Caravans and Commerce

Part of the Petra exhibition.

Petra exhibition
© AMNH Photo Studio

Petra began as a gathering site for Nabataean traders carrying incense, spice, and perfume along two major ancient caravan routes. Commercial traffic to and from Petra steadily increased from the first century BC to the mid-first century AD, to keep up with the growing demand for luxury goods in Rome, Greece and Egypt. During this time the city evolved into a bustling hub of international commerce and culture.

Hauling wares from Arabia to the Mediterranean was a risky business that required expert knowledge of the desert, especially where to find water. The Nabataeans provided shelter and water--for a fee--at strategically placed settlements along the caravan routes. Foreign traders also paid tolls and customs taxes in exchange for safe passage both within Nabataea and beyond its boundaries. This income helped finance the Nabataeans' commercial empire, enabling these former nomads to create a spectacular capital city with lush gardens, ornate houses, and elaborate monuments.