their secret place jealously, refusing entry to outsiders.


Then, in 1812, a young Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt took on the alias of a devout Moslem named Ibrahim ibn Abdullah and entered Petra. He told his suspicious guide that he had vowed to sacrifice a goat at Jabal Haroun (Mt. Aaron, where the Beduin believe that Moses' brother died and is buried.) Burckhardt's accounts of Petra were published in Europe, and slowly, inevitably, the ancient city opened to outsiders once again.

The local Beduin - who lived in the rock tombs of Petra until the mid-1980s, when the Jordanian government moved the last of them to neighboring Wadi Mousa -have long since overcome their distaste for foreigners. Today, they welcome visitors wholeheartedly and go out of their way to be hospitable.


The passage into Petra begins with a walk or a ride through the narrow passageway of more than one kilometer in length. On each side of the dirt path, brilliantly colored rock rises toward the heavens. The closer you get to the Treasury, the more vivid the shades of red, orange and pink seem to become.


An opening in the brilliant red and pink stone mountainside to the right of the Treasury leads to the theatre and the city center. As if to make sure that visitors have no mistake about the importance the Nabateans of Petra placed on honoring their dead, the passageway - called the Outer Siq- is lined with countless tombs cut into the stone mountains.


At the base of the cliffs that make up the Outer Siq, Beduin boys and men sell a variety of souvenirs, including Nabatean coins and other relics, as well as imitations. The best-known souvenirs of Petra, however, are bottles of colored sand depicting camels, mountains and other scenes from the Rose-Red City. The tradition of arranging different colors of sand in bottles has been around for the past few decades - making it a very new craft, by Nabatean standards!


Nobody knows why the first facade cut into stone that greets people as they emerge from the Siq is called the Treasury; many things about Petra remain a mystery, but have no doubt about it: this building was always a burial site and never had anything to do with money matters. The well-preserved facade is decorated with a rich variety of symbols related to death: Nabatean gods in charge of guiding the souls of the dead, Medusa heads, eagles and winged victories.


It may look Roman, but this theatre was built by the Nabateans between 4 BC and 27 AD in the same painstaking fashion that they built all of Petra. All 33 rows of seats, with enough space to seat 7,000, were carved into a stone mountainside. Considering the tools available to them and the level of exactitude with which they completed their work, the theatre is far more impressive than any typical Roman counterpart. Scholarly opinion is divided as to whether the theatre was used for entertainment and political gatherings ­like many other theatres in the region - or for gatherings of a religious nature. Given the setting in the midst of a giant cemetery, far from the city center, this latter suggestion may be realistic.


Locating the theatre in a central place along the Street of Facades must have been of great importance to the Nabateans, for they destroyed and damaged many burial rooms in order to carve the rows of seats into the stone.


Built around 27 AD, the temple was dedicated to one of the Nabateans' female gods. This was a central point of life in Petra until a fire destroyed much of the structure in the early second century. After that, it served as dwellings for Nabatean families, until the 363 earthquake leveled it. Finds from the archeological excavations here are on display in the archeological museum in Petra.


Many details about the Royal Tombs, opposite the theatre, remain unclear. Scholars agree that they are, indeed, tombs, but the only reason they are deemed to be royal is that they are so elaborate.

At the top of the stairs to the tombs, the Urn Tomb is the first to be encountered. The
name stems from a small urn perched on the facade's upper pediment. The local Beduin have other names for the tomb, including the Court and the Jail. In 446, the Byzantines converted the inner hall into a church.

North of the Urn Tomb, separated by several other facades, is the Corinthian Tomb, which incorporates a small-scale copy of the Treasury in its facade. Next door is the Palace Tomb. Originally three stories high, the massive facade's third story was built atop the rock. As if to bear testament to Nabatean construction, the third story has all but collapsed over the ages. The first two stories, chiseled into the mountain, survive for all to see.


The hike through Wadi ed-Deir is a pleasant - if uphill trek that passes several impressive Nabatean monuments. The advantage of being in a continual ascent is that the trail offers

striking views of the entire central part of Petra.

Upon reaching the clearing at the end of the trail, you will turn to face ed-Deir, the largest edifice in all of Petra. Measuring 45 meters by 50 meters, the facade was completed in the mid-first century AD and it served as a feasting hall in honor of the dead.

By the time visitors reach ed-Deir, the design and style seem familiar. The facade is a larger, less-ornate version of that found at the Treasury. Like the Treasury, this edifice's name also has no bearing on its function. It has been called the Monastery in English because at the back of the hall there are several crosses carved and painted on the walls. This is probably a reflection of the Christian use of the place in the fourth or fifth centuries.

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