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!...
Match me such a marvel save in Eastern clime,
A rose-red city - 'half as old as Time'!
from Petra, by J. W. Burgon, 1845
Petra does that to people, even now in this unromantic age – astounds, intrigues, dumbfounds, exhilarates, inspires – two thousand years after its heyday. It is one of the world’s great rediscoveries, a place that seems more a work of the imagination than real, a fevered creation of the Thousand and One Nights rather than a historical fact.
The ancient city of the Nabataeans was lost to the world for a millennium until chanced upon by the intrepid Swiss explorer J L Burckhardt in 1812, travelling in Arabia in the muslim guise of Ibrahim ibn Abdallah. Hearing from the Bedouin of wondrous antiquities in a secret valley, well guarded in the belief that hidden treasure lay there, Burckhardt "pretended to have made a vow to slaughter a goat in honour of Haroun [biblical Aaron] whose tomb I knew was situated at the extremity of the valley, and by this stratagem I thought I should have the means of seeing the valley in my way to the tomb."
It worked: Bedouin cameleers guided him through the secret portal, and he wrote rapturously of his findings. The legend of Petra's beauty spread fast, not least to the English poet J. W. Burgon who captured its incomparable romance in purple verse, without ever having been there. Today Petra is Jordan's top tourist attraction and one of the most eulogised sights in the world, yet a visit to it is still full of the joy of discovery.
Few places on earth have such a magical gateway as Petra. You ride a horse down a trail through russet-coloured mountains which soon enclose you in a twisting gorge only a few metres wide. On either side sandstone walls rise in multi-coloured layers as high as one hundred metres, the sky almost vanishes, the defile ever narrows, and winds inexorably downward.
Nature made the fissure in some primeval jolt, yet there are signs of man everywhere, from Nabataean water courses and tombs cut in the walls to remnants of Roman paving. The Arabs, like the boy who leads your horse, head protected from sun and dust by the traditional red-and-white chequered cloth, call it the Siq. It is spellbinding, but still better is to come. Let Gertrude Bell, noted English traveller and archaeologist writing in 1900, take over here.
"We went on in ecstasies until suddenly between the narrow opening of the rocks, we saw the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. Imagine a temple cut out of the solid rock, the charming facade supported on great Corinthian columns standing clear, soaring upwards to the very top of the cliff in the most exquisite proportions and carved with groups of figures almost as fresh as when the chisel left them - all this in the rose red rock, with the sun just touching it and making it look almost transparent."
Why this wonder in this place? The answer in two words is water and trade, lots of both. The Nabataeans were an Arab tribe who controlled the only good water supply at a major crossing of the caravan routes of the ancient Middle East. From the 4th century BC, they established themselves amidst mountains endowed with springs, collected rainfall in cisterns upon mountain plateaus, and ran systems of water courses and irrigation channels. On hillside terraces grew orchards of almonds, pistachios and peaches. Well defended in the mountain redoubt of Petra, the Nabataeans charged high taxes on the oriental riches which passed through their territory.
There came incense from Dhofar, pearls from the Persian Gulf, silk from China, spices and cotton from India, in caravans that toiled their way north from Arabia headed for the Levant: Palestine, Syria and Egypt, the great cities of Damascus and Alexandria. With high taxes and sharp trading, prices doubled in transit through Petra. The Nabataeans became immensely wealthy and built elaborate tombs and monuments, many of them carved out of the sandstone cliff faces that walled their city in the valley. Their style was strongly influenced by the great powers of the region, first the Greeks, then the Romans. Gertrude Bell enthused: "It is like a fairy tale city, all pink and wonderful."
Her thrill at the approach to Petra's first great monument was lately shared by a worldwide audience in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The Corinthian marvel is called the Treasury on account of the Bedouins' belief that it contained hidden treasure, particularly an upper urn-shaped portion which is pock-marked by the bullets of hopefuls shooting for the jackpot - a gush of gold from on high!
Market stalls stood here in antiquity; souvenir stalls do today. For a couple of Jordanian pounds, you can have your name written in a bottle of multicoloured sand.
From here the gorge widens and, still dropping, leads past a 4,000 seat semi-circular theatre carved in the mountainside. Impressive though this is, the real beauty of this stretch is on a small scale: the exquisitely eroded tomb facades on the rock faces, worn by the gritty desert winds into lovely smooth forms highlighted by layered colours of pink and russet and cream.
The cliffs recede, the terrain opens out, the city centre is nigh. Swap horse for camel for your grand entrance along the paved and colonnaded main street, like a Roman forum. The Romans annexed Petra in 106 AD and made these lands their Arabia Petraea. Being an integral part of the Roman Empire fundamentally changed Petra’s commerce and earning power. Trade gradually switched to other routes, and Petra went into decline after 200 AD, fading, cracking, shrinking. An earthquake finished it off in 747 AD.
It reverted to the Bedouin, and to the wind and sun. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Oleanders bloom in the ruins. The sun beats down. But a large black Bedouin tent beckons in the lee of a mountain. "Well come!" as the Arabs say. Lounge on the divans while tea is served, hot, black and sweet, in Arab style, or as you like it. Jordanians are hospitable and accommodating, and they often surprise by their good English.
But when it comes to money, be prepared for tough bargaining, like for your next steed. The climax is a donkey ride up a long steep rock path, along gullies and cliffsides, to the mountain-top ‘Monastery’. Take the customary three glasses of tea to fortify yourself for hard haggling. "Fifteen pounds, mister," says the donkey boy. "What, just to go up there and back?!" exclaims the tourist. "Very hard, mister! Very hot. Cheap for you!" And so it goes, you know the story.
A donkey is a barrel on four legs. You sit splay-legged on top just hoping it'll go the right way, and that it'll hit every step on the stone stairway, guided by your boy. Happily, it is more sure-footed than you could ever have imagined. You have no regrets as you plod upward past gorgeously striated rocks, extraordinary natural sculpture.
When the Victorian English poet Edward Lear came here, his Italian cook remarked: "Oh, Signore, we have come into a world where everything is chocolate, ham, curry-powder and salmon." Add raspberries and cream to that recipe. Spread in layers. Bake.
The processional way climbs steadily, sometimes precipitously, for miles until it opens on a wide terrace, a sacred place where huge congregations could gather before the mighty columned facade of Ed-Deir, the Monastery, which ended its days as a Christian temple of the Byzantine Empire.
From this high place, the views are breathtaking. In the hard clear desert light, you can see across mountains to Egyptian Sinai, into Israel's Negev Desert, and out to the stunning Wadi Rum where David Lean filmed Lawrence of Arabia.
Lawrence himself visited Petra several times. In 1914 he wrote home: "You will never know what Petra is like, unless you come out here... Only be assured that till you have seen it you have not had the glimmering of an idea how beautiful a place can be."
There can hardly be a better invitation. And it’s true.
© 1994 Keith Mundy