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The story of Petra starts with a nomadic people called the Nabataeans who settled the area in the 4th century BC. The land there was mountainous with many valleys and deep canyons. Today, the site of Petra seems to be a foolish place to build a city: it is dry and arid with limited space for farming and houses. In ancient times, however, the area was the crossroads of several important trade routes. Only here could the caravans carrying valuable goods make their way through the high mountain ridges to reach the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The Nabataeans enforced a toll and provided safe passage for travelers as well as access to water. Soon Petra became their most important city.
Commercial traffic to and from Petra increased steadily as caravans (sometimes with as many as a thousand camels) fed the demand for incense, textiles, spices, ivory and precious metals in Rome, Greece and Egypt. Durin