April 3, 2022. 99°F/37°C
Petra, by John William Burgon, 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that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;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.
We’ve heard the last line of the poem above several times as we got ready to visit Petra, but today our very knowledgeable guide Ajahd surprised us by quoting the entire thing from memory as we stood in the Siq just before our first glimpse of The Treasury.
The marvel that is the ancient city of Petra was hewn out of solid rock by Nabateans around 312 BC, but it reached its peak between 50 BC and 50 AD. “Petra” actually means stone – think “petrified”.
It fell to the Roman Empire in 106 AD, and the Nabateans came under Roman rule. The city’s ultimate abandonment though could have been for many different reasons: a huge earthquake in 363 AD, a massive flash flood in the 7th century, or even just the fact that it was no longer a major stop on the spice and incense trade route. Scholars really don’t know for sure, but the site ended up empty, ignored, and mostly (except by a few nomadic Bedouins, and for a short while by the Crusaders) forgotten to the point that it was referred to as “lost”.
Even now, only about 15% has been excavated since it was “rediscovered” in 1812 by Swiss explorer John Lewis Burckhardt.
Modern tourists, including us, recognize the facade of Al Khazneh, “the Treasury”, a giant, ornately carved sandstone temple, as the place where the Holy Grail was found in the movie Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. I “get” that connection, but personally care more that Agatha Christie’s novel “Appointment With Death” was set here.
April is said to be the best month to visit, but it is still very very hot, and not an easy place to access.
En route, we began to get an idea of how spectacular southern Jordan’s geography is, with vari-coloured mountains and rock formations that rival anything we’ve seen so far in our travels.
We also saw camel crossing signs on the highway, and witnessed the reason why.
Despite spending 3 hours in Petra, we only explored HALF of the main trail. We didn’t get to the Nymphaeum, the Church, the Colonnaded Street, the Great Temple, or the Monastery… yet what we did see was breathtaking.
Once through the visitor centre and ticket control we began our walk toward Petra’s ancient city centre.
There are many ways to explore Petra. We walked, but there are horses from the Visitor Centre to the Siq, horse-drawn carriages – or golf carts – from the Visitor Centre to the Treasury, and some very mellow camels from the Treasury to the Royal Tombs.
The first landmarks we passed were three “Djinn Blocks”, cubes cut from the sandstone. Each is a small tomb, but ancient legend asserted that they were the homes of a djinn (genie).
Across from the Djinn Blocks is the Obelisk Tomb, with its four pyramids and a niche containing a statue in bas-relief symbolizing the 5 people buried there. Below the pyramid level is another triclinium, or banquet hall.
On the opposite cliff face an inscription in Greek and Nabatean refers to who the burial monument was built for, around 40-70 AD.
This 88 metre/288 ft long tunnel was carved out of the rock to divert waters from flash floods into the network of aqueducts and cisterns built by the Nabateans. In 1963, a group of 22 French tourists and their guide who had ignored the signs indicating the tunnel is out of bounds to pedestrians were drowned. In November of 2018, flash floods forced the evacuation of almost 4000 tourists from Petra; fortunately there were no fatalities.
The Petra tourist site describes the Siq as “the ancient main entrance leading to the city of Petra, starting at the Dam and ending at the opposite side of the vault, a split rock with a length of about 1200m and a width of 3 to 12m, and height up to about 80m; most of the rock is natural and another part was sculptured by the Nabataeans.” That’s 3/4 of a mile long, only 10 feet wide at its narrowest and 40 feet wide at its widest, and up to 260 feet tall. With those tall walls, it’s the darkest and coolest part of our day – also the most spectacular, hence lots of pictures demonstrating just how jaw-droppingly magnificent it is.
The Siq is a natural formation. The rock was split by an earthquake millions of years ago when it was still under water. Not only is the rock amazing colours, with clearly visible striations and layering, but it is also full of shells and marine life fossils!
There are also the remains of huge sculptures, like this one of a camel caravan. Only the camels” hooves and the bottom half of the tunic and sandal-wearing trader remain. The problem with sandstone is that it is easily eroded by wind and water.
As the Siq opens to the sunlight…..
The Pharoah’s Treasury, actually a tomb topped by a triclinium (a large meeting/dining room) and temple is 40 metres/131 ft high, 91 ft wide, and almost completely intact. It is the funerary urn near the top which legend says contained the pharaoh’s gold. The triangular entry decoration and Corinthian columns are evidence of the Greek influence on the Nabateans. The goddess Isis in the centre niche above the entrance is evidence of Egyptian influence. This building likely dates to the first century BC, and like the other structures in Petra would have been carved from the top down. On either side of the Treasury are square footholds carved into the stone, which would have allowed workers to climb up to scaffolds.
Protected by iron grids, the tombs of Nabatean King Aretas IV and his two wives can be seen.
A few of our group had had enough walking at this point, and turned back. The rest of us continued on with our guide.
Some things I’m going to want someday to remember about Ajahd, our guide:
- He had a background in archeology, and had supplemented that with an intensive 6 month course specifically on Petra.
- He could quote beautiful poetry ad hoc from memory.
- He was a real Bedouin, born and raised near Petra, and had herded sheep as a very young man before going to university.
- Despite it being Ramadan and not having ingested “anything but air” since before sunrise, he (mostly) retained his patience in 99°F/37°C heat with a group of seniors who were about as distractible as a group of 5th graders on a field trip. Talk about herding cats!
- He was very conscious at all times of being respectful of his “guests”. This, perhaps, will be the big takeaway for us from our travels in the Middle East: the graciousness of the people we met.
After the Treasury, we walked to the Street of Facades, a row of huge tombs carved into the cliff face.
We also visited a tomb that was hewn into the most beautifully layered rock I have ever seen. Iron, sulfur, copper, bitumen and more create these vibrant stripes.
We continued on to the amphitheatre, which was created by the Nabateans but expanded by the Romans. Hewn into the rock are two arched entrance halls, one for wealthy patrons and the other for “normal” people (those the Romans would have called plebes – Nabateans, unlike Romans, enslaved no one).
Our last stop, before having to retrace our steps and return to our bus , was the area of the Royal Tombs.
Our visit to Petra was followed by a wonderful lunch of Jordanian dishes (the artichoke salad with a fresh squeeze of lemon on it was particularly delicious), and a cup of thick sweet Turkish coffee. Then on the way home, we were detoured to a rest stop to be greeted by members of our amazing Viking crew, along with officers, and treated to dates, baklava, and cool spiced tea. They think of everything.
My completely extravagant purchase today: a large camel hair and silk wrap with hand-stitched embroidery.
It was yet another fabulous day, with a gorgeous view from our balcony after dark.
Side note: Petra is most definitely a tourist site. There are vendors of all kinds everywhere, but it actually makes the experience more authentic. The Nabateans were, after all, primarily master middlemen and traders.