Postcards from Petra
On the shelves of a tall bookcase in my parents’ living room, you’ll find a hardcover titled Wonders of the Ancient World. I leafed through it many times as a child and read the book well into my early teens, with many lazy summer afternoons spent engrossed in the tales and pictures of faraway places I could only dream of visiting. What I remember most clearly from that volume is a full-page photograph taken in Petra, Jordan – specifically of the famed rock-cut tomb known as the Treasury (al-Khazneh). For our long-haul vacation every summer, my parents gravitated toward North America and sometimes Europe; the very possibility of going to the Middle East felt remote, almost unthinkable, at the time.
So, when the opportunity came to finally see Petra firsthand and complete Bama’s goal of setting foot in 30 countries by 2020, I leapt at the chance. The decision to go in October 2019 proved a prescient one: none of us could possibly have foreseen the upheaval that was to come. And the difficulty of traveling abroad these days makes our memories of the experience all the more precious. Jordan left a deep impression on both of us through the hospitality of its people; its hearty, flavorful cuisine packed with vegetables and herbs (I especially miss Jordanian za’atar); the archaeological wonders of Jerash and Madaba; and our stay at a Bedouin-inspired desert camp amid the sands of Wadi Rum. But Petra, the ancient Nabataean capital, was the undisputed highlight.
Greco-Roman sources paint the Nabataeans as a fiercely independent, freedom-loving people, warriors who made their home in the inhospitable deserts of Arabia and the southern Levant. Historians generally agree they were a once-nomadic Bedouin tribe that settled down and grew wealthy from controlling the major trade routes crisscrossing their kingdom. The Nabataeans charged tolls and offered shelter to merchants who transported myrrh and frankincense from southern Arabia to Egypt and the Mediterranean. At the Red Sea port of Ayla (modern-day Aqaba), spices, textiles, and precious stones from India were loaded onto caravans that passed through Petra on their way to Gaza, where the cargo was then transferred onto ships bound for Europe.
This ancient civilization may be long gone, but elements of their writing system persist to this day: the Arabic script used by more than 400 million people worldwide has its roots in a cursive form of the Nabataean alphabet. Little survives in the way of written documents that describe their culture and way of life. We know that Petra’s original name was Raqmu; the settlement thrived for nearly a millennium, first as the center of independent Nabataea and then as part of the Roman and Byzantine empires. When trade routes shifted toward the sea and rival caravan cities in the north, like Palmyra, Petra gradually declined in importance. A devastating earthquake in 363 leveled many of its buildings, and the town was all but forgotten by the time Islam emerged at the dawn of the seventh century. And yet Petra lived on in the imagination of those who studied ancient texts. Rumors of a lost city in the desert of the Holy Land were confirmed in 1812, when Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt became the first modern European to visit the locale while disguised as a Muslim Arab pilgrim. Petra then was a closely guarded secret, its wonders known only to those from the surrounding area.
Interest in the rediscovered site grew as the writers, poets, and artists of the Romantic Period nursed a deepening fascination with the Eastern World. Petra was chosen as the theme of the 1845 poetry competition for Oxford University’s prestigious Newdigate Prize, and Clergyman John William Burgon’s winning entry, which famously described it as “a rose-red city half as old as time”, cemented his place in the annals of English literature. It’s a little-known fact that the then-32-year-old student eventually made it to the subject of his poem at the age of 49. In a letter penned from his trip, Burgon called Petra “the most astonishing and interesting place I ever visited, and may well stand alone.” I’m sure most 21st-century travelers will be inclined to agree.
Bama and I have three days to explore the UNESCO World Heritage site on foot. We enter Petra the same way Burckhardt and the merchants of old did – through a parched valley that narrows to become the Siq. Stepping into this 1.2-kilometer (3,600-foot) canyon, a natural geological fault worn smooth by eons of wind and water erosion, feels like the start of a fantasy adventure on the silver screen. We march on between the remnants of a monumental archway destroyed by an earthquake in 1896, past votive niches and larger-than-life carvings of a camel caravan. Stretches of the original road still remain here: the well-worn flagstones were rediscovered only in the late 1990s. The clop-clop-clop of an oncoming horse-drawn buggy echoes off the towering sandstone walls.
