Petra: Could it be Al Hijr as mentioned in the Holy Quran?

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Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

Petra was chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007 and a World Heritage Site since 1985.

Petra declined rapidly under Roman rule, in large part due to the revision of sea-based trade routes. In 363 an earthquake destroyed many buildings, and crippled the vital water management system. The ruins of Petra were an object of curiosity in the Middle Ages and were visited by Sultan Baibars of Egypt towards the end of the 13th century. The first European to describe them was Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812.

Generally the term Al Hijr or Hegra is applied to the Madain Salih. Inhabitants of both, Petra and Madain Salih were part of the Thamud. The prophet Salih belonged to Madain Salih as is also mentioned in a Hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad). But, the term Al Hijr may be more applicable to Petra than Madain Salih. Whereas, Madain Salih was on an established route, that is why the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him happened to pass by the place. Al Hijr as described by the Holy Quran is not on a main route. See the pictures of narrow entrance called ‘Siq,’ of Petra, below. The Holy Quran states, as it talks about the people of Lot and then the people of the Wood and the people of the Hijr:

“Then the chastisement seized them at sunrise. We turned the city upside down, and We rained upon them stones of clay. Surely, in this there are Signs for people of intelligence. The city lies along a well known route. Surely, in this is a Sign for those who believe. The people of the Wood were also wrong doers; and We chastised them also. Both these cities lie along an easily identifiable way. The people of the Hijr also rejected the Messengers as liars. We gave them Our Signs too, but they turned away from them. They used to hew out houses in the mountains, dwelling therein in security. The chastisement seized them in the morning; and all that they had worked at availed them nothing.” (Al Quran 15:74-85)

In case of the people of Hijr there is no mention, in the Quran, of ‘well known route;’ additionally, there is mention of ‘dwelling therein in security,’ possibly alluding to the hidden entrance of Petra or Siq.

It is self evident that the inhabitants of Petra were Thamud. In this knol, I am proposing that they were that part of the Thamud that in the Holy Quran is referred to as Al Hijr.

Petra fits the bill for the Thamud, who were the descendents of the people of ‘Ad and in secular literature are called the Nabataeans. Thamud were the people who excelled in hewing mansions in the mountains and Petra is indeed the most spectacular example of that and as a result has been named a world wonder. Thamud, according to the Holy Quran were destroyed by earthquake. A big earthquake in 363 is known to have destroyed half of the town of Petra.

Please, read this article with my other article about the Thamud.

So travel through the earth and see what was the end of those who rejected the messengers.  (Al Quran 16: 37)

The Treasury at Petra

Where did the Thamud Nabataean who built Petra come from?  According to the Holy Quran they were descendents of the ‘Ad and migrated north from southern Arabia.  (Al Quran 7:73-74) According to Glen W Bowersock:

The people that we know as the Nabataean Arabs held a place on the historical stage for some eight hundred years. During this time they lived uninterruptedly alongside Jews, Greeks, Romans, and other Arabs, both nomadic and sedentary, throughout the long pre-Islamic cen­turies after Alexander the Great. Between the conquests of Alexander and Muhammad they occupied the territory of Transjordan (the modern Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan) as well as the northwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, south­ern Syria, and the Negev. For approximately the first half of the eight hundred years in which they can be tracked, the Nabataeans had an autonomous kingdom of their own, and for the second half they lived within provinces of the Roman Empire, notably the province of Arabia and a later configura­tion of two provinces called Third Palestine and Arabia. They were present, although in modest numbers, in Greek cities of the Decapolis at the margins of their homeland. The territo­rial extent of Nabataean culture across this long period remained essentially the same, bringing the people into close contact with their neighbors in Palestine and Syria. In the third century AD the deified Nabataean king Obodas was still worshipped at Avdat in the Negev, and in documents from the fourth century AD the northern Nabataean city of Bostra can still be described as a city of Syria.[1]

The Quranic term Al Hijr may be applicable to Petra rather than Madain Salih.  We have a few clues in the Holy Quran to identify the people of Al Hijr.

