Amazing Petra

Trip Start Aug 19, 1992
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Trip End Aug 19, 2010


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Flag of Jordan  ,
Saturday, December 23, 2006

We wake to drizzle, which is a little disappointing, but not unexpected, as we had seen such predictions in the weather report. After breakfast, we meet our guide, Radwan, and head off into the rain (rain!).

Our hotel is just a few steps from the Visitor's Centre. Radwan gives us a brief summary of our itinerary, showing us the proposed route on a relief map of the region. From the Visitor’s Centre, one can ride horses 700m to the opening of the Siq. We opt to walk, to take in the sites along the way. Along the trail are the first carved tomb facades of Petra, in the so-called Syrian design. One has a cross-step pattern, with Corinthian columns below. We pass another highly unusual tomb: four obelisks on top and a banqueting hall beneath. We pause here, while Radwan provides some background to Petra: built and occupied by the Nabatean people, who are of unknown origin, though some speculate they came from Yemen; a great trading power, specializing in frankincense and myrrh; at its height from 100BC to 100AD, though it flourished much longer, into the Byzantine period. Their architecture shows influence from northern Arabia, Syria, Greece, and Egypt, often combining all of the above in a single fašade. They worshiped a pantheon; gods had specific realms, such as rock, mountain, fertility, water. Figures of the gods were usually rectangular with no or limited human features. The Nabateans were also great water engineers and brought water from great distances, plus harvested rainwater in the city. They also built dams and redirected floodwaters.

We were quite wet after this brief history lecture – and cold, as a strong wind blew up the canyon. At the opening of the siq, we paused to look at the dam and the tunnel for run-off built by the Nabateans … and recently rebuilt by the government of Jordan after a flashflood killed eight French tourists.

Heading downhill, the walls closed around us, and we were in the siq. The path twists and turns, following the watercourse. The color of the walls were lovely – reds and browns, and intensified by the rain. Along the base, the Nabateans had constructed a small pipe system, to bring water to the city. One side was open while the other was fully enclosed – the latter probably for drinking water. Periodically, there were small shrines, usually facing downhill, so that caravans leaving the city could pray as they departed. At first, we were alone in the siq, but a very noisy group of Portuguese (?) tourists caught up to us – they were yelling and shouting at each other constantly, and completely ignoring their guide. At first, we tried to walk ahead of them, but it soon became apparent that they were not going to linger, so we let them pass. Ah, silence again.

Part of the siq was excavated years ago, exposing some of the original paving stones. The Nabateans used limestone to pave the road – carted from very far away. Unfortunately, the excavators were rushed and careless and ended up destroying some sculptures of a camel caravan before they realized that it was there.

The siq, at the end, narrows dramatically, and, through a break in the curved walls, we glimpse the fašade of the Treasury. It is very impressive as it comes into view, its Corinthian columns protected from extensive erosion by the deep inset and overhang. Radwan tells us to enjoy the view, and he will wait for us over by the (inevitable) crafts stall.

We take a few photos then join Radwan. He has commandeered five stools around a fire pit full of glowing coals. Ah, it feels very good to warm my cold hands. We order hot tea infused with mint and begin to feel warmer … until the skies open up and rain pours down. We grab our tea and stools and move into the tent. Dry, but not warm. Radwan convinces the Bedouin to bring the fire, in its hibachi-like container, into the tent, so we have the best of all possible worlds.

While we are warm and dry, Radwan explains the features of the Treasury. First, it was never a Treasury, it was a tomb. Although it might have once contained rich burial goods, those were looted in antiquity. Rumors persisted, however, that this was the hiding place of a king’s, or Napoleon’s, booty. The focus of these rumors was the central urn near the top, despite the fact that it is clearly a solid mass, carved from sandstone. It has been repeatedly shot at over the centuries and is now half-destroyed. Failing to find any gold there, potential looters turned their focus to other parts of the fašade so that much of it is now pock-marked with bullet holes.

Despite the ravages of time and man, much of the detail of the carvings remain. The iconography is an odd mish-mash: the Greek goddess Nike, Egyptian goddess Isis and local goddess of fertility all have a place. The fašade, like all fašades in Petra, save one, were carved from the top down, and insets in the cliff for the scaffolding can be seen clearly.

The interior of the tomb consists of one large central chamber, with three chambers off of it. One cannot enter the tomb but stands in the main doorway, peering in. outside the main door are two additional chambers that they believe are for priests to store the equipment they needed for offerings. In the center of the door sill, before the door itself, is a bowl-like indentation which was used to collect blood from sacrifices; a channel runs from the bowl into the tomb.

