Petra and the Nabateans: From Heyday to Has-Been

“In its prime, Petra was one of the most lavish cities in history—more Las Vegas than Athens. Accustomed to tents, the early Nabateans had no significant building traditions, so with their sudden disposable income they drew on styles ranging from Greek to Egyptian to Mesopotamian to Indian: they borrowed from everybody,” – Smithsonian Magazine

Petra, the undisputed jewel in Jordan’s tourist crown, has enthralled travelers for decades. It got its start, and became successful, as a trading center; so prosperous in fact, that it could afford to be Las Vegas “lavish,” hopefully minus the showgirls and magicians. 

The Nabateans were very talented builders who adopted architectural styles of other civilizations – from the Assyrian ziggurats to the Greek corinthian capitals. But the “horned capitals” atop this elegant tomb are strictly their invention.

But despite centuries of growth and prosperity, the Nabataeans are long gone and the desert wind blows through their deserted sandstone tombs and temples. How could this happen?

Traders in Petra controlled the caravan routes that crossed the Arabian Peninsula from both the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. It was a bustling city with a population of 20,000 – 30,000 people, most of whom were directly, or indirectly tied to the buying and selling of exotic goods from India, Arabia, and Egypt. 

It was the Mall of the Desert with a parking lot filled with camels. Frankincense, myrrh, ivory, silk and spices – if you wanted it, you could buy it in Petra. This formula worked for generations; fortunes were made and the city grew. And then in 106 A.D. the Romans invaded. 

As an empire-builder Rome had a more global view, eventually moving the center of trade north, and switching to more efficient boats at sea rather than camels on sand. And if your city is the hub of a trade route, and the route moves, what does that mean for business? … Slowly but surely Petra’s importance in the ancient world began to fade. 

And then in 363 A.D. a city already in economic decline was delivered a nail-in-the-coffin blow when an earthquake destroyed half the city buildings as well as their life-sustaining water system. 

So, unlike other vanished cultures we’ve discussed in this series, the Ancient Puebloans of Mesa Verde, and the Maya of the Yucatan, archaeologists and historians seem to largely agree: changing trade routes and a city-crippling earthquake were the primary reasons for Petra’s gradual decline and eventual abandonment. 

Petra was a successful center for commerce for centuries before its failure, and ultimately, the city’s decision makers did nothing wrong. But what happened to the Nabateans 1500 years ago is still happening today. Global economic forces and new technologies are making factories and businesses obsolete, and when a city’s fortunes are tied to a single outmoded industry, without serious intervention, decline follows.

The secret to change is to focus all your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new. – Socrates

Petra should have listened to Socrates. 

Happy Trails, James & Terri

Photo Credits: 1. Sylvain Gllm   3. Yeo Khee  4. Kristina Tamašauskaitė   5. Matthew Foulds   6. Roxanne Desgagnés   

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

38 thoughts

  1. It still looks to be the most awesome structure and I’d love to have visited, but Nabateans always seem to call to mind Star Wars for me. Light hearted adventure in these sorry times 🙂 🙂

    1. Jo, the buildings at Petra are even more awesome when you consider that they’re carved out of stone rather than built. And actually, your movie reference is apt as well; a number of scenes from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” were filmed a Petra. It’s a fabulous place and unique in the world. ~James

  2. I long to visit Petra, it has been on my travel wish list for many years, yet I have not been able to visit. An extraordinary place for sure, I am so glad you have written about it here. I don’t really know much about it’s history. Another fascinating post, thank you!

    1. Gilda, like you, Petra was on our list for years and we were so happy to finally be able to visit. It’s unique in the world, and gives visitors a view into the past that shouldn’t missed. I hope you can make it once things open up again. We’ve written a few posts you may be interested in:

      https://gallivance.net/?s=Petra

      ~James

  3. Yes, Petra should have listened to Socrates, and maybe we should as well. Thanks, as always, for another thought-provoking glimpse into ancient cultures and places. And the quote, by the way, couldn’t have come at a better time as the U.S. awaits an announcement of a leader — perhaps it’s out with the old and in with the new, but who knows?

    1. Rusha, I thought that it was so interesting that having been tent dwellers, the Nabateans had no experience of buildings to draw on, so they just copied everyone else: a great piece of trivia. And for the city collapse, I could also make comparisons to Detroit when the US auto manufacturers almost went bankrupt.

      And BTW, this election is going to stretch on for days, and the follow-on legal battles could drag on for weeks. We’ll be sick of it before it’s all over. But, having said that, I’m so ready for something new. ~James

    1. Many of the failures of these dead cities can ultimately be blamed on human folly, but not so in Petra’s case. Their business changed and moved on, and it was just left behind. Have a look around at all the old rail centers that were once successful hubs of commerce. ~James

    1. Leslie, if you ever get a chance to go, take it. Things will loosen up eventually and Petra will be back as an option. With all its carved stone buildings, it’s unique in the world and worth the effort. ~James

  4. Civilizations come and go. But what they leave behind is fascinating.g I have heard some amazing things about Petra. I hope you are both doing OK and staying safe.