1.  They hew houses in mountains.

2.  Their ruins do no lie on a frequented highway (Caravan route).

3.  The earthquake that destroyed them struck in the morning.

4.  Their houses and inhabitation gave them a relative security.

Some of these clues are stated and some are implied from the context of the following verses of the Holy Quran:

The People of Hijr also rejected the Messengers as liars. We gave them Our Signs too, but they turned away from them. They used to hew out houses in the mountains, dwelling therein in security.  The chastisement seized them in the morning; and all that they had worked at availed them nothing.  (Al Quran 15:81-85)

Whereas some of these clues are applicable to Madain Salih but all of these are applicable to Petra.  Madain Salih lies on a known Caravan route and that was the reason why it is recorded in history that the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, had passed by Madain Salih.[2]  There is a narrow passage (Siq) that leads to Petra, that is shown in a picture below.

The Arabic word حجر ‘Hijr’ not only means a stone but also an enclosure, a chamber, an apartment or a tomb; possibly a fortress.[3]

Enclosed by towering rocks and watered by a perennial stream, Petra possessed the advantages of a fortress, offering the inhabitants a dwelling of security.  Al Hijr was indeed a befitting title for Petra.  Madain Saleh, that is in north of Madinah and has about 130 dwellings and tombs that extend over some 13 kilometers, cannot be considered to be an enclosure or a fortress, if we translate ‘Al Hijr’ as such.[4]

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


(Greek “πέτρα” (petra), meaning rock; Arabic: البتراء, Al-Batrāʾ) is a historic and archaeological city in the Jordanian governorate of Ma’an that has rock cut architecture and water conduits system. Established sometime around the 6th century BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans,[2] it is a symbol of Jordan as well as its most visited tourism attraction.[2] It lies on the slope of Mount Hor[3] in a basin among the mountains which form the eastern flank of Arabah (Wadi Araba), the large valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. Petra was chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007 and a World Heritage Site since 1985. Petra was chosen by the BBC as one of “the 40 places you have to see before you die”.[4]

The site remained unknown to the Western world until 1812, when it was introduced by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. It was described as “a rose-red city half as old as time” in a Newdigate Prize-winning sonnet by John William Burgon. UNESCO has described it as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage.”[5]


Pliny the Elder and other writers identify Petra as the capital of the Nabataeans, Aramaic-speaking Semites, and the centre of their caravan trade. Enclosed by towering rocks and watered by a perennial stream, Petra not only possessed the advantages of a fortress, but controlled the main commercial routes which passed through it to Gaza in the west, to Bosra and Damascus in the north, to Aqaba and Leuce Come on the Red Sea, and across the desert to the Persian Gulf.

File:Entrance to Petra.JPG

The end of the Siq, the narrow passage of Petra, with its dramatic view of Al Khazneh (The Treasury)

Excavations have demonstrated that it was the ability of the Nabataeans to control the water supply that led to the rise of the desert city, creating an artificial oasis. The area is visited by flash floods and archaeological evidence demonstrates the Nabataeans controlled these floods by the use of dams, cisterns and water conduits. These innovations stored water for prolonged periods of drought, and enabled the city to prosper from

its sale.[6][7] Petra is known as the Rose-Red City for the color of the rocks in which Petra is carved.


The narrow passage (Siq) that leads to Petra

Although in ancient times Petra might have been approached from the south via Saudi Arabia on a track leading around Jabal Haroun (“Aaron’s Mountain”), across the plain of Petra, or possibly from the high plateau to the north, most modern visitors approach the site from the east. The impressive eastern entrance leads steeply down through a dark, narrow gorge (in places only 3–4 m (9.8–13 ft) wide) called the Siq (“the shaft”), a natural geological feature formed from a deep split in the sandstone rocks and serving as a waterway flowing into Wadi Musa. At the end of the narrow gorge stands Petra’s most elaborate ruin, Al Khazneh (popularly known as “the Treasury”), hewn into the sandstone cliff.

