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History of Petra and the Nabataeans

Chronological account of facts and figures on the history of Petra and the Nabataeans, who called their capital Raqmu (Aramaic-Nabataean "colored stone"), which once was home to 30,000 people. Petra is the Greek denomination and means "stone, rock."

Some of the most important monuments of Petra are included here in chronological order, and linked to more detailed presentations in our informative photo tour.

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Petra before the Nabataeans
Evidence of early settlements since the Paleolithic Age

Arrival and rise of the Nabataeans
The Nabataeans in the territory of Edom, sources of wealth, the Greeks loot "Petra", powerful neighbors

Petra / Raqmu becomes capital
Early traces of settlement and documented references, Petra becomes station of the Incense Road, oldest monumental tombs

Beginning of the 1st century to 30 BC
Greatest expansion of the Nabataean Kingdom, its dependence on Rome, conflicts with Herod and Cleopatra, end of the Ptolemies

Last decades 1st century BC
Obodas II and Syllaeus, Nabataeans strengthen economically, early facade tombs, preparatory work for monumental construction

The heyday of Petra, 1st century AD
The building activity in Petra and the Nabataean Kingdom until its end in 106 AD

Roman province, 2nd and 3rd century
Mysterious annexation, Petra remains the metropolis of the new province, new building boom, gradual decline

Byzantine period to Middle Ages
Christianization, great earthquake 363 in Petra, church buildings, crisis and end of the city, Islamization, Crusaders in Petra

Rediscovery, modern times, present
First European visitors in Petra, beginning of systematic exploration, UNESCO World Heritage Site, new museum

List of the Nabataean kings

Petra and the region prior to the Nabataeans

The area of Petra was inhabited as early as the Paleolithic Age. Evidence of settlements from early periods include these:

Neolithic village of Beidha

Neolithic village of Beidha

This well-preserved and didactically prepared archaeological site 4.5 km north of the center of Petra vividly conveys how people lived there 10,000 years ago.
Special presentation

Umm Saysaban, Bronze Age

Umm Saysaban

The remains of the village from the early Bronze Age can be seen, when ascending from the north "through the back door" to the Ad Deir (Monastery).

Edomite settlements, Iron Age

Umm al-Biyara

In the late Iron Age, the strongest pre-Nabataean settlement spread in the region of Petra, which at that time belonged to Edom. The small kingdom extended from Wadi al-Hasa at the southern end of the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. The Edomites established hilltop settlements on mountains that were difficult to access, such as the one inhabited from the 7th to the 4th century BC on Umm al-Biyara (Mother of Cisterns), the highest mountain in the urban area of Petra.

Rule of Babylon and the Persians

Nabonid, Sela

On his campaign against the northern Arabian Tayma, the Neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus passed through Transjordan in 552 BC. In the process, he destroyed the royal residence and other settlements in the Kingdom of Edom and brought it under his rule. A large relief of Nabonidus with cuneiform inscriptions was carved on the rock face at Khirbet es-Sela (50 km north of what later became Petra) at that time.

After Babylon fell to the Persian empire of the Achaemenids in 539 BC, the territories conquered by Nabonidus east of the Jordan River and in northern Arabia also came under Persian control. Their empire was finally defeated by Alexander the Great in 330 BC.

Arrival and rise of the Nabataeans

The Nabataeans in the territory of Edom, sources of wealth, the Greeks plunder "Petra", powerful neighbors

The Nabataeans in Edom

From the middle of the 1st millennium BC, the Arab Nabaṭu, who included various nomadic tribes and clans, spread into the Edomite settlement area between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. Their origin is not clearly established; they probably came from northern Arabia.

The Nabataeans advanced along the trade routes and came into contact with the remaining local tribes without encountering major resistance. Even before that, beginning in the 8th century BC, the Edomites had begun to migrate northwest from their original homeland. After the destruction of Edom by the Neo-Babylonian Nabonidus in the 6th century BC, this emigration reached its peak and continued thereafter. The new settlement area of the Edomites in southern Palestine was called Idumaea since Hellenistic times.

Sources of wealth of the Nabataeans

Already from 380/370 BC, the Nabataeans may have been involved as intermediaries in the incense trade between Dedan (ancient oasis city near present-day Al-'Ula in Saudi Arabia) and the port city of Gaza on the Mediterranean Sea. (R. Wenning)

In addition to the long-distance trade (map) in frankincense, myrrh, spices and other luxury goods, the extraction of bitumen from the Dead Sea was a lucrative business. This natural asphalt was used to seal boats, mummify corpses, and as a healing agent, among other uses.

Alexander the Great conquers Gaza

Gaza was a terminal point of the Incense Road and the gateway to the Mediterranean Sea. When Alexander the Great conquered the well-guarded Persian base after a two-month siege, he came across large depots of frankincense and myrrh. Thus the Greeks became aware of the wealth of the Nabataeans and their caravan trade with southern Arabia.

Plutarch (c. 45 - c. 125 AD) tells in his biography of Alexander that he sent huge quantities of frankincense and myrrh from Gaza to his former teacher Leonidas - see the anecdote.

Plundering of "petra" - first historical mention of the Nabataeans

The first surviving testimony of the existence of the Nabataeans reports the raid of Greek troops of Antigonus Monophthalmos on their place of retreat on a hard to capture mountain, called "petra" (Greek: rock). However, this is probably not the later Nabataean capital, but Khirbet es-Sela, 50 km away (photo). The following conflicts and the way of life of the Nabataeans are also described, however, permeated by clichés and arrogance of the Greeks towards the "barbarians".

This was written down much later by the Greek historian Diodorus (ca. 90 - ca. 30 B.C.) after a report by Hieronymus of Cardia (ca. 360 - after 272 BC), an officer of the attackers.

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Special presentation of Sela

Plundering of Sela in 311 B.C.

Powerful neighbors of the Nabataeans

After the defeat of Antigonus I Monophthalmos in the battle of Ipsus in 301 BC, the Hellenistic empires of the Seleucids in Asia Minor, northern Syria and Mesopotamia and of the Ptolemies in Egypt became established. Both repeatedly fought over Palestine and the territories east of the Jordan River, which were initially ruled over by the Ptolemies, who were thus the Nabataeans' most powerful neighbors. They also threatened them economically by diverting the lucrative trade routes to Arabia and India through the Nile Valley and Alexandria. The Nabataeans attacked the transports across the Red Sea with pirate ships and allied with the Seleucids against the Ptolemies.

