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Petra is an archaeological city in south Jordan, and the country’s most-visited tourist attraction. Famous for its architecture cut out of the cliff-face, and its complex water system, it is also known as the Rose City due to the beautiful colour of the rocks out of which it is carved. Petra is located 240km south of the current capital Amman; it was established possibly as early as 312 BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans, an Arabic people. It was the centre of their caravan trade, in which trains of camels carried frankincense, myrrh, and spices, so the city grew very rich.
Arab tradition had it that Petra was the spot where Moses struck a rock with his staff and drew water from it, and excavations have shown that it was the Nabataeans’ ability to control the water supply which allowed such a city to exist in the desert. The area is prone to flash floods, which the Nabataeans controlled through dams, cisterns and water pipes, storing water for periods of drought.
Most visitors today approach Petra from its eastern entrance, a narrow gorge called the Siq, or shaft. In places only 3-4m wide, this split in the sandstone rocks serves as a waterway, and leads from the nearby settlement of Wadi Musa to the archaeological city. At the end of the gorge is the most famous of Petra’s ruins, Al Khazneh or The Treasury (pictured). Its Greek-inspired façade is still mostly in tact, and was featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as the final resting place of the Holy Grail. In fact it was originally built as a mausoleum: its name comes from a myth that bandits hid treasure in a stone urn on its second level. The face of the building is marked with bullet holes made by local Bedouin tribesmen, hoping to dislodge the riches from the urn.
The Nabataeans buried their dead in many intricate tombs cut out of the mountain sides throughout Petra, decorated with various inscriptions and statutes. The Nabataeans worshipped pre-Islamic Arab gods and goddesses as well as their own deified kings. For instance the Monastery, which is Petra’s largest monument, was dedicated to Obodas I, who ruled from 96 to 85 BC and was worshipped as a god after his death.
In 106 AD Petra was absorbed into the Roman Empire and became the capital of its Arabian Province. Although the native dynasty of Nabataeans came to an end the city flourished: the Romans built the Petra Road, including the great gates at the entrance to the city, and rebuilt the city’s theatre. However in 363 AD an earthquake destroyed many buildings, including the water system. Finally, following a second earthquake in 551 AD, the last inhabitants abandoned the city in 663 AD.
The ruins were an object of curiosity throughout the Middle Ages. The first European to describe them was Swiss traveller Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. He dressed up as an Arab and convinced a Bedouin guide to take him to the lost city. After his descriptions spread, Petra became increasingly known in the West and began to attract visitors. Because the structures had weakened with age, many of the tombs became vulnerable to thieves, and many treasures were stolen. Petra has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, with the organisation describing it as "one of the most precious cultural properties of man's cultural heritage".