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The Greek-inspired Architecture of the Ancient City of Petra

Treasury of Petra in Jordan
The Treasury of Petra is the most photographed monument in the city. Credit: Greek Reporter

The stunningly-beautiful ancient city known as Petra in southern Jordan is a world treasure like none other on the globe. The ancient rock city is built into the dramatic pink-colored stone of Jabal Al-Madbah mountain, facing outward to a valley.

The ruins of Petra, dating back as far as 9,000 B.C., provide invaluable insight into the lives of all who have lived there.

The city’s population was once large enough that in the fourth century B.C. it became the capital city of the Kingdom of Nabataea. As well as showing the history of the local people, the ruins also highlight the pervasive influence of Greek architecture in ancient times. Here is what to see if you are fortunate enough to visit this unique archaeological site.

The Greek legacy in Petra

Built around the time of the Hellenistic and Roman Empires by the Nabatean Arabs, the architecture of Petra as well as other cities in the region often reflected the work of Greek architects. In fact, the name of the ancient city itself is the word for “stone” in Greek.

As recently as December 1993, archaeologists were still making important archaeological discoveries there, including many scrolls in Greek which dated back to the Byzantine period. The most recent scrolls were found in a church near the Winged Lion Temple in Petra.

The Treasury (Al Khazneh), Petra
The Treasury (Al Khazneh), Petra. Credit: Wikipedia/twiga-swala/CC-BY-SA-2.0

The most recognizable structure in the ancient city of Petra, the tomb called the “Khazneh” in Arabic, or “Treasury” in English, shows the indelible influence of classic Greek architecture. Its stunning Corinthian-styled columns create a dramatic entrance to the tomb.

Legend has it that the locals always believed that this tomb was the location of a hidden treasure. However, modern archaeological excavations from the site have revealed that it is just a two-story high tomb, but a magnificent one at that! Built into the side of the mountain and carved in one piece from its bedrock, it is believed to have been constructed in the first century A.D. for the Nabataean King Aretas IV. At that time, Petra was a flourishing city, having an estimated twenty thousand inhabitants.

Building facade detail.
Building (Al Khazneh) façade detail. Credit: Wikipedia/Diego Delso/CC-BY-SA-3.0

The Nabataeans decorated their structures with elaborate carvings and statues. They worshipped Arabic gods and goddesses during pre-Islamic times and also deified several of their kings, all of whom are among the figures carved into the rocks at the ancient site.

One of the new seven wonders of the world

Known to many as the Rose City, due to the pink-hued rock from which it is carved, the city has become the symbol of Jordan, attracting as many as one million tourists in 2010. In 2007, the breathtaking city was named one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.”

This magical, ancient city amazingly was hidden from the eyes of the rest of the world for many years. In fact, the site remained unknown in the West until 1812, when the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt “discovered” it in his travels.

In 1985, the site was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the organization declaring it “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage.”

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