'Atlantis in the Sand': Unlocking the Mysteries of Petra

Some 150 artifacts will be on display in Basel, starting Oct. 23, in an exhibition entitled "Petra -- Miracle in the Desert." It's a show filled with mysteries.

For example, archaeologists have determined that the Nabataeans ate pigs. But where did they keep the animals? They were unusually pious, and yet nothing is known about their priests. And why did Petra have such good jugglers? Some of them even performed for the emperor of China.

The speed with which these nomads became sedentary is also a conundrum. Analyses show that a sudden construction boom began around 100 B.C. Costly villas and temples were built throughout the valley.

It is clear that the money came from the frankincense trade. Around 400 B.C., the Nabataeans established a trade network stretching from southern Arabia to today's Gaza Strip. Thousands of camels carried loads of the aromatic resin all the way to the Mediterranean.

The Nabataeans had a system for guarding the caravan route, established rest areas in the wilderness, and supplied water and food for the more than 3,000-kilometer journey through the desert.

In the process, they made a handsome profit. The Persians alone used about 27 metric tons of frankincense in a single year. The entire ancient world was anxious to get its hands on the heavenly incense made from the resin of the Boswellia tree. Up to 50 percent of the proceeds went to the Nabataeans.

They also had their thumbs on other precious goods. They sold cinnamon and pepper from India, and they traded in gold, balsam and bitumen from the Dead Sea, the latter being an important material in the preservation of mummies.

Petra apparently served as a central warehouse for these valuable goods, a sort of safe that could be protected very effectively. The narrow gorge that provides access to the city is less than three meters wide in places. Thus, all it took was a few soldiers to stop entire armies. Controlling Water in the Desert Still, a lot of hard work went into establishing this luxurious oasis in the desert. To make the mountain valley habitable in the first place, the Nabataeans had to block off the Siq with a dam because heavy winter rains could create floods that would inundate the valley. In 1963, a group of more than 20 French tourists died in one of these flash floods.

In fact, the Nabataeans built a massive system of dams, cisterns and water conduits to control the water supply. Next to the main dam, archaeologists found the oldest dateable inscription in the city, written in 96 B.C.

That was when the work began, with local residents and stone masons from Alexandria chiseling away at the rock. The builders cut niches and steps into the rock, leveled off plateaus at the tops of the cliffs and built magnificent private homes with columns and inner courtyards.

In the center of the city, archaeologist Bernhard Kolb stumbled upon a villa with gold-plated cornices and mosaics. The banquet hall was once six meters high, and the walls were decorated with lines, bands and floral patterns, often in bright orange and blue. The wall paintings remind Kolb of "precursors of Islamic art."

This mixture of Western and Arab influence is also typical of the religion of ancient desert dwellers. Some of their temples contained statues of Dionysus and Isis. At the same time, they worshipped a strange "fish goddess" who wore dolphins in her hair.

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