Before I get into our chapter on sandstone, using pictures from Jordan’s wonder of the world, Petra, I think we should spend some time in recent history. Recent from the perspective of rocks, so we will be covering 3000 years of the human history of Petra. To understand the fun of Petra, it’s important to keep two entirely separate timelines in mind: the romantic one about the lost city, full of top-billing Biblical personalities (Pharaoh! Moses!) and impenetrably-alien peoples (they made an entire city just for dead people!); and the archeologically-supported timeline, probably not starring Pharaoh or Moses, but featuring some really cool international trade-route controllers and people mostly like us (except with way better aqueducts).
Think of it as fanfic and canon.
Petra fanfic: Moses!verse*
The fanfic story of Petra starts with Exodus, when Moses and his people were fleeing Pharaoh. In the part in the story where Moses strikes down his staff, cleaving a rock in twain and finding water, he is in Petra. And according to some, Moses’s staff made this huge canyon:
Writers in this ‘verse have also have stories about what they call The Treasury:
They say as Pharaoh was chasing Moses, who’d since booked it out of Petra, the Egyptian ruler realized he was never going to catch anyone carrying his entire treasure chest. So he stopped, and possibly using magic, carved this edifice into the side of a sandstone cliff and hid his gold in the urn at the top.
These are not the only stories involving Moses and Petra–according to some, stations 19-26 of the Exodus happened in Petra, Moses’s brother Aaron is buried there, and Pharaoh may have left his daughter there as well.
And like all great fanfic, Moses!verse has spawned many daughter-stories, including the one mentioned in the title, from my favorite Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade.
I used a light-weight tone for describing Moses!verse but that’s because I love a good adventure story and because sometimes stories feel more true than the often hard to decipher past. There are dangers to believing only in this version of history–it diminishes the accomplishments of the Nabataeans and stops long before the peoples who still live in Petra began their lives. It also makes it easy to believe that Petra was exclusively a necropolis, when there is evidence that it was a metropolis in the literal sense of being recognized as such by the Roman empire.
But if the hook of Moses’s blood being buried in the same sandstone on which you walk gets to you Jordan, to breath the air and speak with the people and experience the history? That’s true enough for me.
Petra Canon: The Nabataeans, the Romans, and the Bedouin peoples
There has been evidence of people living in Petra since before 1000 BCE, but it came into its own around 312 BCE when Petra was the possible capital of the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans were a trading people and held the Hellenic and many Arab traders by the short-and-curlies because they controlled some of the best–and best protected–water on a major caravan trading route.
The Nabataeans worshipped their own gods, borrowed architecture from where they liked (see: amphitheater and Hellenish columns):
And had incredible aqueducts, bringing water into the city center from as far as a mile away:
On May 19, 363 AD, the fate every Californian has learned to live with befell Petra: the big one hit. The city never really recovered, and settled into sleepy involvement in the region. It was never lost, any more than America was ever discovered, and was continuously inhabited by the different peoples which controlled that region.
Petra is a World Heritage UNESCO site, though that designation brought with it the eviction of the Bedouin families who had lived there for generations. One of the least fun but most heart-gripping moments of my trip to Petra in February 2013 was when my Mom and I were browsing a salesman’s table near the columns pictured above.
I was looking at decorative knives, and poorly-made and excellently-made jewelry. I saw a small collection of padlocks. I picked a green, corroded 20th century one up, trying to get a feel for its age, when the salesman said it was the lock on his family’s cave, the one they were removed from in the late ’80s. His family’s cave.
As much as I enjoy the rocks of Petra, and will focus on the geology in the rest of this series, I cannot forget that preserving antiquity can have a human cost and that people lived between the towering and colorful walls of coiling sandstone.
*If you’re new here or just faithfully avoided reading my writing about fanfiction, fanfic is a genre of writing where authors take established worlds and characters and experiment on them, adding new themes and plots to see what happens. Some authors’ ideas about how the story could have gone get so popular that other people start writing fanfic of their fanfic. When this happens, fans sometimes refer to the original fanfic’s laid-out world as a ‘verse (‘verse = universe, in case this genre’s love of portmanteaus and abbreviations hasn’t become obvious yet).
An example of a ‘verse is this work of Sherlock fanfiction (based on the TV show, which I would argue is fanfiction of the original Arthur Conan Doyle series) called Two Two One Bravo Baker (NSFW). This novel posits while John Watson was serving in Afghanistan he met Sherlock Holmes, who was in-country investigating a murder. Two Two One Bravo Baker was so compelling there have been 25 more works written based on that universe alone.
“The geologist takes up the history of the earth at the point where the archaeologist leaves it, and carries it further back into remote antiquity.”― Bal Gangadhar Tilak, The Arctic Home in the Vedas