One need only spend a few mid-day summer hours in Petra to sense how ruthless the Arabian desert can be, yet nearly 2,000 years ago, a gifted people that made the city their capital grew into one of the wealthiest civilizations in the ancient world. The story of how the Nabateans mastered life in the desert starts with the insatiable demand in Egypt, Rome and Greece for fragrant frankincense, myrrh and other goods traded on the Incense Route, and the Nabateans' sophisticated understanding of water and hydraulic engineering.
According to information boards at the Petra visitor center, the Nabateans began to control water supplies across the 900,000 square mile expanse of the Arabian desert around 300BC – long before they established their capital at what was then known as Raqmu. Today, southern Jordan receives roughly 4 inches of rain every year. An Arab people, the Nabateans hid water cisterns throughout the desert, enabling them, if attacked for example, to retreat deep into otherwise formidable territory. As their numbers grew and they became more settled, the Nabateans worked with the landscape, “utilizing gradients, wadis and springs to their best advantage” to build a city that could sustain 20,000 people.
Inside Petra, the Nabateans’ engineering prowess is still on display. Walking through the Siq, a narrow two-kilometer-long gorge that was the official entrance to the original city, one can still see channels on either side of the towering rock walls that funneled rain and spring water to various points in the city and its suburbs. Cisterns and reservoirs were lined with waterproof cement to mitigate leaking and optimize water purity. “Their hydraulic engineering knowledge extended to understanding the geometry of water flow and pressure,” according to the Petra visitor center, “and use of gradients to minimize leakage and damage to pipes and maintain a constant supply of water throughout the year.”
The city had five major aqueducts. The Siq aqueduct transferred water from a spring in Wadi Musa to Qasar al Bint. A dam and tunnel at the entrance of the Siq diverted flood waters (flash floods are common in the region), keeping residents safe and ensuring not a single drop of water went to waste. Perhaps the most significant symbol of the Nabateans’ superior water management is a large water fountain in the center of the city called the Nymphaeum. Named after the female nature spirits popular in classical mythology, the Nymphaeum mirrored similar Graeco-Roman structures – an enormous luxury in a desert. The fountain not only supplied drinking water, but acted as place for the community to rendezvous.
Having control of water also meant the Nabateans could control their food supply. In addition to being able to take care of livestock, they built terraces into the hills, which weakened runoff and prevented erosion. They cultivated olives, figs, dates, pomegranates, and grains, and at least 40 rock-cut Nabatean wine presses discovered throughout the kingdom hint at the sweeping scale of grape and wine production. Having used their knowledge to develop dozens of oases with supplies for traders on the prodigious route stretching from Saudi Arabia to Gaza, which they controlled through a system of taxes and tolls, the Nabateans could focus their attention on the arts – a key indicator of a wealthy community.
“They loved beautiful things, as evident [sic] by the intricately carved tomb facades of various architectural styles. Several hundred tombs, houses, banquet halls, altars and niches were carved from the rock, in addition to the construction of a number of free-standing temples, homes and other features,” the information boards read. “The Nabateans also produced fine pottery and painted beautiful frescoes, very few of which remain unfortunately.”
All photos by Tafline Laylin for Inhabitat