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The Lost Spirit of Petra
You may arrive at Petra knowing its history in fanatical detail, or you may arrive, as I did on my first visit, knowing absolutely nothing. Either way you're at a disadvantage. What you really need to know is this: Petra was once a city of fortune and fame--the New York of its era--but somehow became a city frozen in time and forgotten.
More than two millennia ago Petra featured prominently in history. Lying at the centre of trade, the region that is today Jordan was conquered again and again by waves of invaders whose names resonate with Biblical echoes: Israelites, Moabites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Persians. Around the 400s BC the Nabateans, Arabic speaking traders, rose to power and built their capital city at Petra. Yet, centuries later, Petra simply vanished from charts.
The fall began in 68 AD when the Roman emperor Trajan annexed the Nabataean Kingdom into the Roman province of Arabia. After the Romans, the Byzantines controlled Petra (c 379 AD), and during the crusades the occupiers were the Franks. Eventually, during the thirteenth century, with trade routes bypassing Petra, the city was finally deserted. Not even maps showed its location. Like a small town bypassed by a new highway, Petra was simply forgotten. Over the following 600 years, Petra passed in the West from memory into mythology, and only the local Bedouin tribes knew how to find it. But in 1812 Johann Burckhardt, a Swiss adventurer, following rumours of a "lost city," persuaded his Bedouin guide to take him to the site and Petra was rediscovered.
Yet today Petra remains relatively unknown. Neither teachers nor travel agents offer Petra the exposure that they give to the pyramids in Cairo or the Parthenon in Athens. So Petra doesn't feature prominently on Joe Blogg's list of places to go and things to see. Where it did feature more recently was in National Geographic (December 1998) and, a few years ago, in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But neither of these has turned the trickle of tourists to Jordan into the torrent enjoyed by Egypt and Greece.
In the Last Crusade the scenes that take place in the fictitious Canyon of the Crescent Moon were shot in the siq, a gorge 1.2 kilometres long, the walls of which cut 100 meters into the sandstone and yet are less than ten metres apart. This is the main entrance into Petra.
You begin the trip at the tourist office, which is on higher ground than the siq. Tickets (at 20 Jordanian dollars each) must place Petra amongst the most expensive tourist sites in the world, but once you're inside it's not difficult to understand why.
There's a wide stone and gravel road from the ticket office down towards the siq. Along the way you're offered donkey, horse or horse-drawn buggy to save you the walk, tempting if you're there in summer, but best saved for the return trip at the end of the day.
As you descend along the road, walking towards the sites, the ground starts to rise on either side, the hills close in, the road narrows to a path a few metres across and your impression changes. Now you begin to feel not that you're walking towards something but that you're entering some other place. Inscriptions appear now and again on the rocks, which gradually rise to form near-vertical walls pressing in from the sides, leaving you feeling dwarfed.
Small chambers carved into the walls begin to suggest the presence of inhabitants, but apart from the tourists, the place is deserted. At times, except for the sounds of sand and gravel beneath your feet, the place is silent. Then there's the effect of light and shadow, direct sunlight and sunlight reflected off the walls of the siq. Their interplay gives the gorge the aura of another dimension, a domain in which the rules of reality are somehow suspended. There's an atmosphere about it, as if the place itself were alive and watching you. In response, you find yourself looking out, looking behind or looking ahead, waiting to catch sight of something-- anything.
But throughout the siq, because the gorge snakes through the mountains, your view seldom extends more than a hundred metres. Then suddenly, barely visible between the walls ahead, you catch a glimpse of something that is at once quite real and yet seemingly a dream. You walk a little further, the siq ends abruptly and looming up twenty metres ahead, carved into the flat surface of a cliff, is the spectacular facade of a temple.
You're struck with awe and disbelief at what seems to be an illusion but which you know is quite real. Your subconscious struggles to accept it. You don't expect rock faces to look like buildings any more than you expect downtown buildings to look like caves. It's really like something out of a dream, something you would tell your spouse or shrink:
I was walking through a canyon and I came to the facade of a building carved out of the mountainside.
Al Khazneh, The Treasury, as it is called, looks like a Greek or Roman temple but is, of course, the work of the Nabataeans. The six columns at its base stand eight times the height of a man, and the pediment, urn and columns above the base bring the total height to 43 metres. The rock-face above still rises another 20 metres which means, of course, that as you step out of the siq, you find your head thrown back, your neck aching and your eyes staring.
Al Khazneh was carved in the first century BC as a tomb for the Nabataean king. It was later used as a temple. And in the mythology and folklore that ancient travellers inevitably weaved around Al Khazneh, the urn perched at the top of the facade was believed to contain precious jewels and gold -- treasures worthy of the Tales of a Thousand and One Nights. Hence the name: The Treasury.
But the real treasure is Petra itself, for this first facade is only one of hundreds of other buildings, facades, tombs and baths. There is even an amphitheatre carved out of solid rock!
The Nabataean architecture at Petra is an experience few other destinations can touch. Here is not just a couple of collapsed ruins, not just an enormous monument -- but an entire city captured in time and place by the stuff of which it is made -- the rocks, hills and mountains.
Although the Nabataeans left us an astonishing wealth of architecture, they left precious little else. Here was a people who altered their landscape like almost no others in history, a people that carved out of formless stone, fantastic features that have endured against the forces of nature and time itself. And yet where is their cultural legacy?
Just imagine, for a moment, if all that survived of the civilisation of ancient Greece was the Parthenon in Athens and a few small temples -- and nothing else: no Plato, no Aristotle, none of the great tragedies or comedies, none of the works of the great Greek mathematicians -- just a few of their buildings. Now imagine what is lost to us from the culture of the Nabataeans.
The lost city was rediscovered centuries ago. But will we ever rediscover the lost civilisation?
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