What was Petra called before?

Petra, the famous archaeological site located in southern Jordan, has a long and storied history. Though it is commonly known as Petra today, this ancient city has gone by many different names throughout its existence.

The Earliest Evidence

The earliest evidence of settlement in Petra dates back over 9,000 years to the Neolithic period. During this time, groups of hunter-gatherers inhabited the region, living in basic encampments among the sandstone mountains. The earliest known name for the site was likely derived from the language of these prehistoric peoples.

Permanent settlement grew in the area over the ensuing centuries. By around 1,200 BCE, the Edomite tribe had established themselves in the region of Petra. They referred to the city as “Sela” or “Seir,” meaning rock or mountain in their Semitic language.

Nabataean Rule

Petra rose to prominence in the 4th century BCE, when it became the capital of the Nabataean empire. The Nabataeans dominated trade routes throughout the Middle East, growing rich from the caravan tolls they charged on valuable goods like spices and incense. Under Nabataean rule, Petra flourished as a center of trade and commerce in the desert.

The Nabataeans referred to their remarkable desert capital as “Raqmu” – a name that may have meant “the guarded, protected or concealed place.” Other interpretations suggest the name derives from the Arabic word for “height” or “high place.”

The Nabataeans carved spectacular tombs, temples and other structures out of the rose-colored sandstone cliffs surrounding their city. The most iconic of these is Al Khazneh, known as “The Treasury,” which was likely a tomb or temple created for a Nabataean king in the 1st century CE.

Roman Annexation

Eventually the growing might of Rome reached Petra. The Romans annexed the Nabataean kingdom in 106 CE under Emperor Trajan. They latinized the name to “Petra,” meaning rock.

Petra continued to thrive as a center of trade under Roman rule. The Romans constructed new buildings, including elaborate baths, villas and temples around the Nabataean city center. They also improved road infrastructure to facilitate commerce.

Yet the heyday of Petra had passed. The rise of sea trade routes slowly eroded the overland incense trade that Petra relied on. A series of earthquakes in the 4th century CE caused widespread destruction throughout the city. Petra steadily declined over the late Roman period, eventually being abandoned to the desert sands.

Byzantine and Islamic Periods

Petra remained inhabited on a much smaller scale during the Byzantine Empire between the 4th-7th centuries CE, when Christianity was established in the region. The city was known as the “Holy City” and housed a bishopric.

Under Islamic rule beginning in the 7th century CE, Petra became known by the Arabic name “Al Batrā.” The Crusaders later called it “Pierre Desert” when they briefly occupied the region during the 12th century CE.

19th Century Rediscovery

After centuries of obscurity, the Western world finally rediscovered Petra in 1812 thanks to Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Upon learning of the magnificent ruins hidden among the mountains of Jordan, Burckhardt adopted the alias of an Arab scholar and persuaded his Bedouin guide to take him there.

Burckhardt introduced Petra’s wonders to the Western world for the first time in over 500 years. News of the rediscovered city intrigued Europeans, who flocked to visit this ancient place lost to time and rumored to contain untold treasures.

But while the name Petra was used in the West, the Bedouin inhabitants of the region continued to call the ruins “Al Batrā” in their native Arabic language.

Petra Today

Petra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, bringing international recognition to this unique place. It was also named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.

Today Petra is Jordan’s most popular tourist attraction, drawing visitors from around the world to marvel at its magnificent ruins. The Bedouin no longer inhabit the ancient city, but live in the surrounding area.

In their language, they still refer to the place as “Al Batrā.” For them, the name holds over a thousand years ofhistory and tradition. But Petra remains the common name worldwide for this incredible remnant of ancient civilization.

Key Facts

Time Period Name Given By
9000 – 6000 BCE Unknown Neolithic hunter-gatherers
1200 – 106 BCE Sela or Seir Edomite tribe
4th century BCE – 106 CE Raqmu Nabataean empire
106 – 4th century CE Petra Romans
4th – 7th century CE Holy City Byzantine Christians
7th century – present Al Batrā Local Bedouin Arabs
1812 – present Petra Western explorers


Over thousands of years of human history, the place we know today as Petra has had many different names. To ancient civilizations like the Nabataeans, it was known as Raqmu. The Edomites called it Sela in their Semitic tongue. In Arabic, it has been called Al Batrā for over a millennium.

But the name that has stuck in popular consciousness is Petra, derived from the Greek word for “rock” given by the Romans. Petra captures the enduring essence of this city carved from ancient sandstone. By any name, this remarkable archaeological site remains one of the world’s greatest treasures.

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