Poetry in stone

Print edition : June 17, 2011

The gateway to Petra Terrace, high on the rocky slopes. -

Petra, the dazzling ancient city painstakingly carved out of sandstone, is Jordan's single most important tourist site.

PETRA, derived from the Greek word meaning rock, is a rather pedestrian appellation for a dazzling ancient city painstakingly carved out of sandstone and hidden away in a labyrinthine rocky gorge deep in the Arabian desert. A pink jewel in an otherwise arid landscape, it is indeed a striking example of how aesthetic sense and artistic skill can transform barren rock into a citadel of immense beauty and grandeur. More than 2,500 years ago, Petra used to be a flourishing caravan city, right in the middle of the desert, between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea in what is today known as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Located at the crossroads between Arabia, Egypt and Phoenicia, Petra, in its heyday, was nurtured by a range of influences, including Hellenic and Roman, which enhanced and embellished the native Nabatean culture. Today it lies ruined and neglected, but like a magnet still attracts connoisseurs, art lovers, historians and archaeologists.

As you drive into Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses in Arabic), the jumping-off point for entry into Petra, your eyes feast on rocks that sport myriad shades of red from deep purple to russet, rust, terracotta, maroon, ochre, red, rose and mud brown, and many variations in between. Wadi Musa is a sleepy village gamely trying to cope with its new-found avatar as a celebrity gateway to Petra. It has more five-star hotels per square mile than Tokyo or New York City. Shops laden with packaged water bottles, camera accessories and other touristy kitsch perch uneasily on the uneven slopes while wayside shanties doubling as eateries advertise menus that could make Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris blush.

The Nabateans were not the first to inhabit Petra. Before them were the Edomites (from Edom meaning red rock) who lived in the region, around 1200 B.C. They carried on a flourishing trade in spices and frankincense, could weave exquisite textiles, craft pottery and were skilled in metalwork.

A warren of caves in Petra.-

The Nabateans followed the Edomites almost 600 years later and made Petra their capital, drawing upon their ability to harness water through their superior hydraulic engineering skills. Nabatean ingenuity enabled them to transform this barren rocky terrain into a buzzing bazaar doing brisk business and the land around it, fecund enough to sustain the city's resident and itinerant population. The Nabateans managed to coax flood and spring water through channels and underground tunnels, store it in cisterns and reservoirs, and direct it to palaces and settlements.

Entrance to Petra

We make our way to the archaeological site at Petra at the crack of dawn in order to beat the heat. The steep entry fee entitles you to a free buggy or horse ride to the entrance and a multilingual guide, but neither is to be found anywhere. So we equip ourselves with a guide book from the souvenir store and trudge towards Bab-el-Siq, the grand entrance to Petra. The Siq, which once sported a magnificent triumphal arch, is actually the entrance to the gorge formed by a torrential rain in Musa, which the Nabateans blocked with a dam and channelled towards the city; of course, the torrent was only a flash flood during certain times of the year and if not tamed, could wreak untold havoc but when channelled, could supply drinking water to the population of Petra.

The towering, gorgeous gorge en route to Al Khazana.-

Sauntering through this mile-long, meandering pathway, it is not difficult to imagine how this place would have rung out with the rhythmic sound of horses' hooves, clatter of carriages, haggling voices and bustling life. At this hour, the passage is silent, dark and full of promise, as it meanders amidst towering cliff faces, revealing just a glimpse of the blue sky, wedged between the massifs, 80 metres high. Along the rock walls of the Siq there is a succession of inscriptions, niches and small votive altars, but also reliefs and sculptures that depict a caravan of men and camels. Once inside, the Siq narrows to a little more than five metres in width, whereas the walls tower hundreds of metres on either side. The floor, originally paved, is now largely covered with soft sand, although evidence of Nabatean construction can still be seen in some places.

BETWEEN TOWERING ROCK walls, the narrow walkway to Al Khazana with its reliefs and sculptures.-

How do we know about Petra? In 1812, Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt persuaded a shepherd to take him to this legendary spot he had heard about from many sources. The Dead Sea Scrolls refer to the region as Rekem. The descriptions of Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and other writers identify Petra as the capital of the Nabateans, Arabic-speaking Semites, and the city as the centre of their caravan trade. The contemporaries of the Nabateans were the Seluccids in Greece and the Ptolemies in Egypt who went on to set up Philadelphia (in today's Amman, the Jordanian capital) and Gerasa (modern-day Jerash, near Amman). The Nabateans gained further strength because of the fighting between the Romans and the Greeks. They became adept traders in spices and silks. Walled in by towering rocks and watered by a perennial stream, Petra not only possessed the advantages of a fortress but controlled the main commercial routes which passed through it to Gaza in the west, to Bosra and Damascus in the north, to Aqaba and Leuce Come on the Red Sea, and across the desert to the Persian Gulf.

