The following article first appeared in MaRKETS magazine under the title "Petra: Lost to the Ages" (June/July 1997 issue)
Deep in the Jordanian desert is a wondrous city, thousands of years old, carved into living rock. A mysterious Semitic tribe, the Nabateans, sculpted these houses and temples by cutting away sections of the rose-colored cliffs, leaving behind huge lavishly decorated facades on structures of seamless stone. Local legend says these grand monuments were made not by the Nabateans, but by the desert spirits (djinn), enslaved by their powerful king. Reachable only by a hidden path, the city was lost to the ages until a Swiss explorer (disguised as a Moslem so that he might survive his expedition) rediscovered it in 1812. Such tales and descriptions - the very idea of a city carved in relief straight from the cliffs - seems impossibly romantic. But Petra does exist, and despite a millennium of neglect, it is still inspiring.
The "hidden path" that connects Petra to the outside world is the Bab-es-Siq, a narrow "defile" cleft through a mile of Nubian sandstone. Its walls rise 90 meters on both sides, making it easy to miss from the outside. Once in the Siq, you see only a small strip of sky. Following the remains of a Roman road, you discover inscriptions (graffiti, if you will) in numerous languages, the legacy of visitors from everywhere in the ancient world.
Through this well-hidden entrance have come modern adventurers, too: Johann Burckhardt, who discovered Petra for the West; T.E. Lawrence, whose exploits in the Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I inspired the movie "Lawrence of Arabia"; Richard Halliburton, who wrote of his travels in purple prose for 1920's America; Sean Connery and Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones flick "The Final Crusade," and Israel's late leader, Yitzhak Rabin, remembered for his 1995 visit (which preceded my own by only a day).
Once a nomadic tribe in northern Arabia, the Nabateans became rich by controlling (and taxing) an important section of the India-to-Egypt trade routes. They offered guides, protection, and stopover points - in effect, small trading post towns - with water, shelter, and merchants. The Nabateans' influence grew over the centuries, and by the 3rd century B.C.E. they were known as far away as China. From that time until the 2nd century C.E., they carved their capital, Petra, into a city with the most modern comforts of the day. There was an immense 8,000 seat amphitheatre, a two-story paved and colonnaded marketplace, and an advanced system of water channels with fitted clay pipes that lead into a network of cisterns, as well as a public fountain. But Petra's greatest fame lay in its elaborate architectural facades which are still in excellent condition.
The number, scale, and detail of these facades make the stories of magical spirits seem plausible: Up to 50 meters tall and 60 meters wide, the exteriors are covered with intricate designs and statues. The city itself runs the length of a long winding wadi (a gorge cut by prehistoric rivers) with numerous side paths and steps leading to an inexhaustible array of monuments, cisterns, tombs, and altars.
The Pharaoh's Treasury
The most famous of Petra's monuments is undoubtedly the Khasnat Faroun, or Pharaoh's Treasury, a perfect example of ornate Hellenic design. Carvings of jars, vines, animals, and gods adorn its 40-meter façade, topped by a sculpted "great urn," an ancient symbol of wealth. According to legend, the urn is filled with all the gold treasure hunters had hoped to find inside the building itself. Beyond its columns and the lintel that once held a huge door are three rooms. They are square and very plain in contrast to the lavish exterior.
At the opposite end of Petra sits a massive edifice referred to as Ad-Deir, or Monastery (although it never served as such for the Nabateans). While similar in Hellenic design to the Treasury, it is much wider, and its long lines are uninterrupted by delicate decoration. The simplicity leaves the visitor undistracted from its great size, and the result is a feeling of solidity that is profoundly majestic and appropriate to its spare, dessert setting.
Rising above the city, with these structures at either end, are hills and mountains that were important religious sites for the Nabateans. On one peak, reached by the stairs cut over two-millennia ago, the mountain top was cut away until an alter and two four-meter obelisks remained. These were dedicated to the god Dushara and his consort Allat, perhaps so they could look out over the city which worshipped them. The pair are an emblem for this city of rock; Dushara means "Lord of the Shara mountains."
If planning a trip to these ancient ruins, it's important to note that modern Jordan is extremely diverse and tourist-friendly. Petra, especially, attracts a daily stream of visitors from all over Europe, Asia, and the Arab world. Visas are easily obtained, and travel within the country is reliable and safe. Locals often learn a smattering of all major European languages, particularly English, but it does help to know a few words of Arabic: Basic phrases such as marhaba (hello), shukran (thank you), and nahar ek sayeed (good day) are enough to break the ice.
Because Petra's scale and scope are so overpowering, it helps to befriend the local residents. Their intimate familiarity with the ruins offers a human perspective on a scene that can otherwise border on the surreal. I myself began to feel truly at ease only after a Bedouin family invited me to relax with them during the hottest part of the day. Their comfortable shelter was on top of an outcropping of rock, in the shade of one of the Nabatean carved boulders the locals refer to as "djinn blocks." There we lounged, drinking "Bedouin whiskey" (tea) and eating a light lunch of cheese, dates, and flavorful folds of pita - the thin pocket bread that is a staple of Arab cuisine. As we sat casually discussing history and politics, my eyes grew accustomed to the impossible grandeur of the scenery around us.
Watching the wide valley spread out before me in the lazy midday heat and enjoying the stories of this generous family, I realized their views are very different from those of the archeologists and guidebook writers. To the locals, the hundreds of tombs cut into the cliffs weren't simply sites of burial and ritual, but places to eat, interact, and generally live. Petra wasn't just the necropolis described by the tour guides, but a vibrant, thriving metropolis. To the Bedouin who have always lived there, Petra has never been "lost to the ages." As I said to my host, Ibrahim, "You know, I traveled 6,000 miles to see your backyard."
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