Knowledge was the only resource the early Nabataeans could develop, a knowledge accumulated during centuries of nomadic life when survival depended on finding water and pasture for their small herds of camels, sheep and goats. They found springs in the desert and learned how to store rainfall from winter storms in hidden cisterns carved from bedrock. They discovered paths through mountain ranges and deserts that others thought impassable. They understood the camel’s ability to travel great distances in harsh terrain and learned the care that animals required to work at their full capacity.
With their accumulated knowledge, the Nabataeans transformed the barrenness and intractability of their homeland into an advantage over those who lacked their experience and understanding. When incense from southern Arabia became a valued commodity in the markets of Egypt and southern Europe, the Nabataeans were ready to profit from the caravan routes that crossed their territory. As raiders, toll-collectors, guides and eventually merchants, the Nabataeans converted their knowledge into the wealth that built Petra and other cities.
At a crossroads in the heart of the desert, the people of Petra accepted cultural and religious influences from Hellenistic Greece, Egypt, Judea, Palestine, Mesopotamia and their native Arabia. They built a cosmopolitan city where foreigners lived and were buried according to their own customs and beliefs, and where travelling merchants must have felt at ease. A multicultural society and an economy based on international trade seem to have been crucial to Petra’s wealth, vitality and stability.
At a more abstract level, Petra’s history allows us to contemplate the vulnerability of even the most successful and technologically assured society. Petra existed over a period of time equivalent to that between today and the mediaeval period in Europe. Like inhabitants of our modern world, the people of Petra would not have considered the possibility that their city would eventually be abandoned and their nation scattered. The disastrous effects of an earthquake on Petra’s buildings and water system could not have been calculated. The sudden rise of a religion among their southern neighbours, and its consequences for changing trade patterns throughout the known world, was impossible to predict.
Archaeology’s most valuable contribution may be its demonstration of the transience of cities and civilizations — the realization that even the most successful eventually find themselves vulnerable to catastrophes that cannot be foreseen. Contemplating the ruin of Petra may well be an opportunity for us all to further cherish the present moment in our own ways of life.
Dr. Robert McGhee
Curator, Canadian Museum of Civilization