    1. Darlene, it’s a wonderful ruin and even though it’s not so easy to visit, it’s worth the effort.

      We are both doing well thanks, and since we live in a “hot spot,” we are being extra careful. Of course, all of America will eventually be in the same position, so it really comes down to taking care of ourselves. I hope that you are doing well in Spain and that closures don’t get to be too inconvenient. ~James

    1. Yes we have visited Alison, and we loved it. It was part of a longer trip and we were there mid-winter, and it was very cold. And strangely, we were nearly snowed in because some of the mountain passes had snowy roads … not something we expected in the desert. ~James

  5. Thanks for all the fascinating history. I was there almost 50 years ago and then again a few years back and the thrill of walking out of the passage and seeing the Treasury is still incredible. It’s definitely one of the most wonderful places I’ve ever visited.
    Be safe.
    Steve

    1. Thanks Steve. The Treasury has to be one of the best known buildings in the world. It’s fascinating that it was carved from stone instead of built. It’s still on our once-in-a-lifetime lists. ~James

  6. Peggy and I just watched the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as we were honoring Sean Connery who played Indiana’s dad. A fun movie that came out the year Peggy and I met. Once again, I was reminded that Petra was somewhere we had never visited but really should. I am reminded of so many towns out West when the silver or gold strike played out or the train went somewhere else. Thanks for the visit and historyJames and Terri. –Curt

    1. Curt, we were saddened by Connery’s passing, but he had a good, long run, and we loved his role in Indiana Jones. We thought of that movie when we walked through the deep ravine, which was a scene of one of the horseback chase scenes.

      And I guess, when you think about it, Petra is a Jordanian ghost town, like the ones out west. Interesting. ~James

      1. A long run indeed, James. I saw his first Bond movie in a Theater in Monrovia, Liberia when I was there as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the mid 60s! –Curt

  7. Not all that dissimilar to when a new city or town bypass is built as part of a major highway or interstate.

    Many of those small towns, often heavily reliant on their position as a service centre, are sacrificed for the convenience of saving 10-30 minutes in driving time.

    At least these days, we can’t blame the Romans 😉

    Thanks for another fascinating read!!

    1. Thanks Chris. I think about the point you make about modern cities all the time, but it’s funny that I really haven’t when it comes to ancient cities like Petra. I guess it just proves that economic forces may have changed their nature with time, but not their impact. Interesting stuff. ~James

    1. You’re right Neil. There are dead and dying towns all over. But it’s funny that I’ve never really thought about it happening to ancient cities, but it obviously does. ~James

  8. “It was the Mall of the Desert”—love the image this description brings to mind. Beautiful photos! I would love to visit Petra. Smart guy, Socrates—oil-dependent Alberta, Canada should listen to him too.

    1. Caroline, Petra is everything you’ve heard and more. Jordan has had it’s share of problems, but the government is smart enough to take care of this cash cow with all its rich tourists. If you ever have the chance to see it, go for it.

      As for Alberta’s oil dependence: I made my living in the oil business and know how lucrative and enticing the money can be, which makes it difficult to make a change. This is one reason more and more regions are establishing “High Tech” corridors, parks, and programs, which is a great start. ~James

  9. Reading your post brings a rush of gratitude for the good fortune it was that we visited Petra last fall, almost a year ago exactly. Such a life long dream of mine and it was so much more than we expected.
    Fascinating history James. I enjoyed this post very much. I hope this finds you both well.

    1. Sue, we feel the same way about Petra, and your comment about feeling fortunate also rings true. Late last year we spent a month training around England, and that was the last foreign trip we’ve taken – if we had only known. And looking forward to all the uncertainties about travel, we’ve also had the conversation about how fortunate we’ve been to have seen as much as we have. Travel is a total unknown, but it will just take time a bit of flexibility to quench the travel thirst. ~James

  10. Another fascinating bit of history! Maybe a stupid question, but did Socrates (and his quote) already exist before the Nabateans? 🙂 I would love, love, love to visit Petra and Jordan one day and I’ll try to make that happen within the next decade.

    1. Liesbet, you ask an interesting question which I hadn’t thought about, so as everyone else on the planet would do, I googled it. The start and end dates of Petra are a bit loosey-goosey, but the Greeks did invade Petra in its early days, so it’s conceivable that Socrates was alive when it happened. But, he would have been an old man by then and was probably spending lots of time talking (and philosophizing) to anyone who would listen. 🙂

      And honestly, if you can make it to Petra you really should. It’s on our personal list of top sights in the world, and non-Petra Jordan has lots to offer as well. Hopefully, the virus will move along soon and we can all get back to our travel lives. ~James

    1. Rebecca, Petra only gets 6 in of rain per year, so in a city of 20-30K people, water management is a must. And it’s not difficult to imagine the damage an earthquake would do to the stone construction of a water system spread out over a mountain valley. It really was the beginning of the end for the Nabateans. ~James

    1. Karen, like many of these lost civilizations, Petra didn’t leave written records behind. But luckily, the record of their water systems is written in stone. When we visited, I saw some evidence of the water system carved into the rock walls, but unfortunately, didn’t appreciate what I was seeing. There’s much to see at Petra, and it’s easy to miss details. ~James

  11. I have not visited the Middle East. Planning a trip to Petra, Dubai, and Egypt once the pandemic is gone. Thank you for sharing these photos and your wonderful writing.

    1. Thanks for your comment Samuel and for dropping by the blog. Each of the destinations you mention are unique in their own way, and will make a wonderful trip to the area. Petra is a must-see and Egypt has so many interesting antiquities that it’s hard to choose which ones to visit. Like you, we’re looking forward to foreign travel again, and hope that you, and we, will be traveling again soon. ~James

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