First mention of a Nabataean king

In the papyrus of Posidippus of Pella (was about 272 - 252 BC at the court of Ptolemy II Philadelphus in Alexandria) is mentioned for the first time a Nabataean king who commanded "powerful cavalry units". He was given such importance that he is mentioned along with the Greek, Persian and Ptolemaic rulers.

Since the 3rd century (possibly earlier) the supreme leaders of the Nabataeans bore the title malak = king.

Petra / Raqmu becomes capital of the Nabataeans

Early traces of settlement and documented references, Petra becomes station of the Incense Road, oldest monumental tombs

Nabataean settlement traces

Jabal a-Habis

At the turn of the 5th and 4th centuries BC, a seasonal or permanent settlement arose below Jabal a-Habis on the terraced slopes on the southern bank of the Wadi Musa, existing until the mid-3rd century BC. From the 3rd century BC onwards, houses of a higher technical quality were built. They were probably demolished in the 1st century BC for new constructions. Local pottery is attested in Petra since the 4th/3rd century BC.

Earliest recorded mention of Petra

Eratosthenes of Cyrene (ca. 284 - 202 BC, geographer in Alexandria) mentioned "Petra in the land of the Nabataeans" in his Geographika as a station on the way from Egypt to Babylon.

Petra becomes station of the Incense Road and center of the Nabataeans

Trade route Dedan-Petra-Gaza

By changing the route between Dedan (now Al-'Ula, Saudi Arabia) and Gaza, the Nabataeans made Petra a station on the Frankincense Road, transforming it into a thriving settlement.

In view of the development that began around 240 BC and recent research, Petra seems to have become the seat of the Nabataean elite and the political and religious center of the Nabataeans earlier than previously thought. (Wenning, p. 51)

Oldest monumental tombs

Block tombs at Bab as-Siq

The block tombs at Bab as-Siq and Ras Sulayman (the eastern and southern accesses to Petra/Raqmu) were probably built in the 2nd century BC, if not already in the 3rd century BC, and thus being the oldest monumental tombs of the Nabataeans.
Bab as-Siq Tour

Mention of King Aretas I

According to the 2nd Book of Maccabees 5:8 of the Bible, the high priest Jason fled from his enemies in Judea to "Aretas, the ruler of the Arabs", who, however, did not grant him asylum but accused him. Aretas I is also mentioned in a now lost inscription from that period in the Nabataean city of Elusa (Haluza) in the Negev.

Petra in a Chinese report

The name Li-kan in the report of the Han dynasty emissary Chang Ch'ien, who was to explore the regions west of Bactria, is interpreted as a translation of Rekem or Raqmu (Petra).

Inscription at Priene

An inscription in Priene (in the west of present-day Turkey) honors a certain Moschion and acknowledges his visits as envoy to Alexandria and "Petra in Arabia". So Petra was already so important to the Greeks that it was named together with the Hellenistic metropolis.

The Nabataean Kingdom strengthened

With the increasing weakening of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic Empires, smaller states grew stronger on their periphery, including the Hasmoneans and the Nabataeans, who repeatedly came into conflict with each other in their efforts to expand their territories. King Aretas II reigned ca. 115 - 96 BC.

Beginning of the 1st cent. to 30 BC

Greatest expansion of the Nabataean Kingdom, Rome gains supremacy in the region, conflicts with Herod and Cleopatra, end of the Ptolemaic Kingdom

Increased settlement in Petra

Around the turn of the 2nd to the 1st century BC, an increased planned settlement can be observed in Petra. There is archaeological evidence "that a central administration tackled the difficult undertaking of making a thriving city out of the valley basin, which was not predestined by nature for urban development. A manifest testimony to these efforts is the first freshwater aqueduct, which carried water from the Moses Spring in Wadi Musa through the Siq into the urban area." (Schmid, p. 137)

The city did not develop within clear urban structures, but rather expanded in areas consisting of clusters of extended families or clans that created their own religious institutions and burial grounds, keeping with the social structures of nomadic groups. Stone buildings, tents (which could also be large and ostentatious) and elaborated living caves existed side by side.

Oldest inscription in Petra

Aslah Triclinium Complex

In the Aslah Triclinium Complex, the meeting place of a clan in the Bab as-Siq, there is the oldest dated inscription of the Nabataeans in Petra. It is dedicated to their main god Dushara as well as to King Obodas I, who ruled ca. 96 - 87 BC.
more info and photos

Aretas III - greatest expansion of the Nabataean Kingdom

Under king Aretas III Philhellene (friend of the Greeks) the Nabataean area of power extended from Damascus to the area of today's Mecca. When the Iturean Ptolemy Mennaeus claimed the throne in Damascus, the citizens of the city entrusted Aretas III with the protective rule over Koilesyria, of which he was king 84 - 72 BC. But when the Armenian king Tigranes invaded Syria with a powerful army, Aretas III was forced to leave Damascus to him.

Bronze coin minted in Damascus: Aretas III Philhellene with diadem; Tyche (goddess of fate) with cornucopia.

Reorganization of the region by Rome

After the defeat of the Seleucids in the Roman-Syrian War (192-188 BC), Rome expanded its supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean. In his 66 - 62 BC campaign, the general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus expanded and consolidated the rule of the Roman Empire throughout the region and reorganized it. In 64/63 BC he founded the Provincia Syria.

The Nabataeans bow to Rome

In the dispute over the Hasmonean throne in Jerusalem, the rightful heir John Hyrcanus II asked the Nabataeans to help him against his brother Judah Aristobulus II. The Nabataean king Aretas III initially moved successfully against Aristobulus II and besieged him outside Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the advance guard of the Roman commander Pompey had arrived in Damascus and his military tribune Marcus Aemilius Scaurus had moved on to Judea. The rival Hasmonean brothers courted the support of the Roman, who chose Aristobulus II. Scaurus ordered Aretas III to retreat, otherwise he would fight him as an enemy of Rome. By accepting the terms, the Nabataean king de facto recognized the supremacy of the Roman Empire. In 62 BC, Scaurus undertook an ultimately unsuccessful campaign against Petra, which he broke off after the Nabataeans paid him 300 talents (7800 kg) of silver.

