Petra. This UNESCO world Heritage site, among the 7 modern wonders of the world is pretty much on every traveller’s bucket list. It’s been on mine too. This is one of those times “going offbeat, being un-touristy” just makes no sense. There’s a reason Petra’s on so many of these iconic lists, and I’ll be damned if I don’t go explore it for myself.
Petra is subtle
Contrastingly, there’s nothing mainstream about the Petra experience. It hasn’t been over-run by a slew of modernised conveniences, dramatic exaggerations or impassive narrations. For all of its impressive (and avant-garde) features, for everything that I will wax eloquent about in this post and the one to follow, Petra is humble. Unassuming, quiet and subtle in a way that will only draw you further in. And this is a characteristic so intrinsic to Petra’s personality, that you will notice it is a recurring theme since its very beginning.
The beginning of Petra
Over 2000 years ago, a nomadic Arabian tribe called the Nabateans mysteriously decided to set up home in one of the most unforgiving terrains in the world. This city was built with a precision and planning that stuns historians, architects and engineers even today. From the rock, they carved homes, tombs, temples and other living quarters into the sandstone cliffs of what is today Southern Jordan. The name of this city comes from the Greek word for rock, befitting what it is made of – beautiful rose coloured hues and striations. In a desert region, so far removed from any source of water, they built incredibly complex pipe networks, dams and reservoirs channeling 40 million litres of fresh spring water each day. While several theories have since arisen, about how they managed to carve at such a height without wood scaffolding, or how they devised such a hydro-engineering marvel even before the concept of angles was born, much is still shrouded in mystery. Reminiscent of the alien theories in South America, don’t you think?
The flourishing of Petra
However they did it, they did wonders. Creating a Vegas of sorts in the middle of nowhere. A flourishing oasis with fountains and trees, promenades and passages, tombs and temples, homes and businesses. Business. That was the secret to their wealth. Their ingenuity would put modern commercial giants to shame. They found fortune in being at the crossroads to Europe, for traders carrying luxury goods like Frankincense, Myrrh and spices. They were the toll booths, the tax collectors and the guides without whom a foreigner couldn’t hope to survive the journey across this harsh land. Coming into contact with even people from India, influences from across the globe are seen to have been infused into their architectural style.
The fall of Petra
They adopted Greek styles (including some of their Gods), coming under the Roman Emperor Trajan’s rule for 3 centuries before going on to the Byzantines and becoming an important centre of Christianity between the fifth and sixth centuries. And then, they disappeared into oblivion for centuries. A long timeline of earthquakes that left columns and sculptures in rubble, and cliff faces in desolation.
The rediscovery of Petra
Over time, the local bedouins of Wadi Musa protected it as a fierce secret from treasure hunters and the ilk, but stories of the lost city had begun spreading to a select few in the western world. When the first explorer met with an untimely death before he found it, another one – Jean Louis Buckhardt in the early 1800s made a curious detour on his search for the mouth of the Niger river. And wrote home of the rock-cut tombs of the Treasury and the Theatre. Today, archeologists are still digging deep and unearthing pieces of Petra’s fascinating story.
My discovery of Petra
Walking from the Visitor Centre towards the Siq was an excellent introduction to the landscape and natural topography of the area. Weathered rocks rose from the sandy ground on either side of our path, some with cave like structures in them. “The way to differentiate is a tomb will have decorations but a home won’t,” our guide informed us, pointing to the steplike designs that sat above gaping holes in these rocks, leading into cool, dark crevices within. We watched horse carriages gallop past us, kicking up a storm of dust as we trudged the long path, sweltering under the mid-day sun. Finally we reached a sign, one that pointed us towards the Siq – the ravine or canyon that gives Petra it’s well guarded and dramatic entrance. Two guards dressed in a way that reminded me of the Gladiators outside the Colosseum stood sentinel on either side of the narrow path leading through the rocks.
Strolling through the Siq
Glad to finally have some respite from the harsh sun, we walked in. Overwhelmed by the rocks looming tall above us on either side. It was a world unlike anything I’d seen before. In a single file, we attempted to follow our guide, with constant temptations to stop and photograph this surreal space. The tall walls created a resounding echo, and we knew well in advance to jump out of the way of horse carriages just by the unmistakably thunderous clatter of their hooves coming up from either direction. The rocks swirled and twisted, jutted out in jagged edges, creating a chiaroscuro effect of the most wonderful abstract patterns, only furthering the dream-like state we were in. Stopping at strange niches in the walls that were once temples to Nabatean Gods, we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of horses, carriages, mules, camels and people that have ever passed over this narrow cobblestone path. We saw the paltry remnants of a caravan of camels carved out of the rock, the impressions of where pipelines were once lodged into the rock and kept on walking, fascinated by every little thing around.
Laying eyes on the Treasury
Then suddenly, rather unexpectedly, we saw the light at the end of the tunnel. At the end, through the narrowest sliver of space, the iconic view of the Treasury, glowing bright in the sun peeped through at us. I’ve seen this photograph a million times all over the internet. But nothing can prepare you for the excited goosebumps that run down your skin at this very moment. Standing there, looking up at this iconic structure, I couldn’t help but imagine, was this the same kind of excitement traders and travellers felt when they first caught site of this oasis city of stone? I could well imagine they’d gone days without seeing any sign of civilisation through the harshest desert terrain and suddenly, there’s this larger than life city that’s welcoming, hospitable and dripping with wealth, comfort and luxury. Walking through, the space suddenly opens up to a fascinating entrance. A couple of camels sit right before this structure, while horse carriages, mules, bedouins and tourists mill about. The name, “Al Kazneh” or the treasury is a local name, but in no way denotes what actually lay within this beautifully etched out sandstone relief. It was a tomb, and the urn on the top is a funerary one. From where we were standing, the beautiful corinthian capitals stretched halfway to the sky, meeting the sun at some point. I remember watching a documentary, where architects and stonework specialists tried to retrace, recreate and solve the mystery of how the Nabateans managed to craft this larger than life glorious and impressive structure. Visitors used to be allowed to step into the cool, dark tomb but now that archeologists have discovered a graveyard beneath, the excavation has removed all access. We stood there for a while, gazing up at this thing of beauty while our guide pointed out its various features. I was transfixed. Almost forgetting to take photographs. Thankfully on my way out, it was far less crowded, so I managed some then.
The treasury was merely the first milestone in our long Petra journey, one that barely covered this gigantic site. There is so much to tell you and show you of this wondrous place, that I have had to split it into multiple blog posts. Stay tuned for the next part!
This post was made possible by the Jordan Tourism Board. Opinions as always are our own.