“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.
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