Nabataea dependent on Rome

Nabataea became a client kingdom, i.e. formally independent but politically dependent on the Roman Empire. For the Nabataeans it was essential for survival to come to terms with the Romans, in which they proved to be extremely clever, which is why their autonomous status was maintained until 106 AD despite various tensions and disputes. It was probably a mutually beneficial relationship. The stabilization of the region by the power of Rome benefited the Nabataeans' commercial interests. And the Romans benefited in more ways than one from a rich neighboring state interested in stability on the southeastern edge of their sphere of power.

The Nabataeans and Herod

The advisor of the Hasmonean John Hyrcanus II in Jerusalem (see above), the Idumaean Antipater was married to Kypros, a Nabatean king's or prince's daughter. Their son Herod (b. 73 BC) seized the throne of Jerusalem in 37 BC with the help of Rome and ruled as a client king dependent on the Roman Empire until his death in 4 BC. Regardless of family relations, military conflicts, mutual territorial claims and political intrigues repeatedly arose between Herod and the neighboring Nabataeans.

Cleopatra obtains Nabataean territories

In the middle of the 1st century BC, the 18-year-old Cleopatra VII ascended the throne of Ptolemaic Egypt, which had become increasingly dependent on Rome since the 2nd century BC. Legendary are her relations with Caesar and with Marcus Antonius, when the latter exercised rule over the east of the Roman Empire. In her quest for great power, Cleopatra demanded from her lover that the kingdoms of Herod and the Nabataeans be transferred to her. Although Antonius refused, he gave her some territories of Phoenicia and Judea as well as Nabataean territories.

End of the Ptolemies, Nabataeans prevent Cleopatra's escape

The victory of Octavian (assumed the name Augustus in 27 BC) over Antony and Cleopatra VII in the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC sealed the end of the Hellenistic kingdom of the Ptolemies, which was transformed into the Provincia Aegyptus. As a sign of his loyalty to Octavian, the Nabataean king Malichus I (ruled 59 - 30 BC) had the ships destroyed in which Cleopatra VII was planning to flee across the Red Sea.

Last decades 1st century BC

Obodas II and his vizier Syllaeus, the Nabataeans strengthen economically, early facade tombs, preparatory work for monumental construction

Report on life in Petra

From Strabo (Greek historian, geographer, philosopher, c. 64/63 BC - after 23 AD) comes an extremely positive description of the city of Petra and the Nabataean society. It is based on the report of his friend Athenodorus of Tarsus, who visited the capital of the Nabataeans around 30 BC possibly as an envoy of the Roman ruler Octavian, and to which Strabo added later information (also false ones). In view of the many Romans and other strangers in the city, who were probably mainly merchants and politicians, he portrayed Petra as a cosmopolitan "metropolis."

The report reveals the persistence of a tribal structure as the basis of the Nabataean state system of the time. Thus, the king, as primus inter pares, is said to have been accountable to the clan chiefs and to have served his guests at banquets himself. Athenodorus praised the sense of justice of the Nabataeans and saw hardly any slaves. From this it could be concluded that the city's constructions were built by the Nabataean citizens themselves and foreign craftsmen, essentially without slave labor. No monumental buildings seem to have existed at that time, because Athenodorus mentioned only dwellings "of precious stone" (probably only painted stucco).

Alexandrian influence increases

Silver coin: Obodas II with wife

After the end of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, the Nabataeans increasingly absorbed influences of the architecture, art, religion, etc. of Alexandria. The motif of the double portrait of the ruling couple staggered one behind the other on coins of Obodas II (ruled 30 - 9 BC) from 29/28 BC is taken from the Ptolemies. The Egyptian goddess Isis was worshipped in Petra at least since this time. She is mentioned there in an inscription next to a figure from 26/25 BC. (Wenning, p. 54)

Silver coin: Obodas II with wife, 12 BC. Photos: Classical Numismatic Group (CNG), Wikimedia Commons.

Obodas II and his conspiratorial vizier

The Nabataean king Malichos I (reigned from 59 BC, last mentioned in 30 BC) was succeeded by his son Obodas II. He is often referred to as Obodas III, because after Obodas I (ca. 96 - 85 BC) another king named Obodas is said to have reigned 62/61 - 60/59 BC, but there is considerable doubt about his existence. Obodas II (reigned 30 - 9 BC) was portrayed as weak, but this may be due to an anti-Nabataean perspective of chroniclers and to the fact that he was overshadowed by the powerful, headstrong and scheming Syllaeus, who was the highest advisor (vizier) with the title "brother of the king" and led the affairs of state and the army.
More about Syllaeus

Nabataeans gain economic strength

In order to extend his rule to the entire Arabian Peninsula, the Roman emperor Augustus ordered his governor in Egypt, Aelius Gallus, to launch a campaign against the kingdom of Saba in southern Arabia (today Yemen) around 25/24 BC. For this, the client kingdom of Nabataea provided a contingent of 1000 troops, commanded by Syllaeus (see above). The Nabataeans joined the Romans not only because they had to prove their loyalty to them, but also because the intended subjugation of the Sabaeans was their own concern and they could exploit the expedition for their interests.

The siege of Marib, the capital of the Sabaeans, had to be broken off due to lack of water. For the Romans the expedition failed with losses, but for the Nabataeans it apparently brought great benefits. The "reopening of the so-called Incense Road, which had previously been closed by Saba, for the movement of goods overland between southern Arabia and the Nabataeans resulted in an unbelievable economic flourishing, evident in the expansion of settlements, temple buildings, etc." (Wenning 1991, p. 82/83, transl. by UiU).