File:Petra Jordan BW 36.JPG

El Deir (“The Monastery”)

A little further from the Treasury, at the foot of the mountain called en-Nejr, is a massive theatre, so placed as to bring the greatest number of tombs within view. At the point where the valley opens out into the plain, the site of the city is revealed with striking effect. The amphitheatre has been cut into the hillside and into several of the tombs during its construction. Rectangular gaps in the seating are still visible. Almost enclosing it on three sides are rose-colored mountain walls, divided into groups by deep fissures, and lined with knobs cut from the rock in the form of towers.


Evidence suggests that settlements had begun in and around Petra in the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt (1550-1292 BCE). It is listed in Egyptian campaign accounts and the Amarna letters as Pel, Sela or Seir. Though the city was founded relatively late, a sanctuary existed there since very ancient times. Stations 19 through 26 of the stations list of Exodus are places associated with Petra.[8] This part of the country was Biblically assigned to the Horites, the predecessors of the Edomites.[9] The habits of the original natives may have influenced the Nabataean custom of burying the dead and offering worship in half-excavated caves. Although Petra is usually identified with Sela which means a rock, the Biblical references[10] refer to it as “the cleft in the rock”, referring to its entrance. 2 Kings xiv. 7 seems to be more specific. In the parallel passage, however, Sela is understood to mean simply “the rock” (2 Chr. xxv. 12, see LXX).

On the authority of Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews iv. 7, 1~ 4, 7) Eusebius and Jerome (Onom. sacr. 286, 71. 145, 9; 228, 55. 287, 94) assert that Rekem was the native name and Rekem appears in the Dead Sea scrolls[11] as a prominent Edom site most closely describing Petra and associated with Mount Seir. But in the Aramaic versions Rekem is the name of Kadesh, implying that Josephus may have confused the two places.[citation needed] Sometimes the Aramaic versions give the form Rekem-Geya which recalls the name of the village El-ji, southeast of Petra. The capital, however, would hardly be defined by the name of a neighboring village.[citation needed] The Semitic name of the city, if not Sela, remains unknown. The passage in Diodorus Siculus (xix. 94–97) which describes the expeditions which Antigonus sent against the Nabataeans in 312 BCE is understood to throw some light upon the history of Petra, but the “petra” referred to as a natural fortress and place of refuge cannot be a proper name and the description implies that the town was not yet in existence.

The only place in Petra where the name “Rekem” occurs was in the rock wall of the Wadi Musa opposite the entrance to the Siq. About twenty years ago the Jordanians built a bridge over the wadi and this inscription was buried beneath tons of concrete.[12]

More satisfactory evidence of the date of the earliest Nabataean settlement may be obtained from an examination of the tombs. Two types may be distinguished: the Nabataean and the Greco-Roman. The Nabataean type starts from the simple pylon-tomb with a door set in a tower crowned by a parapet ornament, in imitation of the front of a dwelling-house. Then, after passing through various stages, the full Nabataean type is reached, retaining all the native features and at the same time exhibiting characteristics which are partly Egyptian and partly Greek. Of this type there exist close parallels in the tomb-towers at el-I~ejr in north Arabia, which bear long Nabataean inscriptions and supply a date for the corresponding monuments at Petra. Then comes a series of tombfronts which terminate in a semicircular arch, a feature derived from north Syria. Finally come the elaborate façades copied from the front of a Roman temple; however, all traces of native style have vanished. The exact dates of the stages in this development cannot be fixed. Strangely, few inscriptions of any length have been found at Petra, perhaps because they have perished with the stucco or cement which was used upon many of the buildings. The simple pylon-tombs which belong to the pre-Hellenic age serve as evidence for the earliest period. It is not known how far back in this stage the Nabataean settlement goes, but it does not go back farther than the 6th century BCE.

