The History and Architecture of Petra

The History and Architecture of Petra

By Ian Reynolds

JCCC Honors Journal, Vol. 3:1 (2012)

Abstract: Petra was a city of wealth, prosperity, and enormous ingenuity that allowed the Nabataean people to settle and even thrive in one of the harshest environments on earth. The city became the center of trade between the Middle East and the Roman Empire, which brought both wealth and power to its people. It also provided the resources for the construction of staggering tombs, monuments, and cities that turned the desert into an oasis. In addition, the confluence of cultures created the unique Nabataean art style, which incorporated some of the greatest elements of architecture from all over the ancient world and has left an unmistakable mark on the harsh desert landscape.

Introduction: The ancient city of Petra was at the center of the great Nabataean trade empire, which was a hub for not only the exchange of goods, but ideas and culture as well. This confluence of culture would lead to the unique style of art and architecture seen in Petra. The Nabataeans were a prosperous and powerful civilization of traders that rose to power between the 4th century BC and the 2nd century AD.

At the height of their power the Nabataeans controlled vast expanses of desert located in present-day Jordan. This region “was highly strategic, was varied in terms of natural resources, had a few zones that were very fertile and cultivated, and most importantly was located in a position that controlled the caravan routes that crossed the Arabian Peninsula from the ports of both the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea”.

The control of these caravan routes made the previously nomadic Nabataeans quite wealthy and powerful allowing larger, more permanent settlements to be built and a more complex government to be established. Caravans that travelled across the Nabataean empire, “were well known for selling incense, spices, oils, perfumes, and other luxury goods”. The wide variety of goods that the Nabataeans offered meant that many different empires had an interest in trading with them. This trade included not only goods but also ideas and art trends which would be reflected in the Nabataean art form.

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