Façade tombs begin to be built

Tomb BD 825

The façade tombs for which Petra is so famous cannot be clearly dated because of missing inscriptions and looted grave goods. The earliest ones probably date from the middle of the 1st century BC, the vast majority in the 1st century AD. After the Romans annexed the Nabataean Kingdom in 106 AD, burials in the city center were forbidden. The last tomb is that of Sextius Florentinus, who died around 129 AD, located somewhat off the main area.

There are over 1000 rock tombs in Petra, 628 of which are facade tombs. Initially, researchers considered the plainer tombs to be the oldest ones, but these were mostly built after the early complex structures, when wealthy citizens also wanted tombs in the city area, leading to simplification and standardization for cost reasons. More on this, graphics:
Types of tomb facades

Older tombs under the Khazneh

Older tombs under the Khazneh

Below the famous Al-Khazneh (Treasury House), older façade tombs were partially uncovered in 2003. The oldest of these may have been constructed in the mid-1st century BC, and those visible today through a lattice have been dated to 25/20 - 10 BC. Probably four of the five tombs were of the Hegra type, that is, tombs with a high facade and frieze of two large sets of steps facing each other. When the Khazneh was carved out of the rock face above them a few decades later, the older burial structures had to be cut off at the top. However, they remained in use.
detailed info and photos

New Nabataean style

Older tomb below Khazneh

Architectural elements of a new Nabataean style can be observed on the tombs below the Khazneh, such as the capitals. This style first appeared in coinage and pottery and then it articulated itself in all areas of art and architecture. It reached its peak in the great cult buildings and public edifices in the first century of the Common Era. The Nabataeans were masters in adapting models and influences of different origins according to their own ideas and needs, combining them and transforming them into a characteristic style.

Flash flood through the Siq, protective structures

The Siq in the UiU photo tour

Around the middle of the 1st century BC or a little later, an severe flash flood through the Siq (the narrow and deep gorge that is the main access today) destroyed a first water channel, the gravel road and buildings in the city area. Therefore, in the decades before the turn to the Common Era and probably shortly thereafter, the Nabataeans built an elaborate protection system as a fundamental prerequisite for the further expansion of Petra. The entrance to the Siq was protected by a high dam, and in the ravine to the right of it a tunnel about 90 m long was cut through the rock to divert the water masses. Several side gorges along the Siq were sealed off by retaining dams. Protective dams were also built on the top of the up to the 70 m high cliff edge on the north side. The path through the Siq was converted into a paved road with a minimum width of 3 meters.

More about this in our photo tour

Preliminary work for the construction of the city center

Petra valley basin

The work necessary for the monumental development of the city center began in Petra around 20 - 10 BC or a little earlier. Slopes were terraced and large areas were leveled. The valley basin is actually unsuitable for the construction of a city. Drinking water had to be brought in from the springs through kilometers of pipes and channels. Since the area lies like a funnel in a mountainous environment with rocky soils, a complex protection system was needed against flash floods and heavy rains that can occur in winter. The lack of long-distance visibility required numerous lookouts and guards posts on the mountains in the surrounding area.

This tremendous effort was made by the Nabataeans in order to achieve a "surprise effect for visitors" and to develop Petra "into a veritable international showcase of the Nabataean kings" (Schmid, p. 135).

The heyday of Petra, 1st century AD

The building activity in Petra and the Nabataean Kingdom until its end in 106 AD

Aretas IV King of the Nabataeans

Aretas IV with his wife Shaqilat

When Obodas II died, Syllaeus claimed the rulership and intrigued in Rome against the pretender to the throne Aeneas (also Aineias). The latter had crowned himself as King Aretas IV in 9 B. without the Roman emperor Augustus having granted him the permission required for client kings. Only after Aretas IV had contributed significantly to exposing the intrigues of Syllaeus did Augustus recognize him as king of the Nabataeans.

With Aretas IV, who gave himself the throne name Philopatris (who loves his people) and ruled until 40 AD, the heyday of the Nabataean Kingdom began.

Silver drachm: Aretas IV, double portrait with Shaqilat, whom became his wife in 16/17 AD

Al-Khazneh - the Treasury

Al-Khazneh - the Treasury

The most famous monument in Petra was probably built in the second half of the reign of King Aretas IV (reigned 9 BC - 40 AD). When entering their capital from the east, the Nabataeans had staged this spectacular prelude much more imposing than the present sight suggests (more about it). It is not known for whom the tomb was hewn out of the rock, but the extraordinarily representative building at this prominent place can only have been intended for a king or a queen.

The design shows clear references to the Ptolemaic palace architecture of Alexandria. According to calculations, the work could have taken about three years. Like most of the rock facades in Petra, it was covered with a light layer of stucco and painted in colors.

The Arabic name "Khazneh al-Fira'un" (Pharaoh's Treasury) comes from the Bedouins who believed that an Egyptian pharaoh on the run had hidden a treasure in the urn on the top.

Al-Khazneh (Treasury)

Monumental buildings in the center

Monumental buildings in the center

As part of the monumental development of the city center of Petra, other large buildings were constructed south and also north of the Wadi Musa during the same phase in which the Al-Khazneh (Treasury) was built: Qasr al-Bint, parts of the so-called Great Temple, the Temple of the Winged Lions.

South Building, so-called 'Great Temple'

South Building (Great Temple)

Known as the 'Great Temple', the largest freestanding architectural complex in Petra was not a religious building, but a royal reception hall. First the Nabataeans erected a peristyle building with two columns at the front (distylos in antis) on the uppermost platform towards the end of the 1st century BC or the beginning of the 1st century AD. In the most extensive phase of construction around the middle of the 1st century AD, this building was substantially enlarged and decorated with reliefs, frescoes, mosaic floors and stucco decoration. At the same time, the huge colonnaded courtyard (lower temenos) with the elephant capitals and the gateway complex (propylaeum) down the street were built.

South Building (Great Temple)

Qasr al-Bint, Main Temple

Qasr al-Bint

The best-preserved freestanding structure in Petra is the main temple of the ancient city. It was built in a privileged location on the south side of Wadi Musa, where archaeologists discovered traces of the oldest Nabataean settlement. Once elaborately decorated with stucco, Qasr al-Bint is an excellent example of the fusion of Greco-Roman and Eastern elements in Nabataean architecture. The Temenos Gate, through which one enters the sacred precinct, dates from Roman times (after 106 AD), as does the monument to the emperor's cult on the west side of the site.

