The history of Petra is still almost as elusive as its site once was, though thanks to recent explorations and excavations, we now know some details of its early history. Traces of Stone Age Man in the form of the usual hand axes have been found on some of the higher mountain slopes. A rock shelter, dating from about 10000 B.C. was also discovered in the vicinity, where prehistoric man had lived year after year over a considerable period of time. Neolithic village sites in the neighborhood had been found and excavated; one of them, Baida to the North of Petra, turned out to be as important as Jericho for the history of this remote period, about 7000 B.C. Here was discovered a stratified series of villages, six in all, with finely built houses and workshops; bone, stone tools and weapons were recovered, and there is evidence of trade with far-away Asia Minor and the Mediterranean coast.
A gap of unknown history presents itself until we reach the Iron Age. By this time, the country was known as Edom, and it had always been thought that the great massif of Umm al Biyara – the Mother of Cisterns – was the site of Biblical Sela which, like the Greek Petra, also means ‘Rock’. Excavations indicate that the Edomites settled in Um al Biyara in Petra from the seventh to the sixth centuries B.C., and that it was finally abandoned after it was destroyed by fire. The Nabataeans later moved in during the fourth century B.C.
The Nabataeans and Petra are bound firmly together in history, for it was they who first began to evolve types of architecture, sculpture, pottery and stone dressing peculiar to themselves. The pottery is one of their remarkable achievements, for it was of a thinness and fineness only equaled by the best porcelain, and covered with a very delicate decoration in dark brown or black paint. Edomites pottery on the other hand, was rough, thick and without any paint decoration.
The Nabataeans also had their own script and language; the former bears some resemblance to the Hebrew script of the time, but is curiously elongated vertically. The language was apparently a form of Aramaic with strong Arabic influence in it; most of their personal names are Arabic.
The chief deities of the Nabataeans were Dushara and Allat; the former was always symbolized by a block of stone or Obelisk, while the latter was frequently associated with springs and water.
The Nabataeans seem originally to have been a nomadic Arab tribe who occupied the North-Western part of Arabia. The first historical mention of the Nabataeans as a people is in a list of the enemies of Ashur-Bani-Pal, king of Assyria in 647 B.C., but at that time Petra was still occupied by the Edomites, who were not turned out of the country until at least a century later. The classical writer Diodorus Siculus describes Petra in 310 B.C. as being occupied by “Arabs who are called Nabataei”. During the third and second centuries B.C. Petra had gradually been built up into a rich center of the caravan trade from Arabia, and it was very conveniently situated for forwarding on goods to Palestine and the Mediterranean, Egypt and Syria.
The first king of Nabataea mentioned in history is Aretas I, in about the late second century B.C., and to him, Jason, high priest in Jerusalem fled when driven out of his own country.
The history of Petra continues with succeeding kings through peace and war with neighboring countries, until the last king, Rabel II, died in A.D. 106, after which the country became a Roman province.
The Romans took the city in hand, and redesigned it on the regular Roman Model, with a main street of columns and all the usual Roman trimmings. The city continued to flourish for some time, and the tomb of one of its Roman governors has an inscription which tells us that in addition to his usual duties he was also responsible for the minting of coins. Nabataean coins were modeled on the Greek and Roman types, but it is a curious fact that not a single gold Nabataean coin has ever been found, and silver ones are extremely rare. Changing trade routes and the rise of the rival city Palmyra in the North caused a gradual decline in the fortunes of Petra. However, it followed the pattern of history of the rest of the Middle East, and in due course adopted Christianity. The city was still partly occupied when in the seventh century Islam became the dominant power. Thereafter Petra remained in more or less tranquil seclusion until the beginning of the nineteenth century.
In 1812, a young Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt was an enthusiastic student of the Arab civilization who learned the Arabic Language, and adapted himself to Middle-Eastern customs. As he ventured on a journey from Damascus to Cairo, and upon approaching Palestine, he heard of legends told by the natives regarding the incredible ruins of a dead city protected by the mountains surrounding Wadi Musa. In his desire to verify the reliability of those tales and explore uncharted territory, he devised a plan which would enable him to investigate the area without arousing suspicion. In actual fact, the local Bedouins that had often never seen a European, were renowned for being very suspicious and hostile towards strangers. So, he disguised himself as an Arab and, having taken the name of Ibrahim ibn Abdallah, he hired a local guide to take him to Aaron's Tomb pretending that he wishes to sacrifice a goat in honor of Aaron. Everything went according to plan: the Siq and the spectacle that appeared before his eyes were absolutely unique. To avoid suspicions, he only examined The Treasury and The Urn Tomb, which were sufficient evidence for him to realize that this was the city he had heard of, the ancient city of Petra. His testimony entered history books as being the first proof communicated to the Western World concerning the existence of that legendary city.