Sunday, June 29, 2008

The pink city of Petra

Often described as the eighth wonder of the ancient world, nothing prepares you for the amazing sight that is Petra...

It is a vast, unique city, carved into the sheer rock face by the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people who settled here more than 2000 years ago, turning it into an important junction for the silk, spice and other trade routes that linked China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome.

Petra is sometimes called the ‘Lost City’. In spite of its being such an important city in antiquity, after the 14th century AD, Petra was completely lost to the western world. It was rediscovered in 1812 by the Swiss traveller, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who tricked his way into the fiercely guarded site by pretending to be an Arab from India wishing to make a sacrifice at the tomb of the Prophet Aaron.

Entrance to the city is through the Siq, a narrow gorge, over 1 kilometre in length, which is flanked on either side by soaring, 80 metres high cliffs. While you're walking through the siq, you appreciate why the Nabateans chose to build Petra flanked by high mountains and acccesible only through the siq...the narrow siq renders Petra practically invincible...

As you walk through the siq, you can see small channels running along the walls of the siq. These are waterways that weer used by the Nabateans to collect and transport rain water which was then stored for usage.

It was the ability of the Nabataeans to control the water supply that led to the rise of Petra, in effect creating an artificial oasis. The area had flash floods and archaeological evidence demonstrates the Nabataeans controlled these floods by the use of dams, cisterns and water conduits (see photos above). These innovations stored water for prolonged periods of drought, and enabled the city to prosper.

No matter how many photos you may have seen, nothing prepapres you for the majestic view of the Al-Khazneh (Treasury) as the siq abruptly comes to an end and you come face to face with an imposing structure carved into the sheer pink rock-face, very remniscent of Greco-Roman architecture, dwarfing everything else around it. There is a point where you can see a peek of the Treasury through the siq and the view is stunning due to the juxtapositioning of the dark walls of the siq and the bright pink facade of the Treasury..

For fans of Indiana Jones, the Treasury should be a familiar sight. The Treasury at Petra was used in the final sequence of the film, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade".

It is said that the Nabateans were the first people to offer scholarships to their people. Those who won scholarships were sent to far off lands like Greece and spent years learing the language and crafts and finally returned home to practice the craft at home. To that can be attributed the Greco-Roman influence on the architecture.

As you walk away from the Treasury you come on to the Street of Facades which is lined with tall, impressive tombs, with large facades or false faces on their fronts. This street eventually leads into the heart of the city proper.

Roman-style theatre, which could seat 3,000 people.
There are obelisks, temples, sacrificial altars and colonnaded streets, and high above, overlooking the valley, is the impressive Ad-Deir Monastery – a flight of 800 rock cut steps takes you there. With a 7 year old in tow, I did not have the heart nor the energy to attempt the monastry. There is also a Petra Mueseum within the complex which was unfortunately closed so we could not manage to see that, but by this time my 7 yr old son was begining to wilt under the sun, so I thought it prudent to head back.

Just a piece of advice, no matter what the weather, carry a hat, use suntan lotion liberally, wear very very sensible walking shoes and carry drinking water. Its hot inside and you need to walk and walk and walk!!

While cars are not permitted inside, you can hire camels or donkeys.. A trip to themonastry and back on a camel will cost you around JD 15 while that on a camel will cost you around JD30-40 depending on business that day and your ability to bargain. I would recommend taking an animal if you have a child with you cos the walk can be quite tiring esp in the afternoon sun.

Also the best time to see Petra is mid morning or noon when the sun is at its brightest and brings out the colours in the rocks. Yes, it makes it a rather hot proposition, but its worth the trouble, just to see Petra in its pristine beauty..

The siq itself is almost a 2 km walk, or so it seemed to my tired feet, so you can can hire a horse carriage at the Treasury for JD 20 which will take you right from the end of the siq to the entrance of the Petra complex gate, next to where the cars are parked. I would recommend taking that but please be warned, you will feel like you have been put through the wringer as the carriageman forces the horse to gallop over the uneven cobbled pathway shaking every bone in your body. Hang on to your bag and your specs lest you loose them in the dash to the entrance.

I beleive there is also a "Petra by night" tour where you can walk through and see Petra by the light of a thousand candles. The tour starts at 8 p.m. every night. While my mind baulks at the thought of the damage this could well do to the site, my heart beats faster at the thought of how beautiful it must be to see Petra by candlelight!

Tickets are JD 21 per head for 1 day and JD 26 for a ticket valid for two days. Children below the age of 15 are free of cost.

Faith I could have spent days at Petra, but before I knew it was time to head back to Amman, and, I snuggled into the seat of my car, tired and hot but very content at having finally seen what undoubtedly deserves to be considered a wonder of the world...

As we drive away from Petra, I am reminded of a prize winnning sonnet Petra by John William Burgon referring to pink city of Petra, which he had heard described but had never seen:

It seems no work of Man's creative hand,
by labor wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as 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.

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