The Nabatean City of Petra: a story of money, pottery… and love
In anticipation of our forthcoming journey to the rose-red city of Petra in April, we talked to our friend and fascinating storyteller Dr David Price-Williams. He shared with us a personal story of his encounters with the fabled city, from the moment he first discovered it in the 1970’s up to present day.
‘A rose-red city half as old as time…’ as the rhyming cleric Rev J. W. Burgon described it in his poem of 1845, though truth to tell he had never actually been there! Petra is the fabled city of the Nabatean Arabs, ‘lost’ to western eyes among the dramatic scenery alongside the Wadi Araba in southern Jordan until ‘discovered’ by the Swiss traveller Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812.
It must have been the defining moment of Burckhardt’s life as he rode down the narrow defile of the Siq and saw for the first time Al Khasneh, the largest and best preserved of the rock cut tombs of this extraordinary archaeological site. It still has the power to amaze and mystify, even after all this time.
It was built by the Nabateans from the excessive profits they made selling frankincense and myrrh from South Arabia to Rome around about the time of Christ. The dried tears of gum harvested from these desert trees were most sought after for their aroma – for temple rituals, for funerary rites and even for expensive perfumes. The cost of these unguents in the Imperial capital was said to be astronomic, beyond the price of gold.
Today, looking at the remains of the city, you could be forgiven for thinking it had been a City of the Dead, so numerous are its rock-cut tomb facades and so sparse are the traces of any living areas. There is a reason for this and it lies with the geology. The city was built between the parallel faults of the Jordan Rift Valley in such a way that huge walls of rock, where the tombs are carved, define its western and its eastern perimeter but the relatively flat area in between, the main part of the city, has been subject to constant and violent earthquakes which have frequently shaken and shivered it into total ruins.
Before it was cleaned up for visitors, in the 1970’s, you could still see the hovels built by the last inhabitants out of the fallen masonry and column drums of the once mighty metropolis.
But the thing which signalled the beginning of Petra’s downfall weren’t tectonic upheavals alone; rather the fact that the Romans became very concerned that they were spending enormous amounts on the frankincense trade whilst the traders themselves, mainly tribes people from the desert wastes of Arabia, were not actually paying any taxes to the Imperial purse. It was the inability to control this traffic that eventually led the Emperor Trajan, in 106 AD, to annex the area around Petra and reroute the commodities market up the Persian Gulf and out to the Mediterranean on the Syrian coast.
When you walk around the site today, if you look very carefully at the ground, in the eroding gullies and washes, you can see a lot of Nabatean pottery littering the surface – in tiny broken fragments of course. This pottery is among the finest pottery ever produced anywhere, egg-shell thin plates and small open bowls painted with the most delicate dark red flower patterns. They must have been made in profusion in the first century BC. And it’s through the pottery that I first came into contact with this extraordinary site.
I was studying for my PhD in the early 1970’s, actually concerned with something far earlier in the Near East. At the same time my tutor Peter Parr, who had actually conducted the first scientific excavation at Petra in the 1960’s, was in the process of publishing his discoveries, among which were pot sherds of this beautiful Nabatean ware.
In order to keep body and soul together, I was making technical drawings for archaeological publications and that’s how I came to draw some of Peter Parr’s Painted Pottery from Petra, the egg-shell thin Nabatean wares from the rose-red city.
So enamored was I with this beautiful pottery, and by association with Petra itself, that when a year or two later I met the girl of my dreams, the girl I was going to marry, I suggested to her that we should tie the knot in the Old City of Jerusalem and travel across the Jordan to Petra for our honeymoon. How romantic, I thought, and archaeologically dramatic, too!
To my amazement, she agreed. We were duly married in the church of the Greek Catholic Patriarchate near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem and after an Arabic wedding breakfast in an upper room overlooking the Dome of the Rock we drove to Amman. With the recent occupation of the West Bank, it was not strictly possible for foreigners to cross over the Jordan, but I knew some of the Border Police and they smuggled us across.
As promised, I was able to show my new wife the fabled city – Petra. That was in the mid 1970’s and this year, 2015, is our 40th wedding anniversary, so visiting the scene of our great event in April will most certainly bring back special memories for me on this cruise.
We are looking forward to an amazing Southern Mediterranean journey this April, in the company of Dr David Price-Williams, Martin Bell and Matthew Nicholls!
View the itinerary on our website ›