The Siq twists and turns through an arid, impenetrable landscape. In places, the fissure is no more than three meters (10 feet) wide, a gloomy passage hidden from the light of the sun; elsewhere, it opens out into a well-lit space that hosts a few hardy trees and shrubs. We wonder if the Treasury awaits at the next curve, the next meander. For the next 20 minutes or so, the way forward is marked by yet another fold of amorphous rock. Then, out of nowhere, we see it peeking out from a crack: a split pediment from another age, an ornate frieze, Corinthian half-columns framing an eroded sculpture of an Amazon warrior. Everyone around us has frozen in place, slack-jawed by this marvel of ancient Nabataean craftsmanship. To read about the Treasury and pore over a photo is one thing, but nothing can truly prepare you for that very first glimpse of the real-life mausoleum. After laying eyes on it himself, Johann Burckhardt wrote in his journal, “great must have been the opulence of a city, which could dedicate such monuments to the memory of its rulers…”
Petra’s most celebrated landmark was built at the start of the 1st century AD, likely as the tomb of one of the great Nabataean kings, Aretas IV. It took 20 years for skilled stonemasons to chisel the entire monument out of the sandstone cliff, starting from the three-meter-high urn at the top and gradually working their way to the ground – not before excavating four large chambers with a combined volume of around 2,000 cubic meters, or 80 percent of an Olympic swimming pool. Its magnificent façade bears witness to how the Nabataeans adopted elements from other cultures and made it their own: Greco-Roman mythological figures adorn the alcoves, while a round Greek tholos takes up the center of a Hellenistic split pediment on the upper story. The fact that the Treasury remains so well-preserved even today, more than 2,000 years after its creation, is simply mind-boggling. I doubt that anything made by our machines and by us 21st-century people could have such permanence, such longevity.
Bama and I join a sizable crowd that has gathered in the open space immediately in front of the monument, whose imposing sandstone columns dwarf the visitors standing around at its base. Scattered among our fellow tourists are local Bedouin guides with kohl (black makeup) around their eyes, straggly long hair, and patterned keffiyeh head coverings – giving them a raffish appearance reminiscent of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. Above the chatter, above the sound of grunting camels and braying donkeys, I hear the desert breeze whispering in my ears. If it could talk, what stories might the wind bring of this rose-red city, half as old as time?
From the Treasury, we walk down the tomb-lined Street of Façades towards a wide valley that was once the bustling urban heart of Raqmu. At the height of its splendor in the 2nd to 3rd century AD, the city held an estimated 30,000 people within its walls. Today, history buffs can spend hours exploring the archaeological sites left by successive civilizations on either side of the Colonnaded Street, Petra’s main artery. The ancient Nabataeans created a rock-cut theater housing more than 6,000 spectators, while Roman-era traces include the Temenos Gate and the Nymphaeum, a once-grand public fountain now shaded by a 450-year-old juniper tree. Up on a nearby hillside lie the remains of a fifth-century Byzantine church with pastel-colored mosaic floors depicting fish and fowl. Bama and I climb a monumental stairway from the Colonnaded Street to wander the terraces and corridors of the Great Temple, a royal reception hall constructed when the Nabataeans ruled their own trading empire. This important precinct, the focal point of the city center, still impresses in its ruined state; the hefty column drums piled against each other like fallen dominoes hint at the compound’s former glory.
Beyond the Temenos Gate, we see a small band of workers restoring Qasr al-Bint (the Temple of Dushara), which was dedicated to the supreme deity of the Nabataeans and built around the same time as the Treasury. It’s the only freestanding structure that has remained somewhat intact in all of Petra. Modern-day engineers can appreciate the ingenuity of its construction: bands of wooden beams embedded in the massive stone walls act as reinforcement, dampening the effect of earthquakes and reducing shear stress by up to 50 percent. This is the reason why Qasr al-Bint survived while all the buildings around it, like the Great Temple, did not.
Much of our first afternoon in Petra is spent at the Royal Tombs on the western slope of the Jabal al-Khubtha massif. The first in a line of magnificent mausoleums punched out of the mountain, the Urn Tomb was so named for the distinctive jar that crowns its pediment. This 26-meter (85-foot) monument is thought to be the resting place of Malchus II, a Nabataean king who died in 70 AD, and can be reached via steps that traverse a double layer of Byzantine vaults known as as-Sijin, or “the Jail”. Wandering into the cool interior from a courtyard flanked by colonnaded porticos, our eyes are immediately drawn to the smooth ceiling high above our heads, decorated in the painterly hues of the exposed rock strata. The Urn Tomb’s chamber is almost square, measuring an impressive 19 by 17 meters (or 62 by 56 feet); it was eventually repurposed as a church in the mid-5th century, when a local bishop had three apses cut into the back wall.