Once we are warm and had explored the Treasury, and now that the rain has stopped, we continue down the path towards the city itself. The next stop is the Street of Fašades, and here the colors of Petra start coming alive. One of the tombs has 20 graves, marked by 20 carved obelisks, with the writing of the Nabateans (who used an Aramaic-like script). Another tomb’s entrance provided our first clear view of the colors of Petra rock: described in some historical writings as well-marbled raw beef, streaked with saffron and curry. There are also blues and purples. To me, it is most reminiscent of an oil slick, a gasoline rainbow. Beautiful and unreal.

After the Street of Fašades, the vista opens up and one begins to see the city of Petra itself, rather than its necropolis. We enter the theatre (capacity: 4000). Paul and Kyla stand near the center of what would have been the stage; Keegan and I climb to the upper seats. The acoustics are amazing – we can hear each other clearly, though we are speaking in normal voices.

Radwan takes us to see a cave where a family of Bedouin now live … but might be similar to a Nabatean home. It is very dark and smells of smoke. The floor is covered with carpets. Around the circular room, a bench has been carved out of the sandstone walls. It is also covered in carpets and saddles.

Not much remains of the city of Petra itself. There were a couple of large temples, one of which is being excavated by Brown University. A smaller one has the only remaining free-standing wall in Petra. Some homes were carved into the cliffs, but the best real estate was reserved for more tombs, the so-called Royal Tombs.

At the end of the city, we say good-bye to Radwan, and have our lunch. While we eat, it begins to rain heavily again. We linger for a while, then eventually decide to visit the museum. The museum is very small; its best feature is the remains of a mosaic floor. But when we are done, the rain has abated somewhat—and soon stops altogether. We begin the climb up the supposedly 1200 steps to the Monastery.

We almost do not reach Step 1, however, as the runoff from the recent rain has breached the small dam, and the floodwaters, only a few inches deep, coming down the trail towards us. But we are able to ford the water and begin to climb the steps. A few urchins start to pursue us but are turned back by the flood.

The steps are awash in a minor way in just a few places; the rest of the path is clear. We begin to feel fortunate that it has rained. Not only does the layer of water really bring out the color of the rocks – but the many, many Bedouin craft stalls have been abandoned, so we are spared the cries of "One dinar! One dinar! Lady, look!" as we hike.

Near the bottom, we pass two Britishers coming down, walking, but with donkeys in tow. They tell us we are foolish to continue: it is too far; it is dangerous; it will be dark soon. It is not yet 2pm, so we assume we have lots of time. We thank them, then continue on our way.

We all agreed later that the climb to the Monastery is the highlight of the day. We pass a few groups but mostly, we are alone. The colors on the rock steps are amazing, and I find myself pausing frequently to say, “Oh, wow, look at that!” and other profound things. The view back down the canyon, with vistas of Petra city and the Royal Tombs, is spectacular.

The Monastery itself is very impressive – not as well-preserved as the Treasury, but much larger. It was originally a tomb as well, but converted into a monastery when the then-Christian Romans moved in.  We do not linger, even though it has taken us less than 40 minutes to reach the summit (including pauses for photos). But we have much else to see, so we begin the descent.

On the way down, we pass a large French group coming uphill, riding donkeys. They are arguing over price with the donkey drivers – whether 10 dinars were for up and down, or up only. Passing all those donkeys at once gave us a small sense of what it must be like during the high season.

Once down, the flood waters have retreated from the trail. Instead of taking the main road back up the canyon, we walk along a parallel trail, to see the ruins of an old church (currently being excavated). We continue pass the church, past a 400 year old pistachio tree, then up to the Royal Tombs. The Palace Tomb is most impressive from a distance, but, up close, it is the Silk Tomb that amazes because its fašade is carved so deeply into the rock face. The Nabateans must have chipped away large quantities of sandstone before they ever began to work on the tomb fašade.

We also have fun watching some local animals. First, we have to cross a small wooden bridge – that is currently being eaten by a donkey. The donkey seems a little annoyed when we make him stop chewing so we can pass. Next, we have to scare about 15 goats off some narrow steps. Fortunately, they retreat into a cave – apparently their home, from the smell of it.

At this point, it is 4pm and we are back on the main road. Except for two or three other stragglers, we are alone in Petra. Even the Bedouin seem to have left. We stop again at the Treasury, then say good-bye to Petra and hike up the siq to our hotel.

We are thoroughly exhausted by the day. Paul and I decide to go to the hotel bar for either coffee or drinks. The bar at the Movenpick is gorgeous – lots of hand-carved and painted wood panels cover the walls and ceiling. We sit on a banquette and revisit our day in Petra. Both agree that, despite very high expectations, Petra did not disappoint.
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