A period follows in which the dominant civilization combines Greek, Egyptian and Syrian elements, clearly pointing to the age of the Ptolemies. Towards the close of the 2nd century BCE, when the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms were equally depressed, the Nabataean kingdom came to the front. Under Aretas III Philhellene, (c.85–60 BCE), the royal coins begin. The theatre was probably excavated at that time, and Petra must have assumed the aspect of a Hellenistic city. In the reign of Aretas IV Philopatris, (9 BCE–40 CE), the fine tombs of the el-I~ejr [?] type may be dated, and perhaps also the great High-place.

Roman rule

In 106 CE, when Cornelius Palma was governor of Syria, that part of Arabia under the rule of Petra was absorbed into the Roman Empire as part of Arabia Petraea, becoming capital. The native dynasty came to an end. But the city continued to flourish. A century later, in the time of Alexander Severus, when the city was at the height of its splendor, the issue of coinage comes to an end. There is no more building of sumptuous tombs, owing apparently to some sudden catastrophe, such as an invasion by the neo-Persian power under the Sassanid Empire. Meanwhile, as Palmyra (fl. 130–270) grew in importance and attracted the Arabian trade away from Petra, the latter declined. It seems, however, to have lingered on as a religious centre. A Roman road was constructed at the site. Epiphanius of Salamis (c.315–403) writes that in his time a feast was held there on December 25 in honor of the virgin Khaabou (Chaabou) and her offspring Dushara (Haer. 51).


The Nabataeans worshipped the Arab gods and goddesses of the pre-Islamic times as well as few of their deified kings. One, Obodas I, was deified after his death. Dushara was the main male god accompanied by his female trinity: Al-‘Uzzá, Allat and Manāt. Many statues carved in the rock depict these gods and goddesses.

The Monastery, Petra’s largest monument, dates from the 1st century BCE. It was dedicated to Obodas I and is believed to be the symposium of Obodas the god. This information is inscribed on the ruins of the Monastery (the name is the translation of the Arabic “Ad-Deir”).

Christianity found its way to Petra in the 4th century CE, nearly 500 years after the establishment of Petra as a trade center. Athanasius mentions a bishop of Petra (Anhioch. 10) named Asterius. At least one of the tombs (the “tomb with the urn”?) was used as a church. An inscription in red paint records its consecration “in the time of the most holy bishop Jason” (447). After the Islamic conquest of 629–632 Christianity in Petra, as of most of Arabia, gave way to Islam. During the First Crusade Petra was occupied by Baldwin I of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and formed the second fief of the barony of Al Karak (in the lordship of Oultrejordain) with the title Château de la Valée de Moyse or Sela. It remained in the hands of the Franks until 1189. It is still a titular see of the Catholic Church.[13]

According to Arab tradition, Petra is the spot where Moses struck a rock with his staff and water came forth, and where Moses’ brother, Aaron, is buried, at Mount Hor, known today as Jabal Haroun or Mount Aaron. The Wadi Musa or “Wadi of Moses” is the Arab name for the narrow valley at the head of which Petra is sited. A mountaintop shrine of Moses’ sister Miriam was still shown to pilgrims at the time of Jerome in the 4th century, but its location has not been identified since.[14]


Petra declined rapidly under Roman rule, in large part due to the revision of sea-based trade routes. In 363 an earthquake destroyed many buildings, and crippled the vital water management system.[15] The ruins of Petra were an object of curiosity in the Middle Ages and were visited by Sultan Baibars of Egypt towards the end of the 13th century. The first European to describe them was Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812.

Because the structures weakened with age, many of the tombs became vulnerable to thieves, and many treasures were stolen.

Threats to Petra

The site suffers from a host of threats, including collapse of ancient structures, erosion due to flooding and improper rainwater drainage, weathering from salt upwelling, improper restoration of ancient structures, and unsustainable tourism.[16] The latter has increased substantially ever since the site was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.[17]

Official advertisement poster of the Jordan Tourism Board calling to cast a vote for Petra in the poll for the so-called “New Seven Wonders of the World“.