Qasr al-Bint

Winged Lions Temple

Winged Lions Temple

Nabataean cult complex on the northern slope of Wadi Musa opposite the so-called 'Great Temple'. It consists of the sacred building with associated facilities, residential units, workshops, and a courtyard on the north side. During the first excavations, the archaeologists found fragments of capitals with winged lions, after which the building was named. The archaeological explorations suggest that the temple was used from the end of the first quarter of the 1st century AD until the earthquake in 363 AD.

Winged Lions Temple

Conflict with Herod Antipas

Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great (37 - 4 BC King of Judea), was married to a daughter of the Nabatean King Aretas IV. In 27 AD Antipas fell in love with his niece Herodias, the wife of one of his half-brothers. As he wanted to marry her, he repudiated his Nabataean wife Phasaelis, who managed to escape to her father.

John the Baptist condemned the adultery of Antipas and Herodias, which is why he was arrested in the early 30s AD and imprisoned in the fortress of Machaerus on the Dead Sea. Wanting to take revenge on him, Herodias urged Salome, her daughter from her first marriage, to dance before Antipas and to ask him for a favor: the head of John the Baptist.

In 36 AD, the opportunity arose for Aretas IV to punish his former son-in-law Antipas for the honor violation, defeating his troops in a devastating way.

Changes in trade and economy

After the Kingdom of Saba no longer controlled the Bab al-Mandab strait [map] (after 7 AD) and seafarers learned to take advantage of the monsoon winds, the Red Sea sea route became increasingly important compared with the desert route dominated by the Nabataeans. But their losses were not significant. Due to the increased demand for the luxury goods of the Arabian trade, overland transportation continued to be needed. The Nabataeans also established the port of Leuke Kome on the northeast coast of the Red Sea, where they collected customs duties, and their caravans took on cargo to be transported to the Mediterranean.

In addition to long-distance trade, the Nabataeans diversified their economy, including intensifying agriculture through improved irrigation, producing medicines, ointments, and perfumes from home-grown plants and collected ingredients, and producing pottery on a large scale.

Large burial complexes

Soldier Tomb complex

Numerous monumental rock facades at Petra are part of larger complexes with courtyards or platforms, triclinia, cisterns, and water basins for worship. Buildings hewn out of the rock were combined with masonry architecture. The excavation of the Soldier Tomb in Wadi Farasa East yielded important insights into the building structure and functioning of such ensembles, which were modeled on Hellenistic and Roman palaces.

The Soldier Tomb complex was probably built in the third quarter of the 1st century AD, when extensive construction was taking place in Petra. Among the most famous complexes from that phase are the Urn Tomb at the so-called Royal Tombs, the Uneishu Tomb, and Ad Deir (the Monastery - which is not a burial complex, but a place of worship). Other interesting rock-cut tomb complexes are located off the usual tourist routes, for example in the western Wadi Farasa and in the very north of Petra.

Soldier Tomb complex

Urn Tomb

Urn Tomb

The façade tomb with the large colonnaded courtyard and the huge substructure of vaults received this name because of the urn on the triangular pediment. Some researchers suggest it may be the burial place of the Nabataean King Malichus II (40-70 AD). According to an inscription in the interior, the complex was converted into a Byzantine church in 446 AD.
Urn Tomb

Ad Deir (the Monastery)

Ad Deir (the Monastery)

Even though it has the same architectural structure as the great tomb complexes, this monumental building on a mountain plateau is not a mausoleum, but a place of worship, where probably a deified king was revered. The name "Ad Deir" (the Monastery) was given to it by the Bedouins because of the crosses carved into an interior wall, which date from Christian use in Byzantine times.

Ad Deir

Uneishu Tomb

Uneishu Tomb

Uneishu was probably the minister or vizier of Šaqilat II. (or Šuqailat), who was the regent of her son, the last Nabataean king Rabbel II (70 - 106 AD), ruled from 70/71 to 76 AD. The courtyard in front of the tomb facade was enclosed by two porticoes.
Uneishu Tomb

Rabbel II, last king of the Nabataeans

Rabbel II and Gamilat

After his mother had ruled as regent for her underage son from 70/71 AD, Rabbel II ruled from 76 AD. His throne name "who renews and saves his people" stands for national and religious renewal, combined with the revaluation of Arab-Nabataean roots. In art, there was a move away from Greco-Roman figurative representations of the gods, who were now embodied only by the aniconic stone image, the betyl. The ancient cult in rock sanctuaries under the open sky, which existed before the temples, regained importance.

Rome had put down the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 AD (also with Nabataean auxiliary troops of King Malichus II), destroyed Jerusalem and made Judea a Roman province. After that, the independence of the Nabataean Kingdom was more than ever threatened. With the renovatio, Rabbel II obviously wanted to strengthen the religious unity and create a national consciousness "in order to maintain political autonomy. ... It seems, however, that precisely this return to the own tradition with a hardly avoidable national-fundamentalist side current contributed to the end of the Nabataean Kingdom, which Rome brought about by occupation in 106 AD." (Wenning & Merklein, p. 110, transl. UiU)

Silver coin: Rabbel II and his sister/wife Gāmilat. Photos: Classical Numismatic Group (CNG), Wikimedia Commons.

Roman province, 2nd and 3rd century

Mysterious annexation of the Nabatean Kingdom, Petra was the metropolis of the new province, new construction boom, gradual decline of Petra

Mysterious annexation by Rome

By order of Emperor Trajan (98 - 117 AD), troops from the Roman provinces of Syria, Palestine and Egypt under the command of Cornelius Palma, governor in Syria, occupied the Nabataean Kingdom in early 106 AD, apparently without encountering any significant resistance. But instead of immediately praising the new provincia Arabia, it is not mentioned until five years later on a commemorative coin of 111 AD - although not with the usual phrase "capta" ([militarily] occupied), but as "adquisita" ([peacefully] acquired). However, the annexation probably did not proceed as bloodlessly as this formulation is usually interpreted. Archaeologists discovered traces of destruction during that period at various sites in Petra. Also the 417 spherical stone projectiles, together with arrowheads and cheek flaps of helmets in the so-called Great Temple could be evidence of fighting.

