Petra, a Jordanian family relaxes at an oasis.
Getting to Petra takes some effort,
but unique carved cliffs are worth it.
Text and photo by Toby Saltzman
When Cleopatra beguiled Caesar to show his loyalty with a gift
of "the rose red city of Petra" her charms fell short. Petra was
a commercial gem in the parched desert then, a strategic, albeit
secluded, piece of prime real estate straddling the trade routes
from Africa west to Rome and east to the Orient. So she settled
for the cool, green oasis of Jericho instead.
Petra, ancient capital of the Nabataeans, who carved a city into
the sandstone cliffs of a desert canyon 2000 years ago, remains
the most spectacular site in Jordan. Other sites, like the incredibly
well-preserved Roman city of Jerash, impress. But similar landmarks
exist in Israel, Turkey, Greece, Rome and in pockets throughout
the entire Mediterranean region. In a world where architectural
edifices transcend time, Petra defies all tenets of design with
an intrinsic beauty. A mammoth, canyon enclave declared a UNESCO
World Heritage site, Petra is a dusty hub of caves, cavernous tombs
and elaborately carved temples. Few structures are actually built.
walking through the rift - the Siq - in the mountains, the
first thing a tourist sees is the Treasury of Petra.
Petra has few comparables in the world. At best, slight geological
similarities exist amid the (uncarved) rust-colored mountains of
Sedona, Arizona; or the Stone Forest of Kunming, China, where villagers
traverse fissures between soaring karst limestone peaks. Imagine
800 Greco-Roman style "edifices" cut into sheer, reddish cliffs,
with "doors" to impeccably scoured caves. That is Petra.
Nabatean history is vague; it's unknown what lured the semi-nomadic
North Africans through the deep rift - the Siq - in the mountains
in the sixth century BC to create the remote fortress using the
mountains as geological shields. Perhaps they were drawn by the
colossal rocks (Petra means rock) glowing, as if spiritually from
within, in brilliant hues of russet, plum, crimson and tangerine.
Or the proximity to Edomite biblical villages - particularly Wadi
Moussa, where Moses drew water from a rock during the Exodus.
By 4 BC, Petra was an essential watering hole, a pit stop for trade
caravans bearing spices, silks, ivory and copper. The Nabataeans "protected"
the caravans (mandatory tolls guaranteed safe crossing) and mediated
disputes. At about this time, the city was thriving, its dwellings,
tombs and temples embellished with architectural bibelots gleaned
from afar: Roman Corinthian capitals, Hellenistic pediments, Egyptian
obelisks, Assyrian sacrificial altars.
guide in traditional headdress.
Since success breeds envy, the Nabataeans were forced to defend
Petra against the Seleucids (Alexander the Great's heirs in Syria)
and Greek and Roman crusaders. During the sixth to eighth centuries,
they suffered devastating earthquakes. By 106 AD, the Nabataean
lands, Jordan and most of Palestine became the Roman Province of
They carved a massive, 7000 seat amphitheater, erected a colonnaded
street, a temple with baths. When the Romans began shipping goods
from South Arabia through the Red Sea, the caravans dwindled, eliminating
Petra's prominence. Over time, Petra fell under Byzantine rule,
then Islamic. Six centuries later, faded from memory, it was secretly
inhabited by Arab tribes.
In 1812 a Swiss adventurer, inconspicuously dressed in Moslem garb
and fluent in Arabic, was enticed by the Bedouin legends of Petra.
John Burkhardt gained entrance on the pretext of sacrificing a goat
at the Shrine of Aaron (built by Mamelukes in 13 AD, it is where
Arabs annually commemorate Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac). When British
artists appeared soon after, locals worried pictures would erase
Petra's power. Once they realized Petra's value in tourist dinars,
their fears dispersed like dust in the desert.
My morning approach to Petra from Wadi Moussa is underwhelming. Like
most scattered villages rooted in the bible, its hilltop huddle of
sandstone buildings reflects a transitional jumble of primitive habits
and modern influences. Sun-wizened men in checked keffiyehs (head-dresses)
ride horses past crowded Toyotas, veering around tour buses stopped
at Moses' Spring (a roof-covered rock beside a spring bed) and its
obligatory souvenir souk piled with carpets, carvings of camels and
T-shirts blazing dual flags of Jordan and Israel. School girls, wearing
white headscarves, sport denim mini skirts tugged over indigo dresses.
