No, seriously. Petra, straddling something like ten square miles of Jordanian mountain-desert-canyon chaos, was the jewel of the Nabataean kingdom and makes everything that you or I have done in our lives look like so much small change.
Hey, that’s me! I’m famous!
Eagle-eyed viewers may just recognise this, ‘the Treasury’, as the resting place of the Holy Grail from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (as well as the narrow canyon they ride down, which opens directly onto this monstrosity). Carved into the solid rock, I’m there for scale. ‘Big’ is a fair description here, and whilst the Treasury is pretty big as Nabataean tombs go, it’s not the biggest.
Would you like to see the inside of one of these opulent tombs? I bet you would, you’re a sucker for fancy architecture. Here is one of the most impressive ones:
Actually, that’s a bit lame, isn’t it?
The first thing you’ve got to understand about the city of Petra is that it had serious motivation to look impressive. For four hundred years before Trajan annexed it to Rome, Petra sat on a number of key trade routes across the Arabian Desert: the Silk and Spice Roads come to mind, with ludicrously valuable materials having no choice but to pass through Petra. Indeed, that’s exactly why Petra’s there – another Nabataean settlement, Avdat in modern Israel, sits on the frankincense route up through Saudi Arabia. The Nabataean pattern is, essentially, to exploit the trade routes running through the desert to skim off the cream.
A breakdown of the East-West trade routes until the fall of Rome. Source: Wikipedia. Not shown, much to my irritation: sodding Petra.
The wealth of the city of Petra is reported by all contemporary chroniclers as fantastic, and a glance at the various styles of Nabataean architecture reveal obvious influences from Hellenistic, Roman and Persian contact that Petra, producing nothing of its own, absolutely depended on. Indeed, when the Nabataean kingdom was absorbed into Rome by Trajan, the same expansion cemented their control of the Red Sea, making the sea route to India plyable again, and as a nippier trip with less chance of melting to death, Petra receded into irrelevance, finally abandoned after a disastrous earthquake in 555 AD.
So why isn’t this wealth reflected in munificent tombs? Why is Petra a wonderful example of style over substance? The best way to demonstrate this is with the Unfinished Tomb, tucked behind the magnificent temple:
The majestic tomb fronts are carved out of the solid rock of the canyons. They’re not built, they’re sculpted: here you can see how masons would work their way down from the top of the facade bit by bit unless, for some reason, this were to be stopped, as it was with the Unfinished Tomb. It’s a lot easier to do this than it would be to build something of an equivalent size, which would need huge interiors just by the laws of engineering if nothing else. It’s Dwarf Fortress reasoning. When it’s anchored in solid rock, however, all you need is the impressive front, leaving the burial area, occasionally visited by living members of the family (it’s believed these were family tombs, as the multiple depressions on our second photo suggests) but mostly not accessed. These weren’t structures for daily use. What we see, as depressingly frequently with the Classical Era, are the large, grand structures of the local nobility, minus the houses, roads and activity: in other words, exactly what they’d want you to be seeing.
That’s like less than a third of the site and it’s all up mountains or in valleys or up in mountain-valleys and I’m going to stop writing now because even thinking about it is giving me heatstroke.