Discovering the Lost City of Petra

Trip Start Dec 09, 2005
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Trip End Jan 01, 2006


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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

December 26, 2005: After an early morning breakfast, we departed for a full day tour of Petra. Once the Ancient Nabataean capital, this city has a lot to tell. We'll talk more about the Nabataen people later. We started at the visitors center where we purchased our tickets and began our 2 mile walk down the road into the Lost City of Petra. Traversing the dusty path with dozens of other explorers, I felt like Indiana Jones in search of a lost treasure buried deep beneath the earth, made hard and crusty after millennia of earthquakes, rain and sand storms.

Although we opted to walk the pathway, there were other means of transportation available - donkey-drawn carriages (a bit rickety for Anita's taste), horseback or camelback. But I don't think the experience would have been the same if we hadn't walked it. The natural gorge created by rushing waters from years ago, led to a wadi (wa - dee) or dry riverbed that wound through a cavern carved into the mountainside by the Nabataen people. This ancient civilization, long gone from existence, but not forgotten in Jordanian history, was best known for its trading acumen and the wealth they gained from their travels throughout the Middle East, Mediterranean and Europe.

They were originally settlers in what is now Petra, and provided water and supplies to the caravans that traveled through Petra. Then they got the idea that they too could make a killing in trade, so they decided to take up the trade of frankincense, myrrh and spices, traveling the King's Highway into Saudi Arabia to purchase their goods, and then moving north back into Jordan and further north into Syria and Turkey. Along the way they traded their goods for silk and other items and over hundreds of years became very wealthy.

Unlike the ancient Egyptian temple builders, the Nabataens were most adept at carving, and chose to carve their dwellings and tombs into the sides of the enormous sandstone mountains of Petra. Their technique was quite interesting, in that they began by building the necessary scaffolding to reach the desired height of the structure, and then they carved from top to bottom, intricately etching detailed designs and digging deep holes into the mountainside, using the primitive stone tools of their time. The Greek influence can be seen in the facades of many of the tombs, with large columns and ornate leafing. The amazing thing is that all of this is carved and not built.

With donkey-drawn carriages breezing past us, we admired the immense height of the mountains and noticed some intermittent carvings on the rocks. Near the end of the gorge, the pathway makes one last turn and out of the shadows of the mountains appears Petra's most impressive monument, El Khazneh - The Treasury. This is one of the most elegant remains of antiquity. Carved out of the solid rock from the side of the mountain, it is nearly 140 feet high and 90 feet wide. A carving, not a building! Amazing!!

Beyond El Khazneh, we were surrounded on both sides by hundreds of the Lost City's carved structures, soaring temples, elaborate royal tombs, carved theaters, burial chambers and much more. The Victorian traveler and poet Dean Burgon, gave Petra a description which holds to this day - "Match me such a marvel save in the Eastern clime, a rose-red city half as old as time."

After the incredible walk into the valley, we had lunch at the Basin Restaurant inside the Lost City of Petra. It was a pleasantly surprising sight to find a restaurant at the end of the trail, hidden deep in the mountains of Petra. More traditional Jordanian lentils, rice and bar-b-qued meat filled our bellies for the 2 mile walk back up through the valley, where we were met by several vendors selling beaded jewelry and other trinkets. One little girl named Radau (Raid a) caught my attention, as she called out to me in perfect English, "Come look at my shop, sir. It's free to look. You can be my first customer today." I was amused at her sales line so I walked over to peruse her wares, but was much more intrigued by her beauty - brown weather worn skin aged by the rays of the sun, long brown hair and piercing light brown eyes. She told me she was 13 years-old and that she spoke 7 languages, among them French, German, English and Arabic. I was impressed, to say the least. As Anita approached, Radau suggested I buy something for "the lady", but I just gave her a few dollars for allowing me to take her picture, and we wished her well as we departed. I wonder what could become of Radau if given more opportunities.

Trekking back to the visitors center, we passed the ancient tombs and caves once again; stopped to take a photo on camelback (just for the heck of it); and marveled at the immensity of that place. Truly breathtaking, and definitely tiring. Five miles never seemed so long. But the discovery was well worth the walk, and after a long hot shower at the hotel, we enjoyed a light dinner and then turned in for a good night's sleep to prepare for our journeys for tomorrow.
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