In a quiet corner giggling teens, their veils folded back over shoulders,
puff on cigarettes. On the outskirts, the desert road to Petra, humming
with Mercedes vans full of foreign tourists, connects distant clusters
of humble Bedouin tents pitched on barren soil, their satellite dishes
flashing absurdly in the sun.
facade in Petra towers
over visitors on the terrace.
My guidebook says to see Petra "you should be in good health and
forget the world for two-three days or more". Indeed - with sturdy
walking shoes to boot. There's a 1-½ kilometer trek through the
narrow Siq before your first glimpse. In the valley basin at the
foot of the limestone hills guarding the Siq, there are guides waiting
with docile horses and chariots to ease the stretch.
The route to Petra slopes downhill, across an ancient Nabataean
bridge above a dam dam that ingeniously protected the Siq by channeling
heavy floodwaters from the wadi (valley) into a complex system of
canals, reservoirs and irrigation streams. (Incidentally, that dam
was authentically rebuilt in the 1960's after it collapsed in a
flash flood, trapping tourists.) A narrow chasm, barely wide enough
for passing horses, winds between 100-meter-tall pillars. The silence
students buying souvenir "sand art" in glass bottles
from a Jordanian artisan.
The drama of Petra begins with simple initiation, past crudely
inscribed Egyptian-style obelisks; carved niches that once sheltered
idols (raided aeons ago), and slabs of Roman paving. Finally, a
sliver of light opens to a courtyard circled by crimson mountains
and the jewel of Petra: the Treasury, al Khazneh.
Majestic in shade, it gleams when the sun slides across its chiseled
facade, illuminating columns, forms of Gods, horsemen, scorpions,
eagles and an incongruous melange of architectural accents. Its
mysteries intrigue: probably built as a tomb for the Nabataean King
Aretas III in 1BC, archeologists believe the figures represent Alexandria
and the goddess Isis; a high urn held Pharoah's treasure; perhaps
pirates hid stolen bounty here.
Following my guide, Ibrahim, through a wide chasm walled with carvings
of camels and ornate "doorways", we begin to explore. Terraced into
a stone mound is the Street of Facades: haunting tombs-cum-dwellings,
crowned with Nabataean signature crow-step designs. A massive amphitheater
carved into a cliff reveals every striation of Petra's rocks. At
its gate, an Arab, pausing from a game of chess, beckons us. After
animated haggling, Ibrahim translates his incredulous proposal:
he promises me three camels to become his thirteenth wife. Thanks
for the honor, but I have family in Canada, I say. I rush off, solo,
up high steps to the Royal Tombs. A monumental series of tombs and
"buildings" forged into the curving face of a mountain, they once
housed Law Courts, prisons and, by 446 AD, a Byzantine church.
Petra's charms never cease to awe. By the time I climb to ancient
cisterns, the ruins of Nymphaeum (a fountain for nymphs of the stream),
the High Place of Sacrifice (where animal sacrifices honored Dushara,
Petra's supreme deity), stop to admire stalls of silver trinkets
and carpets, watch a Bedouin create sand scenes in tiny bottles,
and trudge to the foot of the Roman street, I'm weary, yet too exhilarated
to miss the rest: temples, a museum boasting artifacts to 10,000
BC, and if I can conjure the stamina, hike 1050 vertical steps to
ed-Dier - Petra's "monastery" where, supposedly, human ashes filled
urns and carrier doves were dispatched.
A grinning Arab trailing two camels approaches. "Welcome, Canada lady.
I give you safe ride to temple, back to theatre." How does he know
I'm Canadian? Turning, I see my suitor, three camels lined at his
side, waving madly. A ride is tempting. The smaller camel flutters
his lashes, flares his nostrils, makes a gnawing grimace, belches
loudly, then spits. I imagine heaving on his hump, smelling like camel
for weeks, so I walk. Seeing Petra is worth every step of the way.
to the heights of Petra.
For visas call the Jordanian Embassy:
in Canada: 1-613-238-8090
in USA:1-212-752-0135 / 1-202-966-2909
for future stories about Petra, in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,
detailing nearby sites, hotels and restaurants.