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Letter from Jordan

Beyond Petra

After the famous city was deserted, a small village thrived in its shadow

November/December 2019

Petra Aerial BaydhaFor more than two millennia, travelers, merchants, and scholars have been awed as they walked through a gorge in the desert of western Jordan to find themselves in a city carved almost entirely from red sandstone. Named Petra, meaning “rock,” by the Roman emperor Trajan in the second century A.D., the earliest city at the site dates to the second century B.C. At that time, the Nabataeans, a Semitic people whose origins are unclear, began building their grand capital, which, according to an inscription found there, they called Raqmu. The Nabataeans controlled the regional trade in gold, spices, and other luxury goods, which were transported between Gaza, with its access to the Mediterranean—and thus to the rich markets of Greece and Rome—and places as distant as India and China. Raqmu’s art, architecture, and lifestyle reflected the myriad cultural influences garnered from the Nabataeans’ trading relationships with the Persian, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian worlds. The city featured posh hilltop villas similar to those built by King Herod the Great of Judea, depictions of Greco-Roman deities such as Dionysus and Aphrodite, and stone columns topped with carved human heads, a tradition rooted in Middle Kingdom Egypt of the second millennium B.C. In an area with limited rainfall, the Nabataeans’ complex and difficult-to-maintain water management system spurred the city’s construction and its thriving local agricultural economy.

 

Petra MapAlthough Raqmu’s reliance on its water system later proved to be one cause of its undoing, for several hundred years, the water supply supported fruit orchards and olive groves in the city center. The suburban areas were even more lush. An ancient settlement just east of Petra’s grand entrance, in what is now called Wadi Musa, had ready access to spring water and was home to dozens of olive trees and olive presses. Since the 1970s, archaeologists have discovered more than 30 rock-cut wine presses in Baydha, a settlement three miles north of Petra’s center. This evidence of intensive viniculture starting in the first century B.C., when the Nabataeans began to adopt cultural practices from the Greek world, including the consumption of wine, was an early indication that Baydha, although smaller and less architecturally magnificent than central Petra, was nevertheless an important part of the city’s history.

 

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