The Amazing Engineering Feats of the Lost City of Petra

Kathleen Villaluz

Historically speaking, the lost city of Petra, in the Arabic country of Jordan, is one of the most enigmatic civilizations that have ever existed. With their successful and prolific business trading spices and silks with China, India, Rome and Egypt, the people of ancient Petra, the Nabateans, have managed to endow their city with extravagant structures and infrastructures. The lost city of Petra has been the centerpiece of legends and fictional stories since its re-discovery in 1812 by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. The incredible fact about Petra's structures is that they were not constructed, but were carved out of giant sandstone canyons surrounding the lost city.

With that said, allow me to take you back in time and discover for ourselves the engineering wonders and riches that made Petra one of the new seven wonders of the world.

The Treasury's front facade

The Treasury [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

The Treasury

Quietly hidden between the canyons of Petra is this magnificent structure carved out of the sandstone rock face known as the Treasury or Al-Khazneh in Arabic. It was originally carved during the reign of Aretas IV Philopatris, a Nabatean King, at the start of the 1st century AD. The origin of the Treasury is attributed to a few legends - one of which is that it was used as a treasury of Egyptian Pharaohs during Moses' time.

The entrance of Al-Kazneh is guarded by the statues of the twin Castor and Pollux and the entire rock face is adorned with other mythological creatures and Greek-inspired designs. The strapping entrance doorway leads to three separate chambers and contrary to the building's facade, the interior of the Treasury is plain without any ornate designs. Its sheer dimension, 80 feet wide and 127 feet tall, makes the Treasury a giant sandstone sculpture. Al-Kazneh was carved out starting from the top down using only simple iron chisels and hammers.

Many of the carved details have already eroded due to its old age, however, the Treasury still remains to be one of the most epic structures of the ancient world and can easily rival the grandeur of Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

The Monastery

Another carved out sculpture building from the sandstone mountains is called the Monastery. It stands at 45 meters high and 50 meters wide and echoes the typical Nabatean classical style. Inside this structure is a single chamber with double staircases heading up to a cultic niche. Historians think that the Monastery is possibly a temple devoted to the Nabatean king Obodas I in the first century BC.

The Monastery facade carved out from sandstone

[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

The Tombs

Like the ancient civilization of Egypt, the lost city of Petra is also host to several tombs which serves as the resting place for royalties. The Royal tombs consist of the Urn tomb, Silk tomb, Corinthian tomb, and Palace tomb. All of which were carved out from the city's sandstone canyons too. Some suggest that the Urn tomb was made for the Nabataean King Malchus II who died in 70 AD. Others believe that it was built as the tomb of Aretas IV.

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Urn tomb carved out from sandstone

Urn Tomb [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

The amphitheater and the great temple

Petra's amphitheater was carved out, too, from the mountain rock and can seat a maximum of 8,500 people. The amphitheater was dated back to the 1st century AD and was designed with features from the Hellenistic period. The majority of the theater's features have eroded due to the flash floods and earthquake that occurred in the city around 300 AD.

8,500 seater theater with Hellinistic design

[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

At the heart of the lost city, the Great Temple sits as the major architectural feat with its towering columns and intricate subterranean canals. The perimeter of the temple measures at 35 meters wide and around 42.5 meters in length and is considered as the largest freestanding structure in Petra. This impressive temple was in use until the arrival of the Byzantine period around the fifth century CE.

The ruins of the great temple of Petra

[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

Petra's impressive ancient hydrology system

All of the carved out structures above are just the cherry on top of the cake, the real engineering ingenuity of the Nabateans can be realized from their intelligent design of Petra's hydrology system. The carving of all of Petra's structure requires a bountiful supply of water and other facilities and the Nabateans were aware of this. They have engineered a vast series of ceramic pipeline segments to transport water from the source called Ain Musa or the spring of Moses to the urban city of ancient Petra. Modern day hydraulic engineers have discovered that the Nabateans have managed to effectively transport water five miles from the source to Petra by carving out pipe ridges along the mountains with a four-degree slope. The long-haul pipelines were perfectly engineered to provide a constant supply of water to the busy towns of the lost city.

Water gorges around the city of Petra

Petra's Aqueduct [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

As the Treasury sits between the canyons' gorges, the Nabateans had to come up with a way to control flash floods and sudden water surges that may potentially ruin the carved structure. They did this by constructing a series of dams made from stone blocks mortared together and anchored to carved out canyon groves. This design allows the dams to withstand extreme pressures from large volumes of water that are stored behind it.

Overall, Petra's ancient urban hydrology network consists of 8 springs for fresh drinking water, 36 dams to protect the city from flash floods, over 125 miles of pipeline to manifold all of the water systems, and over 100 reservoirs and cisterns to store water supply. This complex hydrology system can provide a single person with 8 liters of water per day which is thought to be luxurious during that period.

It is believed that the entire infrastructure and carved out structures of Petra were all built at the same time with a grand master plan.

Petra is famously known as the 'Rose City' because of its sandstone's red color and the best time to visit these enigmatic carved out structures is during the height of the afternoon. The colors and features of the structures come alive under the heat and brightness of the desert sun.

Via National Geographic Channel's Ancient Megastructures: Petra

SEE ALSO: 5 Engineering Marvels You Need to See Before It’s Too Late

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