On December 6, 1985, Petra was designated a World Heritage Site.

In 2006 the design of a Visitor Centre began. The Jordan Times reported in December 2006 that 59,000 people visited in the two months October and November 2006, 25% fewer than the same period in the previous year.[18]

On July 7, 2007, Petra was named one of New Open World Corporation’s New Seven Wonders of the World.[19]

In popular culture

Petra was the main topic in John William Burgon‘s Poem Petra. Referring to it as the inaccessible city which he had heard described but had never seen. The Poem was awarded the Newdigate Prize in 1845 :

It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;

But from the rock as if by magic grown,

eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!

Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,

where erst Athena held her rites divine;

Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,

that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;

But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,

that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;

The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,

which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,

match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,

a rose-red city half as old as time.

The site is featured in films such as: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Arabian Nights, Passion in the Desert, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, the Sisters of Mercy music video “Dominion”, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It was recreated for the video games Spy Hunter (2001), King’s Quest V, Lego Indiana Jones and Sonic Unleashed and appeared in the novels Left Behind, Appointment with Death, The Eagle in the Sand and The Red Sea Sharks, the nineteenth book in The Adventures of Tintin series. It featured prominently in the Marcus Didius Falco mystery novel Last Act in Palmyra.

See also


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ a b Major Attractions: Petra,
  3. ^ Mish, Frederick C., Editor in Chief. “Petra.” Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. 9th ed. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1985. ISBN 0-87779-508-8
  4. ^ Davey, Steve. “Unforgettable Places To See Before You Die”, BBC, 12 December 2003.
  5. ^ UNESCO advisory body evaluation
  6. ^ Petra: Water Works
  7. ^ Geotimes — June 2004 — Petra: An Eroding Ancient City
  8. ^
    • 25. Mithcah – Nu. 33:28-29 associated with Petra on the borders of Moab and Edom near Petra.
    • 26. Hashmonah – Nu. 33:29-30 Ha Shmona Kiryat Shmona South
    • 27. Moseroth – Nu. 33:30-31 described as the place where Aaron died at the foot of Mt Hor (Petra)
    • 28. Bene-Jaakan – Nu. 33:31-32 the wells of Jaakan Near Mt Hor (Petra)
    • 29. Petra – Nu. 33:32-33 Siq The cleft of the mountain, the entrance to Petra
  9. ^ Genesis xiv. 6, xxxvi. 20–30; Deut. ii. 12.
  10. ^ Judges i. 36; Isaiah xvi. i, xlii. 11; Obad. 3.
  11. ^ 4Q462
  12. ^ Iain Browning, Petra, Chatto & Windus, 1974. p. 108. On page 109 there is a line drawing of the inscription, but the photograph is my own and the observation concerning the burial is also mine, based on some fifteen visits to Petra over the last 30 years.
  13. ^  “Petra”. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
  14. ^ Sacred Sites: Petra
  15. ^ Art Review; Rose-Red City Carved From the Rock – New York Times
  16. ^, Heritage at Risk 2004/2005: Petra
  17. ^ “Heritage Conservation Grips Jordan’s Petra Amid Booming Tourism”. Xinhua. November 3, 2007.
  18. ^ 31,926 tourists visit Petra last month
  19. ^ The Official New 7 Wonders of the Modern World


External links

Search Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Petra
Search Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Petra Church
  •, Preservation Projects Petra National Trust
  •, Interactive map of Old Petra
  •, “Solving the Enigma of Petra and the Nabataeans”, Biblical Archaeology Review
  •, “Petra Great Temple Excavations (Archaeological Data)”, Open Context Publication of Archaeological Data from the 1993-2006 Brown University Excavations at the Great Temple of Petra, Jordan


  1. Petra Rediscovered: Lost city of Nabataeans. Glen Markoe, General Editor. Harry N Abrams, Inc., Publishers, in association with the Cincinnati Art Museum, 2003. Page 19.
  3. Petra Rediscovered: Lost city of Nabataeans. Glen Markoe, General Editor. Harry N Abrams, Inc., Publishers, in association with the Cincinnati Art Museum, 2003.




