Keeping up with the Indiana Jones

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Petra. The Rose City. The Lost City. Once home to the Nabataeans, Petra was lost to the desert sands after the departure of the European Crusaders in the 1200's, and gradually faded from the memory of the world at large. Rumours of a great city, filled with treasure, and buried beneath the sands of the Arabian desert excited the imagination of travelers and explorers for years. It was not until Johannes L. Burckhardt, a Swiss scholar, traveled in the guise of a Muslim pilgrim and returned to Europe that the Western world re-discovered the lost city. It wasn't until Harrison Ford rode out of the Siq to stand in front of the final resting place of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that most of us did.

The Nabataeans were a desert people, who apparently were nomadic, until in an intense burst of activity, they built the city of Petra. Exactly when is a harder question to answer. There is some evidence that the city, known as Selah, is mentioned in the Old Testament, but this is not an iron clad certainty. While the Nabataeans were thought to be a literate people, they left no writings or inscriptions behind to shed light on their activities and culture. They were very successful traders, and profited from the Spice Trade that crossed the desert on it's way to and from the Orient. After a while, they realized that crime pays, and became a sort of Mafia, demanding protection money and tolls for the incredible wealth that passed their way. Ultimately they would make the mistake of so many in ancient times, defying the Roman Empire, and would fall. Their defensive position, as strong as it was, was no use against the unheard of might of the Roman Empire. Their kingdom was folded into the holdings of the Roman Empire, and gradually the city began to fade from importance, until it slipped from the minds of all but local shepards and herds people after the crusades.

Walking from the small town of Wadi Musa, you buy your ticket, fight off the horseback riding touts offering rides, and make your way towards the entrance. The Siq, a crevice ripped from solid rock by tectonic forces, opens up in the cliff in front of you. This natural corridor of rock was the key to the defense, and latter the obscuring, of Petra. It is very narrow, only a few metres in points, and over 100 metres high at points. One can imagine how a few warriors could easily hold this passage against a much larger force. The Siq stretches on for over 1.2 kilometres. As it twists and turns through the rock and shadows, you begin to feel this narrow path will never end. Suddenly, as you come around a corner, you see a burst of colour from a knife slit in the rock ahead. You emerge gaping, to stare at the edifice nicknamed the Treasury, its rose coloured rock warmed by the morning sun that falls onto it. It is truly one of the most spectacular settings, and entrances, you can ever hope for.

What else can I say? This was one of those sights that has flirted with my imagination since childhood. While a tourist site, it still is relatively uncrowded and untouched. And if one gets up early in the morning (as I did), you traverse the Siq alone, and emerge into the Treasury with the place almost all to yourself.

The city is more than the facade of the Treasury (an erroneous name given in the mistaken belief that it held great treasures within. In actual fact, it was a tomb). After the Siq, a paved road winds down through a valley where numerous tombs, temples, and private dwellings are to be found. About an hour's hike from the bottom of the valley floor is the monastery, a huge building, much larger than the treasury on the top of the mountains in the other side of the valley.

The town of Wadi Musa seems to exist mostly as a holding pen to the tourist hoards that congregate to descend on the ruins. My first night, I met a Bedouin guy who worked at his brother's gift shop. He was very excited to show me porn he downloaded onto his cell phone. What a legacy to the glorious history of this place.
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