For thousands of years, humankind has worked to bend the natural world to its will. Major civilizations assiduously worked to change and mold environments and landscapes in order to create cities and regions that meet societies’ needs and desires for shelter, order, safety, welfare, comfort, trade, leisure, religion, defense, unification, power, and military and political consolidation.
Perhaps no civilization’s imprint on the physical landscape was ever so stirring and awe-inspiring as that of the Nabataeans, who first established the magnificent carved city of Petra roughly 2000 years ago. Relatively little is known of these nomadic people from Arabia who began to settle in the red mountains of present-day western Jordan in the 6th Century BC, but the city they eventually established defiantly co-opts and harnesses the elements of nature to this day.
Scholars debate what originally led the Nabataeans to the Edomite region, but one theory is that they were seeking better pasturelands as droughts afflicted Arabia. Hemmed in by hostile tribes in what is now Jordan and Israel, they were left in relative peace in the desert. Eventually, the Nabataeans sought to wrest control over the lucrative trade routes through which silk, spice, and other commodities flowed between China and India to the East and Rome, Greece, Egypt, Syria to the West. Establishing Petra in the middle of a harsh and isolated desert landscape at the crossroads of this global network, they amassed power and wealth by exhorting payment for passage through the region, as well as by serving as a marketplace, purveyor to the caravans, and traders themselves.
The city’s physical form was brilliantly exploited and molded to serve its purposes. The entrance to Petra is gained only by passing through the ‘Siq,’ a narrow 1-kilometer long gorge flanked by 80-meter high sandstone cliffs. Coupled with a series of guard posts literally carved into the adjacent rockbeds and cliffs, no ancient army or ill-intentioned trading convoys could penetrate its defenses.
At the end of the Siq, the Nabataeans would later carve a masterpiece out of their desert surroundings, pressing a sheer rock cliff into the service of state and religion. To this day you can still enter into a large pavilion containing the Al-Khazneh, a 43-meter high by 30-meter wide tomb of a notable Nabataean king. Chiseled in beautiful and harmonious Hellenistic elements, including columns, entablatures and an urn, the Al-Khazneh announced to the world that Petra ranked among the world’s most powerful cities and could harness the collective imagination and talents of its people and visitors to realize sublime accomplishments.
The heart of the city lies at the base of a great canyon, and contains streets and steps carved into the hillsides, hundreds of tombs cut into the rock faces, temples, and a multitude of dwellings chiseled out of rock formations and cliff walls. Here people could attend markets, visit religious monuments, retire to their homes, access pathways, and meet with family and acquaintances; in short, people could conduct a range of activities we associate today with city life.
It comes as no surprise that Petra means ‘rock’ in Greek. The built world utilizes the natural world to maximum effect. The shaded sandstone dwellings are well ventilated, retain heat at night, and remain cool during the day. Archeologists continue to debate the significance of the art and architecture at Petra, but it is widely accepted that many of the rectangular relief carvings on the rock faces are religious in nature, symbolizing steps for the deceased to ascend to heaven. Even a Roman amphitheater is carved out of the rocky terrain, and could accommodate 3,000 people.
Strikingly, the Nabataeans built cisterns and carved an extensive series of pipes directly into the rock faces and cliffs. By employing gravity and technical brilliance to transport water captured from desert flash floods, they and their animals were able to survive in such a hostile environment. The physical landscape defines the very boundaries of the city, as Petra’s perimeter spreads no further than the surrounding hills and gorges.
The entire city complex strikes one as overwhelmingly organic. Dwellings and temples are carved into rolling desert cliffs that change colors from crimson to purple with the shifting sun, and the streets meander through undulating canyon walls.
The Nabataeans were eventually conquered by the Romans, but their city’s indomitable spirit remains. Hewn out of the sheer wilderness, Petra is a testament to humankind’s ability to engage the natural world and harness the elements of nature.
[ architecture, Installation, lost city, petra ]