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Fascinating Facts About Petra, Jordan's “Lost City”

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It’s not difficult to see why Petra, Jordan, was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World — along with the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, Chichen Itza, the Taj Mahal, Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, and Rome’s Colosseum. This sprawling archaeological site contains as many as 800 tombs and temples (and its famous treasury) carved directly into the vibrant sandstone cliffs and mountains of the rugged southern Jordan desert.

Once a thriving cultural and economic hub in prehistoric times, Petra was later abandoned and left to ruin. The city remained “lost” to the Western World until it was rediscovered in the early 19th century. Today, this fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Site attracts visitors from all over the globe. If a visit is on your bucket list, start by uncovering these eight fascinating facts about Petra, Jordan’s “Lost City.”

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For Centuries, Petra Was Home to the Ancient Nabataeans

Petra Jordan archeological site, The Monastery.
Credit: martinffff/ iStock

From the 4th century B.C., Petra was the capital of the Nabataeans, and its strategic location helped their civilization flourish, putting them at the center of trade throughout the Middle Eastern region. Its narrow canyon entrance also served as a natural fortification that protected it from potential attacks. With the sale of goods, such as spices, the city’s population grew rapidly — it’s thought that up to 30,000 people could have once lived there. Everything went swimmingly until the Romans muscled in on Petra in A.D. 106 and swallowed it up into their own empire. Trade continued, but not at the same level as before, and an earthquake in A.D. 551 was perhaps the final nail in the coffin for this city in decline.

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The Nabataeans Had an Ingenious Water System

The temple-mausoleum of Al Khazneh in the ancient city of Petra in Jordan.
Credit: Truba7113/ Shutterstock

It’s hard to imagine how the desert site we see today could ever have supported such a large settlement. But the Nabataeans knew that for their city to have any chance at success, they had to solve the thorny issue of water. Carefully conserving precious water in this desert environment was a given, but they were also masters of irrigation, creating a clever system of channels and dams to reroute water from the surrounding mountains. The cisterns they used to store water also helped keep it from being lost in the flash floods that were — and still are — a relatively common occurrence in the area.

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We Know of Petra Thanks to a Swiss Explorer

Landscape view of Petra, Jordan.
Credit: Zena Al-yousef/ Unsplash

For centuries, all except the local Bedouin people forgot Petra — its tombs were abandoned and buildings fell into ruin, hidden by the surrounding canyons. Then, in the early 19th century, a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt set off on an expedition in search of the source of the River Niger. In preparation, he’d studied Arabic at Cambridge University and then honed his vocabulary on the streets of Aleppo in Syria.

In 1812, on his way to Cairo, he heard rumors from locals of secret ruins of a grand city in the desert, so he hired guides and disguised himself as an Arab to gain access to what was considered a sacred place, forbidden to Westerners. They brought him to Petra. However, wary of pushing his luck too far, he didn’t stop to excavate. Five years later, Burckhardt died of dysentery in the Egyptian capital, but his “discovery” paved the way for future exploration of the site.

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Petra Is Also Nicknamed the “Rose City”

Graves in the rock in Petra.
Credit: Frédéric Barriol/ Unsplash

Petra’s abandonment led to its nickname of the “Lost City,” but you’re also likely to hear it referred to as the “Rose City.” The nickname refers to the reddish-pink sandstone cliffs, but it originates from a poem written by an English cleric named John William Burgon. The poem won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for Poetry in 1845, awarded by Oxford University. Alhough Burgon had never set eyes on Petra, he wrote: “Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime, a rose-red city half as old as time.”

The nickname stuck, and we’ve referred to Petra as the “Rose City” ever since. The color of the rock changes as the sun goes around the horizon, with the reddish hue most noticeable at sunset.

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A Large Part of Petra Has Yet to Be Uncovered

Stone inscribed by archaeologists found in Petra, Wadi Musa, Jordan.
Credit: PixSaJu/ Shutterstock

Some reports suggest that archaeologists have excavated as little as 15% of Petra thus far. Visitors enter through a narrow slot canyon known as the Siq, view the 130-foot-tall rock facade of the treasury head-on, and then amble along a street lined with tombs. The path leads to a temple called Al-Deir, or the monastery, reached by climbing more than 800 steps. Impressive as the site is, however, that hardly scratches the surface. As recently as 2016, archaeologists discovered a previously unknown monument at Petra thanks to the magic of satellite imagery. It’s thought the huge platform, measuring 184 feet by 161 feet and flanked on one side with columns, could be more than 2,150 years old, based on fragments of pottery found nearby.

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There Are Bullet Holes at the Treasury

Bullet holes in the stone urn of the Treasury (al-Khazneh) of Petra.
Credit: Walkabout Photo Guides/ Shutterstock

Not all of what’s been uncovered remains in pristine condition. Most famously, a giant urn carved into the sandstone above the treasury is riddled with bullet holes. They offer a clue as to what was hidden inside this imposing facade. According to sources, such as Burckhardt’s diary entry of his first encounter with Petra, it was a long-held belief among Arabs (and the Turkish, when Petra was part of the Ottoman Empire) that the urn contained hidden gold. In fact, it is made of solid stone. The urn was badly damaged as a result of those gunshots but a breathtaking sight, nonetheless.

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Petra Was a Filming Location for Indiana Jones

 Al-Deir in Petra, Jordan.
Credit: Joel Carillet/ iStock

The approach to the treasury along the Siq is a dramatic one, so it’s no surprise that location scouts have recognized its potential for filming movies. Perhaps most famously, scenes for the 1989 blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were shot here. In the film, Harrison Ford and Sean Connery make their way through the narrow passageway to search for the Holy Grail.. Other famous films shot in Petra include 2001’s The Mummy Returns and 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

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There’s Also a Little Petra

Unesco World heritage site, Little Petra.
Credit: travelwild/ Shutterstock

Even ancient cities had suburbs, and Petra’s was called Little Petra. While most of the action took place over in the Nabataean capital, visiting traders would have probably found accommodation in Little Petra, perhaps close to some of the city merchants’ own homes. Abandoned after the Nabataean decline, it remained largely hidden until archaeologists started to uncover its rock-hewn dwellings, water channels, and wall paintings in the 1950s. These days, few tourists visit the narrow space where Little Petra sits, as it receives little direct sunlight — a fact that is perhaps hinted at in its name, Siq al-Barid (Cold Canyon). Nevertheless, the treasures its sandstone reveals, such as the Painted House, are well worth the trek.

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