Categories: Archeology, Jordan, Qur'an, Quran

9 replies

  1. Origin and defence strategy of the Nabataeans:

    According to Peter Parr:

    At the end of the fourth century BC, the ancestors of these people had been described by another Greek writer, Hieronymus of Cardia, in very different terms. Hieronymus-whose account, unfortunately, is known only from a summary in the Universal History (2.48-49; 19.94-100) of Diodorus Siculus, compiled three centuries later-had probably taken part in raids against the Nabataeansl instigated by Antigonus Monophthalmus in 312 BC, when the Macedonian army had twice attacked their stronghold, ‘a certain rock (…),’ which for obvious rea¬sons is generally identified with the later Nabataean capital of Petra. He had also served the same king as governor of the Dead Sea region, and his account of the Nabataeans has thus generally been accepted as being based on firsthand knowledge. The Nabataioi, he tells us, were an Arab people living in ‘the eastern parts’ of a region which he locates between Syria and Egypt. They were entirely nomadic, wandering with their flocks of sheep and camels through a countryside which was ‘partly desert, partly waterless, though a small section [was] fruitful,’ but resorting from time to time to brigandage and raiding their neighbors. They eschewed agriculture and permanent settlements of houses, which they judged made them more likely to be subjugated by others. Their diet consisted of meat and such edible wild plants as they could find, and they drank milk and a concoction of wild honey and water, totally avoiding wine. Anyone found contravening these customs could be punished by death. Unlike other nomadic tribes in the region they were reported to be skilled in the construction of underground cisterns, which enabled them, uniquely, to retreat far into the desert with their flocks in times of danger.

    Petra Rediscovered: Lost city of Nabataeans. Glen Markoe, General Editor. Harry N Abrams, Inc., Publishers, in association with the Cincinnati Art Museum, 2003. Page 27.

  2. Nabataeans of Petra were related to the Dedanite of Madain Salih:

    According to Peter Parr:

    “In the course of controlling their caravans and tending their flocks the Nabataeans would perforce have spent much of their time amongst the barren mountains and deserts of the Hejaz, but they must also have visited on business the cosmopolitan trading centers of Tayma and Dedan (and possibly others of which nothing yet is known) which, as we have seen, were established towns, with defensive walls, public buildings, monumental sculpture and inscriptions, and (probably) irrigation technology. The Nabataeans must also have been acquainted with the royal houses and political organization of these towns, and would have had contact with the foreign merchants who resided there. The ‘caravan cities’ of Tayma and Dedan and the small kingdoms that surrounded them must have played a large part in the Nabataeans’ lives, and it certainly cannot be supposed that their negative attitude towards ‘sedentary civilization,’ as reported by Hieronymus, was based on ignorance.

    What made them change their minds and, within a few generations, follow the example of their Taymanite, Dedanite, and Lihyanite predecessors, succumbing to the attractions of urban life and dynastic government? Although in the absence of written sources it is unlikely that we shall ever know the full answer.”

    Petra Rediscovered: Lost city of Nabataeans. Glen Markoe, General Editor. Harry N Abrams, Inc., Publishers, in association with the Cincinnati Art Museum, 2003. Page 35.

  3. Just a side-remark: Petra was re-discovered by the Swiss traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who, after converting to Islam was known under the name Sheikh Ibrahim ibn Abdullah. Some biographers state that his conversion to Islam was genuine while his own family considers it to be just for the purpose of ‘easier travel’ in Arab lands. Allah knows best.

    • Generally speaking it is not easy to ‘pretend to be a Muslim’ . Who can regularly get up at 4 am for the morning prayers without real conviction that a closer connection with Allah will benefit us in this life and the next? Therefore I tend to believe that Sheikh Ibrahim’s conversion to Islam was genuine.

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