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The successful terrace farming of wheat, grapes and possibly olives, resulted in a vast, green, agricultural ‘suburb’ to Petra in an otherwise inhospitable, arid landscape. This terrace farming remained extensive and robust through the third century. Based on surface finds and comparative data collected by other researchers in the area, however, it is clear that this type of farming continued to some extent for many centuries, until the end of the first millennium (between AD 800 and 1000). That ancient Petra was under extensive cultivation is a testament to past strategies of land management, and is all the more striking in light of the area’s dry and dusty environment today.
“No doubt the explosion of agricultural activity in the first century and the increased wealth that resulted from the wine and oil production made Petra an exceptionally attractive prize for Rome. The region around Petra not only grew enough food to meet its own needs, but also would have been able to provide olives, olive oil, grapes and wine for trade. This robust agricultural production would have made the region a valuable asset for supplying Roman forces on the empire’s eastern frontier,” said lead author Christian Cloke, a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati.
“In other words, successful terrace farming and water management when Petra was at its zenith as a trading center added not only to the city’s economic importance but to its strategic military value as well, because there were limited options in the region for supplying troops with essential supplies,” added Dr Cecelia Feldman Weiss, a classics lecturer at UMass-Amherst. “Perhaps most significantly,” Cloke said, “it’s clear that they had considerable knowledge of their surrounding topography and climate. The Nabataeans differentiated watersheds and the zones of use for water: water collected and stored in the city itself was not cannibalized for agricultural uses. The city’s administrators clearly distinguished water serving the city’s needs from water to be redirected and accumulated for nurturing crops. Thus, extensive farming activity was almost entirely outside the bounds of the city’s natural catchment area and utilized separate watersheds and systems of runoff.”
Bibliographic information: Chris Cloke & Cecelia Feldman Weiss. On the Rocks: Landscape Modification and Archaeological Features in Petra’s Hinterland. AIA/APA 2013