Friday, December 26, 2014


"Rose-Red City" of Petra
Petra needs little introduction, having been immortalized in our collective consciousness as Alexandreta in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Funny enough, it was a little known destination before that movie came out, but the moment the world saw its favorite swashbuckling archaeologist enter the "Valley of the Crescent Moon", all hell broke loose, and a hot new destination was born. Hordes of visitors began to descend upon Petra every year, the coveted title of  "Wonder of the World" was bestowed, and Jordan was officially put on the map.

But before Petra the attraction, there was Petra the city, with a story as colorful and mysterious as any Hollywood action thriller. It was founded by an ancient Arab tribe called the Nabateans, a tribe that, after surviving Roman, Byzantine and Persian rule, eventually dispersed and disappeared, adding yet another fold to the shroud of mystery that drapes Petra. Like any city that lingers on long after its inhabitants have vanished, it is a haunting and mystical place. But at the height of its power, it was a prosperous and flourishing trade center, an important intersection of trade routes and cultures.

The first thing you see is the old part of the city. Most of the structures and chambers here are old tombs.
Petra is approached through a long, narrow, and winding mountain gorge. Walking towards it, in the cool shade of an imposing cleft in the rock, it's easy to imagine caravans loaded with spices and silks trickling here after months-long journeys, looking up in amazement at the towering walls, relieved to find respite and hear the gurgle of water.

A complex water management system was a key factor in Petra's success story. Water was diverted from a nearby river and carried to the city in channels carved directly into the cliffs, clearly seen in the photo above.

For about a mile you will walk in the silence of the canyon, along the now empty water channels, in the cool blue shadows on warm pink stone, until finally, at the last turn, you catch a glimpse of something different.

It's not a coincidence that the first thing you see in Petra is the exuberant facade of the Treasury. It was a message to all who came here - to the merchants, the emissaries, the explorers - a clear expression of wealth and power. "We, the Nabateans, can make these great things", it proclaimed. "Our buildings can rival those of the Romans and the Greeks. We are not to be taken lightly." Oh yes, it was designed to impress. And impress it does.

Al Khazneh, or The Treasury, which by the way, is no treasury at all... 
Nor is it an accident that the Treasury is decidedly not an Arabic facade, but a compilation of different building styles and elements borrowed from other dominant cultures of the time. The Nabateans were aware of the outside world, and by using foreign elements in their architecture put forward a welcoming and inclusive image; East and West coming together in delicate balance. As long as you came in peace, to do business, you were welcome here.

For a lot of people, apparently this is where the visit ends, which I find utterly ridiculous. Sure, the Treasury is synonymous with Petra, which may lead people to think that this is all there is to it. But really, all it takes is a few steps to the left, and you will enter a wide street, leading to the the city beyond. The city of Petra lies past the Treasury, and it is most definitely worth a visit.

The theater, which resembles a Roman theater, but lacks the engineering and acoustics of one, and therefore never functioned very successfully. Upon conquering the area, Romans modified the theater to make it more functional. The carved niches in the back wall were originally tombs, but were repurposed into VIP box seats. Because no one wants to listen to opera sitting next to a dead guy.

The thing that appealed to me right away about Petra is that, despite being a ghost city, there is nevertheless a bustle about it that feels strangely authentic and appropriate. The Bedouins that live in the surrounding area run an entire economy out of here. Colorful stalls line in the street that used to hold the city's market. Horses, donkeys and camels stream along in every direction, led by turbaned men in sandals. Tea steams from exotic bronze pots. If you squint just so, and ignore the lumbering tourists, you could almost pretend you are in the 1st century.

The downside is that a lot of Bedouin children are forced to labor as part of this economy, selling trinkets or begging. We were advised to avoid buying from children, as only a dry up of tourist dollars can convince parents to send their kids back to school where they belong.

The only surviving free standing wall in Petra.

The astonishing colors and patterns of the limestone.
Yes, there is life in Petra, but around the street level bustle, there is a sweeping and epic quiet. The mountains, carved first by time and later by people, stand in testament to the passage of epochs that took place here.

Inside one of the tombs

A mosaic in the Byzantine church. Petra continued to flourish under Byzantine rule, and only declined after the Persian conquest, when trade routes were diverted from the area.

From the city, you can climb a mountain path to a hilltop shrine, with panoramic views of Petra below.

Back at the Treasury just before sunset, to find a completely different scene; late afternoon light reflecting from the opposing cliffs to suffuse the delicate carving of the facade in a warm, unearthly glow.

So, if the Treasury is not a treasury, then what is it? And why the misnomer?  It's actually a tomb, like most of the carved facades in the city, a mausoleum and possibly a place of worship (there is a recessed level in front of the entrance, possibly for ritual bathing). It's called the Treasury because Bedouins and others who have come through here before the city was rediscovered, thought it contained treasure, and shot at the facade hoping to break containers and send gold spilling out. Of course, there is no treasure, and no element of the facade is even hollow, but these idiot iconoclasts did inflict some pretty serious damage to the building, along with endowing it with a name that stuck.

The city of Petra has an undeniable magnetism. Looking around, as we were some of the last to leave, I noticed the hesitation on the faces of other visitors to turn that corner and go. It was a hesitation I shared. I practically walked out backwards, as the city receded from view and was obscured by its stone curtains, left alone for another silent night under the stars.

It was almost surprising, this pull that Petra exerts, its energy captivating like a siren's song, like something that will come back to you in dreams...

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