Photographs by Firoze Edassery
Some places don’t have history – they are history. Petra is without doubt the most spectacular remains of antiquity. Curiosity Middle East on a tour of Jordan’s ‘rose-red city’ that still hides many untold secrets…
Petra, the ancient Nabatean trading city carved into the rose-red rocks is one of the world’s best known and most magnetic tourist sites. No matter what you know of this Jordanian marvel – nothing quite prepares you for the experience of being there. With an aura of a lost city, it surprises with its secrets, natural beauty and archeological richness. Petra is half-built, half-carved into the rock, and is surrounded by mountains riddled with passages and gorges. It was beautifully captured by Steven Spielberg, who filmed the last scenes of ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ there.
Petra lies south of Amman, the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, hidden away on the edge of the mountainous desert of Wadi Araba, surrounded by towering hills of sandstone which gave the city some natural protection against invaders. It is merely three hours drive from Amman and one hour from Aqaba.
The Nabataeans, a Semitic tribe recognized Petra’s strategic location for trade and lived in the valley from about the 6th century B.C. through the early years of the second century A.D. It was for centuries the meeting point of the main routes used by camel caravans transporting spices between the Mediterranean and the Near East, Africa and India and prospered until trade routes changed. When the kingdom was annexed by Emperor Trajan of Rome in A.D. 106, it became one of the empire’s most important trading centers. In the fourth century, it continued to be an important political outpost for the Byzantine empire, becoming the seat of a bishopric. But the city soon began to fall into decline. Petra sank into obscurity after a shift in trade routes that was followed by two powerful earthquakes, one in A.D. 363 and a second in 551. It was then that Petra’s importance slowly faded along with its vitality.
Over the centuries, Petra was known only to occasional plunderers and the Bedouins who remained in the area. It was altogether unknown to the rest of the world until 1812, when a Swiss explorer Burckhardt, masquerading as an Arab in Egypt, heard tales of an ancient city in the mountains 250 miles to the east and coaxed a guide to take him there.
Petra is now a United Nations World Heritage Site. It is best seen just before dawn with the first rays of sun that slowly light up the fascinating façade of the 2,000-year-old treasury building – painting it rose red. The entrance to Petra, hidden deep inside a canyon, is through a famous cleft in the rocks, the Siq.
Along the rock walls of the Siq there is a succession of inscriptions, niches and small votive altars, but also reliefs and sculptures that depict a caravan of men and camels. Once inside, the Siq narrows to little more than 5 metres in width, whereas the walls tower up hundreds of metres on either side. The floor, originally paved, is now largely covered with soft sand, although evidence of Nabataean construction can still be seen in some places.
Carved into the canyon wall in the first century B.C., the Treasury (Khazneh) stands 130 feet high and suggests Hellenistic and Middle Eastern influences with intricate figures and patterns between columns and inside pediments. The Treasury has no real interior space, just a large room with recessed areas on the side.
North from the Khazneh lies the massif of Jebel Khubtha. Three large structures (Royal Tombs) are carved into the rock face, which is known as the King’s Wall. First is the Urn Tomb, a well- preserved monument that faces on to an open terrace fronted by a double row of vaults. The Corinthian Tomb, a smaller version of the Khazneh, is followed by the Palace Tomb (Silk Tomb), named from the extraordinary chromatic effect of the rock. Some distance away from the Royal Tombs, to the north, there is a tomb built for the Roman governor of the city under Hadrian, Sextius Florentinus.
The ancient city revels in dramatic contrasts between shadow and intense light as Venetian alleys open up into spaces where horses can canter past pedestrians. Interspersed through the rock formations that rise in the distance are remnants of tombs.
There are also noteworthy relics from Roman times: at the southern edge of the valley stands the 1st century AD theatre, carved almost entirely in the rock, which could hold more than 8,000 spectators, while at the end of the Siq the ruins open out of the colonnaded way.
Petra’s other famous facade is Ad Deir known as the Monastery that sits atop a plateau accessible only by a winding trail of narrow steps. It is less ornate and looms over a smaller plaza than the Treasury’s. The structure of the interior is devoid of any funeral installation.
Few tourists venture beyond Petra’s main sites but there is plenty to look around. The weather-worn rockface is peppered with ancient dwellings – some unfinished such as vestiges of an urban sprawl that came to an abrupt halt. Of particular significance is Jebel Haroun that is one of the holiest site in Jordan. Here Prophet Musa’s brother Haroun is buried. A trip there and back takes about six hours from Petra City Centre involving a strenuous climb of almost 500 metres.
Spring is the best time to visit Petra when the days are warm and sunny, when black irises grow in clumps along Petra’s King’s Highway and fig trees sprout out of crevices in the walls of the narrow gorge that marks the entrance to the ancient city. No matter what the season, Petra glows with its serenity, history and enigma.