Sunday, February 27, 2011


If you have never heard of Petra you have certainly seen it on celluloid. Remember one of the Indiana Jones film, The Last Crusade, where Indy goes to find the grail at the end of a gorge deep into the Arabian desert. As in the film the gorge of "the Crescent moon" appears very close to the Pyramids of Egypt, the actual site portrayed is hundreds of miles away, tucked inside a mountainous area of the Southern Jordanian desert. Petra, a Greek translation of the Arabic word for rock "Al Batra", is a World heritage site (yes I love those but I am sure you've noticed), unknown to the Western world until 1812, when it was introduced by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Described as "one of the most precious cultural properties of man's cultural heritage, Petra was chosen by the BBC as one of the 40 places you must see before you die. I guess I need to research what are the other 39.

Donkeying in Petra


The Nabataeans were ancient Arabs of southern Jordan, Canaan (today's Lebanon) and the northern part of Arabia, whose oasis settlements in the time of Josephus (AD 37 – c. 100), gave the name of Nabatene to the borderland between Syria and Arabia, from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. Their loosely-controlled trading network, which centered on a string of oases, where agriculture was intensively practiced in limited areas, had no secured defined boundaries. They were absorbed by the Greco-Roman culture when Roman Emperor Trajan conquered this land in AD106.

The Nabataean Kingdom was located between the Sinai Peninsula and the Arabian Peninsula, its northern neighbour was the kingdom of Judea, and its south western neighbour was Ptolemaic Egypt. Its capital was the city of Petra, and it included the towns of Bostra and Nitzana. Petra was a wealthy trading town, located at a convergence of several trade routes. One of them was the Incense Route. Petra stood halfway between the opening to the Gulf of Akaba and the Dead Sea at a point where the Incense Route from Arabia to Damascus was crossed by the overland route from India to Egypt which gave the Nabateans a hold over the very profitable Incense Route.

along the path to the ancient city of Petra


BCE to the 2nd century CE. The Incense Route served as a channel for trading of goods such as Arabian frankincense and myrrh; Indian spices, ebony, silk and fine textiles; and East African rare woods, feathers, animal skins and gold. (now we can do all this with the internet can't we ?).

A WALK THROUGH PETRA (well with a donkey and a camel too)

Arriving at the Welcome center on an early October morning in 2010 I proceed to the entrance of the site of Petra. A brand new center built in 2006 holds a map of the site, an information desk with brochures in multiple languages and a guided tour desk. I start my walk making my way to the first monument, along a wide path lined with monumental buildings carved inside the rock formations. Some look like caves and some have elaborate columns and doorway. The architecture is Greco-Roman and stone is exclusively used. Various shades of ochre appear to dance along the rocky walls. The path becomes narrower as I approach the  Bab Al Siq area where the famous gorge starts. About 2 kms into the gorge, which has very narrow passages at times, I reach the Treasury. Charles Irby and Mr. James Mangles, commanders in the British Royal Navy, described their first sight of it in 1818.

The end of the Siq

"A beam of stronger light breaks in at the close of the dark perspective, and opens to view, half seen at first through the tall narrow opening, columns, statues, and cornices of a light and finished taste, as if fresh from the chisel, without the tints or weather stains of age, and executed in a stone of a pale rose color, which was warmed at the moment we came in sight of them with full light of the morning sun"

The author in front of the Treasury

In Arabic the Treasury is called El-Khazneh, or Khaznet Far'oun, Pharaoh's Treasury, from an ancient myth that treasure had been concealed here by a powerful black magician, popularly identified with a wicked and fabulously wealthy Pharaoh. Not this monument alone, but the whole of Petra, was believed to be a storehouse of Pharaoh's wealth, deposited here by deep magic. Therefore the most sumptuous monument, must surely have housed his greatest riches. The urn at the top was deemed the most likely repository, and every Bedouin who owned a gun would take a shot at it as he passed, in the vivid hope that if he hit the right spot all the treasures of Pharaoh would cascade down upon him. The result is a sadly battered urn and not a whiff of treasure. I proceed towards the Roman amphitheater.

Bedouin police guards the Treasury
Much mystery surrounds the reason why the Treasury was built and what was its intended use. 

From the theater a stairway leads to the Royal Tombs set into the rock-face of the Jabal Al-Khubtha. These tombs, thought to be those of several Nabataean kings, are certainly amongst the most impressive of the 500 tombs to be found in Petra. The Urn Tomb was probably constructed around 70 AD. It is preceded by a deep courtyard with colonnades on two sides. High up in the facade there are 3 niches which give on to small burial chambers. Their inaccessibility would have made them relatively safe from tomb robbers. Inside there is a massive single chamber which may originally have served as a triclinium for funerary banquets, but which was adapted in 446 AD to serve as a Byzantine church, the vaults of which can still be seen below the tombs.

Tombs at Petra

Roman theater
Royal Tombs 

The city center houses the Colonnaded Street. Only a short stretch remains of the 6 meter wide paved road, which also seems to have been constructed shortly after the Roman annexation of Petra to replace an earlier Nabataean track. We should imagine the street as running through an important commercial section of the town, with shady porticoes on each side. The hillsides on both sides of the street would at the time have been covered with buildings serving a variety of purposes.

The Colonnaded street
City Center of Petra
At the end of this road is the restaurant run by the Crown Plaza Hotel group. I sit in the A/C area because the temperature is around 98F. A beautiful buffet of Middle Eastern favorites awaits. I drink Arak, a sort of Lebanese Ouzo. After a well deserved rest since I have so far walked a good 6 kms, I decide to go on my next monumental discovery.  The climb to the Monastery, the modern name of Al-Deir comes from the fact that the Nabataean structure was perhaps used by Christians in the Byzantine period. However, the processional way, which we follow upwards from the restaurant near the museum, through the Wadi Al-Deir for an hour, is Nabataean. It is a tiring climb made worthwhile not only by the other monuments to be seen en route, but also by the mountain scenery and splendid views.

Stone formations along the path to the Monastery

The imposing facade of the Monastery

Going back down to the City Center

Al-Deir itself is cut into the mountainside but not dominated by it. One really needs to see a human figure at its base to appreciate the huge scale of the largest facade in Petra. The doorway alone is over 8 m high. The temple/tomb is devoid of decoration, but striking in its simplicity and magnitude. It was no doubt an extremely important site of pilgrimage with its carefully orchestrated processional way terminating in the vast open area in front.

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