Petra is busy. We’re told October is the start of peak season, which reaches a crescendo in the spring months. Bama and I come across several large groups of middle-aged Koreans in matching shirts and hats on a Holy Land circuit, but most other travelers speak a mix of mainly European languages – Spanish, Dutch, English, German, and occasionally the melodic intonations of Brazilian Portuguese. By far the loudest visitors are the Spaniards, and we find this to be the case everywhere in Petra.
One day, it’s a gaggle of retirees resting in the Siq as they cheer on other people from their group with a football chant: “Campeones! Campeones! Olé, olé, olé, olé!” The sound reverberates through the canyon, interrupting the atmosphere of reverence and wonder. At a shaded tea shop facing the Monastery (ad-Deir), the biggest rock-cut tomb of them all, all is quiet until groups of Spanish people arrive. The cacophony that follows reinforces a realization that came to me after nine months of living in Salamanca – the Spanish are the Chinese of Europe. Brash and immensely talkative at noise levels approaching 100 decibels, the Iberians have a deep-rooted aversion to silence. Bama half-jokingly asks me how I can tolerate Indonesia’s penchant for a similar kind of behavior. “Why do you like noisy countries so much?”
We end up retreating to a higher place to escape the Spaniards and get a better view of the Monastery. Following a steep trail up a nearby outcrop rewards us with an empty viewpoint where a Jordanian flag flutters in the wind. There’s a few rugs and other signs of a makeshift stall that would have sold trinkets and refreshments during even busier times. From our perch, Bama and I begin to appreciate how the 45-meter (147-foot) high Monastery slots perfectly into the surrounding landscape. Historians believe the landmark originally served as a memorial to the Nabataean king Obodas I, who was deified after his death. Its austere look makes for a stark contrast to the Treasury – and might have been even more difficult to pull off given a geometric simplicity that leaves no room for error. Imagine the pressure stonemasons faced when chiseling a perfect circle from the sandstone: any mistake would be irreversible, remaining there for all to see so long as the temple remained intact.
Less obvious than the grand monuments, but no less impressive, is Petra’s sophisticated water management system. Nabataean engineering was far ahead of its time: builders channeled the life-giving resource from nearby springs and seasonal streams into a network of clay pipes and rock-cut aqueducts (like the ones along the Siq) with a precise gradient of two degrees for the optimum rate of flow. These fed into cisterns around the city; many storage tanks were purposefully hidden underground to avoid evaporation and the prying eyes of strangers. By design, the basins filtered runoff from torrential winter rains into clean water suitable for drinking, bathing, and luxuries that would have been unthinkable in such a harsh desert environment.
Excavations on what was once believed to be a marketplace beside the Great Temple have revealed a recreational garden complex, where the residents of ancient Petra could cool off in a public swimming pool. Another recent discovery is the remains of a thermal spa perched high above the Royal Tombs on the al-Khubtha mountain, overlooking the urban center. The ancient Nabataeans also created a defensive system to protect the city from flash floods, digging a channel just outside the entrance to the Siq and a tunnel through solid rock to lead the floodwaters out, diverting it away from Petra.
All this is clearly explained at the gleaming Petra Museum outside the gates, an elegant rectangular building with a polished stone façade in desert colors. The attraction only opened in 2018, and was funded by the JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency), which goes some way in explaining the quality of the visitor experience – its state-of-the-art animations and interactive touchscreens make the place far more engaging than the Jordan Museum in Amman. Inside a circular central hall, we marvel at the trove of priceless Nabataean and Roman sculptures: Eros holding a wreath of pomegranates, grapes, pine cones, and wheat; an imported marble statue of Hercules; a surviving portion of an elephant capital, complete with its trunk, salvaged from the Great Temple.
And though we walk and walk for three days until our feet are sore, there are certain hikes that must be left out of the itinerary. Bama and I only make it halfway up the al-Khubtha trail before the fading light (and the concern of a kind Australian backpacker) forces us to turn back and descend. Nor do we manage to see the High Place of Sacrifice or join a guided tour of Little Petra (Siq Al-Barid). Instead, the two of us consciously abide by an unspoken rule to go slow, savoring each archaeological site we visit and all the moments in between – whether it’s scrambling up a narrow canyon to reach the easy-to-miss Lion Triclinium tomb, or playing with cats at a tea shop while waiting for the sun to light up the Monastery’s façade. Petra might be viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime destination, but as any seasoned traveler will tell you, always leave something for the next trip. ◊