Deep in the mountains of the Arabah Valley lies Petra. The vast city is carved into the pinkish sandstone near the Dead Sea and the Israel-Jordan border. In ancient times, Arab tribesmen dug tunnels to protect the area from flash floods. Today, flooding is still a life-threatening concern. Now a network of warning systems alerts visitors if floodwater rushes toward the low-lying city.
Over 2,000 years ago, nomads built hundreds of buildings—baths, houses, temples, tombs, even a 3,000-seat open-air theatre—at Petra. The city became a trade center for silks, spices, and other goods from China, Egypt, Greece, India, Italy, and Syria. Additionally, many Bible scholars believe Edom, Mount Hor, Sela, or the Valley of Salt, refer to the area around Petra.
In 363, an earthquake destroyed most of Petra’s buildings. By the 700s, Petra was almost completely abandoned. It was not until 1812 that a Swiss explorer seeking the grave of the biblical Aaron discovered the hidden gem.
Today, Petra is Jordan’s biggest tourist attraction. About 600,000 tourists visited the site last year.
Entrance to Petra is through a narrow, three-quarter-mile gorge, flanked on both sides by towering rock cliffs. But the geographic features that make Petra unique also threaten it: Petra is flood-prone. The dry climate and the rock face can channel ferocious floodwaters into the city. In minutes, visitors to Petra can become trapped in rapidly rushing—sometimes deadly—waters.
Jordan’s Department of Antiquities built a dam to keep water from entering the canyon leading to Petra’s main attraction, the Treasury building. In 2014, they added an alarm system. Sirens blare when water rises above a certain level.
The Petra Tourism Region Authority has other emergency measures in place too. Mountaintop rangers watch for possible flooding. Onsite guides are ready to help tourists.
Floods hit Petra hard this year. In November, alarms went off for the first time. Sirens sounded minutes before a stream swollen by heavy rains rushed toward the site. The measures worked. Video posted online showed visitors running through a steep, narrow canyon leading to the Treasury, as guides urged them to hurry. People formed human chains to help each other find higher ground. Emergency personnel eventually evacuated 3,762 tourists without a single mishap.
Sakher Al Nsour of the Jordan Geologists Association believes Petra’s emergency measures kept this year’s flood from becoming the kind of tragedy that took place elsewhere in the country. “We can’t prevent natural disasters from occurring. But what we can do is lessen the negative impact,” Al Nsour says. “That can save lives.”