Unfortunatley, no explanations about the event and the course of the annexation can be found in the historical sources. The timing might have been unfavorable for the Romans, because Trajan had not yet finished his second campaign against the Dacians (in today's Romania), in which almost half of all Roman troops were engaged. There must have been urgent reasons for such a military campaign in the East. Evidence is lacking for the thesis that the Romans took advantage of unrest after the (presumed) death of King Rabbel II to seize the Nabataean Kingdom.

This hypothesis of Robert Wenning is interesting.

Nothing is known about the fate of the royal family of the Nabataean Kingdom after the annexation. A large part of the Nabataean soldiers were incorporated into the Roman army as auxiliaries, sent to other provinces and thus prevented from new revolts.

Petra remained a metropolis

Petra remained the most important center of the new Provincia Arabia and, foremost, a prosperous city. Trade and the industries established in Nabataean times (see above) continued to flourish. As of the 2nd century, Petra received high imperial titles of honor, including that of "Metropolis of Arabia" in 114 AD. Some of the honorific titles were in use until the 6th century.

New construction boom

Temenos Gate

Under the Roman administration, an extensive program of urbanization, as well as renovation and enlargement of existing buildings began. For example, the east-west axis along the Wadi Musa was developed into an elegant Colonnaded Street with stores and services. The Temenos Gate separated this profane area from the expanded sacred precinct of Qasr al-Bint ab.

Roman bath

After an earthquake in 113 or 114 AD, extensions and alterations were made to the Southern Building (so-called 'Great Temple'), including a Roman bathhouse on its west side.


The Nabataean Theater was enlarged by cutting away some older tombs behind and beside it, so that about 8,000 people could be seated in the auditorium.

Construction of the Via Nova Traiana

Emperor Trajan had the ancient King's Highway developed into a traffic axis of over 400 km between Aila (Aqaba) on the Red Sea and Bosra in southern Syria, which greatly facilitated long-distance transport and communication. The oldest section between Petra and Madaba was completed as early as 111 AD.

Municipal council in Petra

Theater at the South Building

The earliest known mention of a boule boule (municipal council) in Petra dates from 124. It is possible that the small theater in the so-called 'Great Temple' served as a bouleuterion, i.e., as a meeting place for the city councils.

Last pediment tomb

Tomb of Sextius Florentinus

The tomb of Titus Aninius Sextius Florentinus, who was Roman governor of Provincia Arabia from 127 AD and died in 129 AD, is the last large rock-cut tomb monument in Petra.
Tomb of Sextius Florentinus

Emperor Hadrian visited Petra

On the occasion of the visit of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (reigned 117 - 138) the city was named Hadriane Petra Metropolis.

Imperial monument at Qasr al-Bint

Head of Marcus Aurelius

On the west side of the sacred precinct (Temenos) of the Qasr al-Bint temple, a monument of Imperial cult was inaugurated between 165 and 169. In its apse stood larger-than-life marble sculptures of the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, who ruled together 161 - 169.

Head of Marcus Aurelius, now in the Jordan Museum.

Gradual decline of Petra

In the 3rd century Petra gradually lost importance in long-distance trade, formerly the most important economic activity of the Nabataeans. Due to severe turmoil in the Roman Empire (Imperial Crisis 235 - 284/85 AD) and its external threat from, among others, the Germanic tribes and the Persian Sassanids, as well as the temporary occupation of Roman provinces from Syria to Egypt (269 - 272 AD) by Palmyra under the ruler Zenobia, the demand for luxury goods from the East decreased. There was also a shift in the main trade routes in western Asia. Petra rarely appears mentioned in historical sources of that period.

Archaeological evidence from some of the structures in Petra attests to the city's decline. For example, the so-called 'Great Temple' was apparently no longer in use towards the end of the 2nd century AD, as it fell into disrepair and was looted from that time on.

Persecution of Christians

Under the Roman emperor Diocletian (ruled 284 - 305) Christians were persecuted also in Petra. About 50 km north of the city, in the Wadi Faynan, there were the infamous copper mines (known as Phaino), where the Romans tortured early Christians to death as labor slaves. Later, Faynan became a bishopric and place of pilgrimage in honor of the martyrs.

Byzantine period to Middle Ages

Christianization, great earthquake 363 in Petra, church buildings, crisis and end of the city, Islamization, Crusaders in Petra

Byzantine period

The beginning of the Byzantine era is considered to be the year 324, when the Roman emperor Constantine I imposed his absolute rule and moved the capital of the empire to Constantinople (formerly Byzantium, today Istanbul), named after him. Christianity had already been tolerated from 313 (Constantinian shift), and in 380 it became the state religion.

In Transjordan, the Byzantine period ended in 636 with the Battle of Yarmuk, in which the army of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius was defeated by the Muslim Arabs under the command of Khalid ibn al-Walid.

Persistence of Nabataean consciousness

A Nabataean ethnic tradition continued in Petra and the region until the late 6th century AD. This is evidenced by Greek inscriptions of the Byzantine-Christian period with Nabataean personal and place names in Hellenized forms, as well as archaeological artifacts. Greek may have been the lingua franca and Christianity the predominant religion, but a strong sense of identity was still widespread among the population of Nabataean origin centuries after the end of their state. (K. D. Politis, p. 188)

Nabataeans converted to Christianity

Beginning in the mid-4th century AD, the Nabataeans embraced Christianity, at first slowly and haltingly. Bishops from Petra participated in the Christological councils of 347, 359, and 362 AD. In the later 4th century, however, there was once again a strong return to the Nabataean religion. The ancient temples remained in use at least until the earthquake of 363.

Devastating earthquake in Petra

Earthquake, Great Temple

On May 19, 363, an earthquake caused severe destruction in Petra. Because the city was already in decline at the time, it never recovered from the disaster. Thus, in the once magnificent Colonnaded Street, the rubble was only partially cleared aside to build smaller stores and private structures out of debris. The Winged Lions Temple, the 'Great Temple' and the Theater were not rebuilt. Funds were lacking to restore the complex protective structures against flash floods (see above), and more and more alluvial debris accumulated in the city. The repair and permanent maintenance of the kilometers of pipes for drinking water from distant sources may also have been a major problem.

