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Petra: City of the Desert

Report of the lecture given by Nicole Douek
on February 24th 2010

Petra, the Rose Red City, proved to be an interesting and absorbing subject for Nicole Douek's lecture on Wednesday 24th February. She started by telling us something of the history of this ancient carved city which is situated in Jordan on the eastern slopes of the Wadi of Araba and approximately 56 miles south of the Dead Sea. Mentioned in the Old Testament, it was originally a mountain settlement which over the years became a very important trade route because of its position and the plentiful supply of springs and oases. In the second century, it was the capital of the Nabatean Empire with a population of over 50,000 controlling trade routes as far as India and China, incense being the most important commodity.

After the Roman occupation, the trade routes moved further north and Petra was forgotten until a Swiss traveller, Johann Burckhardt, rediscovered it in 1812 and wrote about it in a book. It was explored by visitors on the Grand Tour and a Scottish artist, David Roberts, produced beautiful paintings of some monuments and tombs. Excavations began and have continued ever since.

Many tourists are attracted to this fascinating city carved out of sandstone which changes colour according to the time of day and the weather. It is accessed through a mile long narrow passage through the rocks which ends at the best preserved monument, the Treasury. Opposite are the Royal Tombs. After passing through the main colonnaded street and past the enormous Roman Amphitheatre, those with sufficient energy can climb the mountain pathway to a sacrificial altar where it is said that humans were sacrificed as well as sheep and goats.

There is still a huge amount to be excavated and I am sure that many of our members will want to visit Petra after listening to Nicole's stimulating lecture, and would support a CDFAS visit in the future. Did I notice a glint in the Chairman's eye?!

Maureen Hellyer

Nicole Douek is a freelance lecturer at the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. She lectures to a number of archaeological and historical societies as well as to the University of the Third Age. She has been involved in excavations at Memphis with the Egypt Exploration Society and has made several television programmes on Ancient Egypt.

Photo: Nicole Douek holding some ancient Nabatean pottery from Petra.