City of Stone

Part of the Petra exhibition.

The city of Petra in Jordan
Photo: © Jordan Tourism Board, North America

If shaping the natural world is a sign of civilization, the Nabataeans were one of the most civilized peoples of antiquity. The spectacular ruins of Petra, chiseled by hand into the sandstone cliffs of southern Jordan, are testimony to Nabataean engineering and artistry--in the form of freestanding temples and nearly 3,000 rock-cut tombs, dwellings, banquet halls, altars, and niches. Not only were these structures elaborately carved but they were also covered with stucco and brightly painted, creating a spectacle of brilliant facades set against a backdrop of rose-colored cliffs.

Petra was a settlement whose streets and architecture sprawled along winding gullies and up steep cliffs. The Nabataeans developed the technology to harness natural springs to sustain fertile crops, lush gardens, and an impressive system of pools and reservoirs, all of which supported a booming population. At its height, around AD 50, the city and its environs boasted as many as 20,000 residents.