Division of the Roman Empire

After the division of the Empire in 395, the Syrian, Palestinian and Transjordanian provinces belonged to Eastern Rome, the later Byzantine Empire. In the administrative reorganization that had begun earlier, Petra became the capital of the new Provincia Palaestina Salutaris (called Palaestina Tertia from the early 5th century), which included areas of present-day southern Jordan, the Negev, and probably the Sinai Peninsula.

Barsauma "missionizes" in Petra

Even after the destruction caused by the earthquake of 363, cultic activities continued to take place in Nabataean temples. This is evident from the saint narrative about the monk Barsauma (also Bar Sauma). He went around with 40 companions, destroying "pagan" temples and Jewish synagogues in order to "convert" people to Christianity.

When Barsauma appeared at the entrance of Petra, the frightened inhabitants closed the gates, which they opened only when he threatened them with the destruction of the city. Petra was then suffering from a four-year drought, but just at that time, it began to rain heavily, and the floods swept away the city wall - by which was perhaps meant the dam in front of the Siq, which may have been unstable due to an earthquake in 419. In view of this "heavenly sign" mass baptisms were held. After that there were no further reports of "paganism" in Petra.

Ridge Church

Ridge Church

On a hill to the north near the city wall, a building from the Nabataean period was converted into one of the first churches of Petra. The complex, called Ridge Church by archaeologists, may have belonged to a military area.

The Urn Tomb became a church

Urn Tomb interior

The monumental Nabataean Urn Tomb from the 2nd half of the 1st century AD was converted into a Christian church and, according to a Greek inscription inside, was consecrated by Bishop Jason on 24 June 446. For liturgical reasons, the three tombs in the back wall of the rock chamber were enlarged into flat-vaulted apses for this purpose.

Byzantine Church (Petra Church)

Petra Church

The three-nave basilica (also called Petra Church) was built in several phases from about 450 on, using stones from Nabataean and Roman buildings, among others, which had fallen victim to the earthquake of 363. After it burned down around 600, the church was further destroyed and buried by later earthquakes, hiding the beautiful mosaic floors from the iconoclasts of later times.

Petra Church

Blue Chapel

Blue Chapel

A little later than the Petra church, a smaller building was erected a little higher on the slope, which may have been the bishop's private chapel. The chapel received its present name because of the blue granite columns and the blue marble interior.

Jabal Harun pilgrimage site

Jabal Harun

On the mountain 5 km southwest of the center of Petra is said to be buried Aaron, the brother of Moses revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims. In the late 5th century, a monastery was built on the site of an earlier Nabataean sanctuary, which was a much-visited pilgrimage site. After destruction, probably by earthquakes, it was repaired several times and remained in use at least until the 9th century.

Petra was a place of banishment

During the reigns of the (Eastern) Roman emperors Anastasius I (491-518) and Justin I. (518-527), Petra was a place of banishment for both criminals and churchmen whose view of Christianity differed from the official line of the government and clergy in Constantinople. (Z.T. Fiema, p. 153)

Petra Papyri - Everyday life in Petra

Petra Papyri

During the excavation of the Petra Church, 152 charred papyrus scrolls were found. After it was possible to make the texts written in Greek legible, it turned out that they were dated documents of a wealthy family of landowners. The property deeds, business papers, contracts, etc. provide unique insights into everyday life in Petra in the years 537 to 592/93.

The Petra Papyri confirm that agriculture was the most important source of income in the area surrounding Petra in Byzantine times, and trade contacts remained local. Nabataean customs and traditions apparently continued to exist even 400 years after the Roman annexation. (Fiema, S. 310)
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Petra is no longer a city

From the late 6th/early 7th century on, Petra ceased to be a livable urban settlement. Since the pipelines to distant springs were destroyed, the water available in the urban area will probably have been sufficient for only a few hundred people. In its heyday, about 30,000 inhabitants used to live there. The remaining population managed to survive by, among other things, searching the ancient buildings for resources and looting the many tombs. After the middle of the 7th century, the former main access through the Siq was no longer in use. An earthquake in 748 caused further severe damage. The valley basin of Petra, however, remained inhabited in the form of scattered clusters until the 12th century and perhaps longer.
(Info from Bikai and Fiema)

Beginning of Islamization

With the victory of the Muslim army at the Battle of Yarmuk in 636, the Byzantine or Eastern Roman era ended in Transjordan and the Islamic era began. Soon after, the Islamization of the population began in the Petra region as well.

Islamic alterations in Qasr al-Bint

In Qasr al-Bint, the former main Nabataean temple of Petra, archaeologists found traces of early Islamic rebuilding from the 9th/10th centuries, consisting of a terrace wall on the monumental staircase and a perimeter wall in the pronaos, built of reused rubble stones and column drums. (Renel & Fournet)

Crusaders in Petra

Castle on Jabal al-Habis

In order to control the caravan routes between Syria and Egypt, Baldwin I (King of Jerusalem) ordered the construction of the Montreal fortress in Shobak (25 km north of Petra) in 1115. The following year, the outpost of Vaux Moise (Valley of Moses, in Arabic al-Wuʿaira) was built to the east of Petra on the remains of a Nabataean or Roman predecessor structure. On Jabal al-Habis above the destroyed city center, the Crusaders built another castle on the remains of an ancient fortress (photo above). In Wadi Farasa East, they used the ruins of the Soldiers Tomb Complex for a smaller fortified compound.

After Saladin defeated the Crusaders at battle of Hattin in 1187, the Ayyubids also conquered their large fortresses and took them over.