Pillar detail at Temenos Gateway on the terrace.-

The winding pathway leads you out into a clearing that houses the most spectacular edifice of Petra Al Khazana, immortalised in a million postcards. The imposing 40-m-high Al Khazana (or Kazaneh al Faroun), carved out of a single rock, is so named after a Bedouin legend that spoke of a treasure hidden by a pharaoh in an urn on top. Even today, the urn sports many bullet holes from those who tried to bring it down to retrieve the treasure. In reality, however, Al Khazana is a funerary monument, possibly the mausoleum of King Aretas IV, who reigned from 9 B.C. to A.D. 40. Funerary symbols relating to afterlife and death adorn the monument.

The 1st century A.D. Roman amphitheatre, carved almost entirely in the rock.-

The facade of the treasure reveals a Hellenistic influence. There are six Corinthian columns crowned by a frieze of winged griffins and vases among scrolls. In the centre is the Golden Isis and she is surrounded by dancing Amazons with axes over their heads. The circular holes in the floors could have been used for sacrifices. In 2004, three royal tombs dating back to the first century A.D. were uncovered behind Al Khazana. The site is familiar to millions of people around the world as the location where Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was shot.

Today there are two bedecked camels in front of Al Khazana, possibly brought there for tourists' benefit. Yet, they blend with the environment so seamlessly that it gives you the feel of being suspended in time, of having gone back to a bygone era. Although Al Khazana sports grand columns and entrance ways, there is nothing much beyond the pillars. Actually, it is just a facade carved into the rock wall. We linger and soak in the ambience until camera-wielding tourists wake us from our reverie.

A short distance from Al Khazana is the first century A.D. theatre, carved almost entirely in the rock, which could hold more than 8,000 spectators. It is clearly Roman in design. As we weave our way through the steps, I wonder what spectacular shows were hosted in this venue and for whose benefit. I also marvel at the design of these theatres which make the best use of space.

The 40-metre-high Al Khazana, the most spectacular edifice in Petra.-

At the end of the Siq, the ruins open out of the colonnaded way. Set on a promontory that overlooks the valley of Petra to the west, accessible through a sacred stepped way cut into the rock, is another building with an imposing facade carved out of the rock: this is Al Dayr, referred to as the monastery in the brochures. The austerity and simplicity of this structure bespeaks of Hellenistic influence. The structure of the interior is devoid of any funeral installation. The monastery is the largest tomb facade in Petra, measuring 50 m wide and 45 m high. Despite its name, it was built as a tomb monument and may have acquired its name from the crosses inscribed inside. Like Al Khazana, the structure consists of two stories topped by a magnificent urn.

Fascinating rock formations in the ancient city.-

There are many stalls opposite Al Dayr offering authentic Bedouin fare. We squat on colourful kilims spread in the shade of the rock caverns and sip cool mint-lemon tea. On sale are antique Bedouin artefacts, all laid out eye-catchingly on the ledge. Abu, one of the vendors, is happy to chat with us, to practise his English skills. Dressed completely from head to toe in a loose-fitting cotton robe called thobe, Abu treats me to more mint tea and lets me inspect his wares closely. There are hookahs and water jugs in copper and other knick-knacks, clearly not from the Petra of yore, but from the recent past. However, they are such beautiful pieces that we do not need much persuasion to exhaust our Jordanian dinars. Of course, Abu is more than willing to accept United States dollars. Abu drives his own car, like most other hawkers on the site, parks it at the dedicated parking lot next to the main entrance to Petra, and trudges up the rocks every day. Life is not bad, Insha Allah. Petra gets thousands of visitors a day most months and what we sell here is exclusive to this region, he says.

Al Dayr or the monastery, the largest tomb facade in Petra.-

We trudge up a steep incline through rocky ledges and arrive at the main archaeological precinct of Petra, a raised platform that housed a palatial building decorated with carved elephant heads, frescos, elegantly carved pilasters and capitals. It might have been the seat of governance and religious worship. In addition to the thousands of architectural fragments, there are coins, limestone facial frieze elements, lamps, Roman glass, and ceramics which include figurines, Nabatean bowls, small cups, and juglets. Elaborate floral friezes and acanthus-laden limestone capitals suggest that the temple was constructed in the beginning of the last quarter of the first century B.C. by the Nabateans, who combined their native traditions with the classical spirit. The structure was enlarged later in the Nabatean period in the first century A.D. The Great Temple was in use until some point in the fifth century A.D., the Byzantine period.

A trinket seller.-

Bedouin women traders clothed in black hijab wait patiently along the route, their gorgeous silver and turquoise jewellery laid out on the ledges. Speckled green, yellow and black, Arabian turquoise is irresistible and quite easy on your wallet too.

Around the temple are ruins strewn everywhere. There are pillars with floral motifs, staircases that lead nowhere, promenades that must have once witnessed ceremonial processions of great pomp and splendour and arcades which must have hosted stalls selling spices and silks. As many as 30,000 people may have lived in Petra during the first century A.D. An earthquake in A.D. 363 destroyed at least half of the city. Petra never recovered from this destruction. Perhaps, Petra is Jordan's single most important tourist site and no doubt brings in millions of tourist dollars. It is a pity that the Kingdom of Jordan has done little to restore the site to a semblance of its former glory.

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