Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Match me such a marvel
save in Eastern clime

A rose red city
half as old as time...

It is not easy to discover Petra. Each and every step of the way, from crossing the border into Jordan to fully exploring the site, is difficult. But as people coming down from El Deir told us as were scaling the mountain, "it is worth it."

First, some background for the uninformed. Petra is a 2000 year-old city carved into mountains by the Nabataeans, an ancient Arab tribe. The Nabataeans were, "masters of the region's trade routes, levying tolls, protecting caravans laden with Arabian frankincense and myrrh, Indian spices and silks, African ivory and animal hides." And Petra was on a trade route.

Petra seems to me to be shaped like a watering can, and the only way in is through the spout. The spout, in this case, is called the Siq. The Siq is a narrow and nearly mile-long canyon, carved by wind and sand. It's a natural defense. To me it is the Siq and the rest of the impenetrable natural surroundings that make the buildings of Petra so spectacular.

Like I said before, you have to work to get here, and it ain't easy. After waiting in line for a hour to cross the border, you take a two hour drive to get to the town of Wadi Mousa. You do this the day before so that you can see Petra in the morning, when the light is the best. Wadi is the Arabic word for valley and Mousa means Moses. The town is named for the perennial spring, the Ain Mousa which according to the bible is where Moses struck a stone with his staff and "water will come out of it for the people to drink". The water itself, which still spews forth, is the reason the Petra is here in the first place. It's a desert. Any city will sprout up around water in a desert. The Nabataeans channeled this water through crude aqueducts in the Siq and through the city.

So you walk a half mile from the entrance of Petra to get to the Siq. The Siq is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. As you can see from the photo above, it's a narrow and winding slot into the city. You walk along, looking at all of the beautiful rock formations and the color of the stones and then suddenly you turn a corner and there is the Treasury. It's a couple of stories high and carved into the mountain. The word Petra, in Greek, means "rock", and it's fitting given that all of the buildings are carved into sheer rock.

It's not actually a treasury, it's a tomb. All of the building's names are the same original names used by the Bedouin and the Swiss explorer who discovered the site to the Western world. Anyway, the Treasury is huge and this beautiful rose color in the morning light. When we went back in the evening, the color was a dustier darker red, so if you go, go in the morning. The building is this hodge-podge of architectural styles: Greek, Roman, Egyptian. The rooms are carved out of the stone mountain as well, though they are plainer than the facade.

In all of the photos of Petra's buildings you get this idea that they are all in one central region. And while that is true for the most part, it is really a city, with different parts to it like any city. And it is spread over a lot of land. We hiked for nine hours and still didn't see anything other than the main buildings. Also it's exhausting to see the site on foot, as you are hiking over rocks and trudging through sand. Some people used the camels and donkeys that the Bedouin are constantly proffering, but we had little cash and were kind of stubborn, so we hiked.

Around the corner a ways and over the hill from the Treasury are a series of buildings called the Royal Tombs (which, I think, were actually tombs). They sit all in a row, and are all very different. They are huge and it takes an hour to explore them. The one at the right is called the Palace Tomb. (kinda looks like a palace, doesn't it?). There are several others, including the Urn Tomb (whose actual urn is kinda small) and the Silk Tomb (named as much because it's walls look like washed silk). Allow about an hour and a half to visit this area.

Though all of the tombs are weathered, they still have very sharp architectural details that stand out. I can't imagine these being tombs though. Why all the rooms?

Back down the hill from the Royal Tombs is a Theater and a Colonnaded street, both of which look very Roman to me. The Romans did take over the Nabataeans, and I know that they enlarged the Theater...I need to do some more reading. Anyway, the Theater is also carved from the solid rock wall. It originally sat 3000 people, but the Romans carved into existing tombs (see the rooms in the back) so that it sat 7000. I did read that the tombs had been covered with masonry originally, so the Romans weren't too unkind to the dead. You can barely see it in this picture, but a wall was also constructed around the stage (the side facing the Colonnaded street). I am thinking this is to insure that everyone who wanted to see the play had to pay! On either side of the Theater are two vaulted passage-ways. I need to remind everyone that this is carved out of solid rock! Yes, there are bricks here and there, but the passage-ways, the seats...all carved out of the mountain!

So the Theater is kind of at the top of the Colonnaded street and at the very end of the street is the what was the main temple of Petra, the Qasr al-Bint. It's the only free-standing building in the city to have survived the earthquakes and floods that have hit the area over the centuries.

Jeff and I decide to skip lunch and "do" the Monastery, or El Deir. I am glad I brought water. I read in a book that there were 800 steps leading up to it. I asked Jeff how many there were to the top of Notre Dame (which we visited in the Spring). "Oh, about 300." Okay, so at least two Notre Dames high, I think I can handle that! I mean, we've scaled the Great Wall, how hard could this be? It took us more than an hour to climb up the mountain. I must have stopped to rest 50 times. Yes, it was hard, very hard. And those "steps", uh, only in the loosest terms would them be called steps! They were boulders, not steps. It was a very steep, uneven and treacherous, and littered with donkey poo. I did feel smug as I lumbered past some 20 year-olds (and I recognised their coughs as being those of a smoker...thank God I quit)! We finally get to the top. As you can see it looks a lot like the Treasury, but it is much, much bigger. Maybe it's the climb up to it, but it seems to me to be the biggest building in the city. For being at the top of a mountain, the facade is incredibly well-preserved. No one knows whether this was a tomb or a temple. I can't believe that some people travel all this way to see Petra and never see anything more than the Treasury.
We are at just the right age to be tavelling. Not so young as to be broke or uninterested. Not so old as to be physically unable to handle the journey. Not so middle-aged as to be weighed down with life commitments. This may not be the right time to be in this place (the Middle East), but it seems like it's come at a great time for us.

I could write a thousand more words about Petra, post a hundred more photos and it couldn't come close to conveying the wonder of the place. For me it's become one of those three or four things that you need to see in order to know. It's one of those places that you need to experience.


Kris said...

We miss you too! I'll drink like 6 pints for you tonight... heavens knows I can use them! (ok and maybe have some tat-cho's for you too)
Bell, Green, Dixon and I have the weekly "Niki catch-up" topic now over beers!

While touring Petra did you run into Harrison Ford looking for the holy grail? (It kills me that's how I recognize that antiquity!).

Rachel said...

Wow, what a great post. I'm tired and in dire need of a drink just reading about your hike!