Sultan Baibars passes through Petra

To frustrate a conspiracy against him, Mamluk Sultan Baibars (1260-1277) traveled from Cairo in Egypt to Kerak in present-day Jordan. After five days, coming from the Wadi Araba, his troop climbed the Jabal Harun and from there descended to Petra. The Arab historian Nuweri (1279-1332) wrote a report about this journey with a detailed description of Petra, based on the account of Ibn 'Abd az-Zaher, chronicler of the sultan.
(F. Zayadine, p. 160/161)

Rediscovery, modern times, present

First European visitors to Petra, beginning of scientific exploration, UNESCO World Heritage Site, new museum

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in Petra

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt

The secret visit of the Swiss Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784 - 1817) to Petra on 22 August 1812 is considered the beginning of the modern discovery of the archaeological site. While traveling from Aleppo to Cairo through Transjordan, Burckhardt learned about the ancient city and then went in search of it. While in the Orient, he dressed as an Arab and called himself Sheikh Ibrahim ibn Abdallah. His travelogues were published posthumously from 1819 on, first in English under his English name John Lewis Burckhardt, and as of 1820 in German.

British Expedition

After hearing of Burckhardt's discovery, British naval officers Charles Leonard Irby and James Mangles went to Petra for two days in May 1818 with a well-equipped group of 11 people. Among them was William John Bankes, whose drawings are among the first pictorial documents of Petra. However, they are not included in the travelogue of Irbes and Mangles, through which Petra gained some notoriety in Great Britain. (van der Meijden Zanoni)

First scientific presentation

Laborde, Linant

Frenchmen Léon Emmanuel Simon Joseph de Laborde and Louis Maurice Adolphe Linant de Bellefonds traveled together to Petra in 1828, staying 6 days and extensively documenting the ruins in drawings and descriptions. In 1830-33, the magnificent volume Voyage de l’Arabie Pétrée par Léon de Laborde et Linant was published, richly decorated with lithographs, woodcuts, and topographical drawings. The book also contains practical advice for traveling through the desert. Through an English translation in 1836, it became accessible to a large readership and shaped an idea of Petra that remained dominant in the 19th century. (van der Meijden Zanoni)

Brünnow and von Domaszewski

Brünnow and von Domaszewski

Systematic exploration of Petra began with the expedition of Rudolf-Ernst Brünnow (left photo) and Alfred von Domaszewski in 1897 and 1898. Their work Die Provincia Arabia, Volume 1, published in 1904, with a catalog of the tombs and other monuments in Petra, forms the basis for further scientific exploration of the archaeological site and still serves as a reference today. The detailed descriptions are illustrated and supplemented by a wealth of photographs, drawings, maps showing the location of the monuments, etc.

Alois Musil

The Austro-Czech priest, theologian and orientalist stayed in Petra four times. His extensive work Arabia Petraea, published in 1907, contains detailed documentation of each monument with a reliable map.

Gustaf Dalman

Dalman followed the work of Brünnow & von Domaszewski and went beyond them in numerous detailed descriptions. He published them in 1908 in the book Petra und seine Felsheiligtümer, richly illustrated with photographs and drawings. Also his numbering of the monuments is still used in Petra research today.

Survey of the city center

During World War I, the Deutsch-Türkische Denkmalschutzkommando (German-Turkish Monument Protection Command), under the direction of Theodor Wiegand, surveyed, mapped and photographed the city center of Petra for two weeks in 1916. Although no excavations were carried out, the results and plans published in 1921 were and still are an important basis for understanding Petra as an urban settlement. Another contribution to research is the finding that the monumental tomb facades are part of architectural complexes with masonry structures, such as the Soldier Tomb complex. (Schmid, p. 143)

Establishment of the Antiquities Authority

After the creation of the Emirate of Transjordan under British Mandate rule in 1921, the Department of Antiquities was established in Amman in 1923, the Antiquities Authority of Jordan, which exists to the present day. This created an institution to legally regulate and supervise excavation activities in the country.

First excavation in Petra

The first systematic excavation at Petra was led by the British archaeological couple Agnes Conway and George Horsfield, who was Chief Inspector of Antiquities in Transjordan 1928-1936.

Since then, countless excavation campaigns by international and Jordanian teams have taken place, and yet it is estimated that only 20% of the area of Petra has been archaeologically explored.

Resettlement of the Bedouin of Petra

Umm Sayhoun

About 140 families from the Bedouin tribe of Bdul (also: Bedul, Bdoul) lived in the caves and tombs of Petra until they were resettled by the government in the newly built village of Umm Sayhoun (photo). The ancient site had to be better protected and explored, as well as used for tourism. Today many Bdul work in Petra in the tourism field, as guards or as assistants in excavations.

Petra becomes UNESCO World Heritage Site

In 1985, Petra was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as " one of the world's most famous archaeological sites, where ancient Eastern traditions blend with Hellenistic architecture."

Petra Archaeological Park established

In 1993, the Jordanian government placed a 264-square-kilometer area around Petra under special protection. It is known as Petra National Park (PNP) as well as more accurately as Petra Archaeological Park and is administered by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

New Petra Museum opened

Petra Museum

A new Petra Museum opened in April 2019. The modern building just next to the main entrance to the archaeological site has an exhibition area of 1,800 square meters. In 8 galleries are presented 300 findings from the region of Petra, starting with the Paleolithic period. Each gallery is designed as a thematic exhibition, which also conveys how people lived in the past, what knowledge and skills they had and how they coped with the climatic challenges.

List of Nabataean kings

The Nabataean sheikhs bore the title malak / king as early as the 3rd century BC and perhaps earlier.

272 - 252 BC
Mention of a Nabataean king in the papyrus of Posidippus of Pella (280 - 270 at the court of Ptolemy II Philadelphus in Alexandria)

Aretas I.   (around 168 BC)

Aretas II.   (ca. 120 /110 – 96 BC)

Obodas I.   (ca. 96 – 85 BC)

Rabbel I.   (ca. 85 /84 BC)

Aretas III.   (84 - 59 BC, Philhellenos, " friend of the Greeks")

Malichus I.   (59 - 30 BC)

Obodas II.   (30 - 9 BC)

Aretas IV.   (9 BC - 40 AD, Philopatris, "who loves his people")

Malichus II.   (40 - 70 AD)

Rabbel II.   (70 /71 – 106 AD, "who gives life and salvation to his people")

Source: Robert Wenning (1993) and his later notes on Obodas II/III

© Chronology compiled and edited by Gerhard Haupt, Universes in Universe. Copyrighted, also the individual entries and the photos.

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