Landscape and Cityscape

Part of the Petra exhibition.

The layout of urban Petra reflected its terrain. Most houses sat not along a grid of streets but on naturally occurring terraces; others were cut into sandstone cliffs. Distinct neighborhoods formed from clusters of homes around water sources. Such enclaves may originally have been tribal tent encampments, leading one archaeologist to call the city, half seriously, "a petrified campsite."

One Petra neighborhood was in the area known as ez-Zantur, a rocky crest above the Colonnaded Street. A decade of excavating this prime piece of real estate has revealed the entire sequence of Nabataean residential architecture. A seasonal tent camp yielded to modest stone-built dwellings in the first century BC; an opulent villa, ornamented with stucco, rose on the site in the first century AD.

How do we know?--Building a house in Petra

Tiny details from the archaeological record provide clues to Nabataean house construction. For instance, the backs of some decorative elements--stucco cornices, for example--preserve small holes, probably for the wooden pegs builders used to attach the cornices to walls. A plaster fragment uncovered in rubble retains the impression of reeds bound with string, evidence of ceiling construction. And a flagstone from the floor of one house bears scrape marks from a long-vanished--and ill-fitting?--wooden door.