Rediscovered in the 19th century, the Nabateans’ hidden capital, necropolis, and treasure-house at Petra became a forbidden, sometimes fatal draw for adventurous Israelis

Petra, the mysterious capital located in Jordan, is without a doubt the jewel in the Nabatean crown. Named for the red rock out of which it was carved (petrae is Latin for “rock”), the city was built by the Idumeans three millennia ago and conquered by the Nabateans six hundred years later. It was a safe haven for families whose menfolk were constantly traveling, a storehouse for the Nabateans’ growing wealth, and a memorial for their dead. High up in hidden clefts between the stony cliffs east of the Jordan, the city’s monumental cardo gave way to houses and temples hewn from the distinctive, rose-colored rock. Beside this main street was the necropolis, the city of the dead, with thousands of richly decorated tombs hollowed out of the cliff face.

Petra’s decline began with the Roman conquest in 106. Recurrent earthquakes along the Jordan Rift Valley brought the city to its knees, destroying its edifices and water system. The Crusaders built a great fortress there, and the Mamluks also occupied the town before it receded from the public eye until the beginning of the 19th century. A Swiss Orientalist named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt was the first European to stumble across it on his travels, swiftly followed by scores of archaeologists.

During the British Mandate, Petra attracted vacationing government clerks and their families. Among the prominent Zionists who gushed about their visits there were Arthur Ruppin, Rachel Yana’it Ben Zvi, Dov Hoz, and Ze’ev Vilnai. Their descriptions set off a wave of youthful romanticism, and after the State of Israel’s establishment in 1948, adventurous young men stole across the enemy border to glimpse the fabled wonder. Not a few were caught, never to return, and they inspired Israeli composer Haim Hefer’s song “The Red Rock.” In 1958, the tune was banned lest it encourage more such dangerous excursions.

Petra became accessible to Israeli tourists after a peace treaty was signed with Jordan in 1994. UNESCO declared the site a World Heritage destination in 1985, and in 2007 it was selected as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.