Petra — the rock and much more
by Elizabeth Willoughby
One of the seven wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Petra remains uniquely fascinating after thousands of years. Visiting it today, however, is easier than it was a few millennia ago. Or is it?

010  Tomb of the Obelisks and Triclinium

I'd read many times that Petra, the city carved out of the cliffs it inhabits and long on my list of places to see, was discovered in the 19th century by "an intrepid Swiss traveller, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt". This must have come as a surprise to the area locals and cause them to wonder where they had been all this time.

Seizing a chance opportunity to visit the city, I bypass the excellent site guides for the worst possible guide ever, Mueen. All is not lost though, besides the city itself for centuries, because I've picked up a book which contains a much higher level of bad English and false information than Maueen's. Nevertheless, it doesn't seem to matter. Petra is a place where every view is a masterpiece because Petra is nothing less.

Entering the Musa wadi (gully) just past the Indiana Jones kiosk, bored Arab boys racing donkeys and horses back and forth in extreme heat provide a brief distraction until several tombs carved out of sandstone come into view. Large, round and square caves with man-size entrances dot the wadi. Most impressive is the Tomb of the Obelisks and Triclinium, which is the first hint of the artful facades carved into rock face that are to come. Then the cliffs of Bab el Siq appear and we entered into the crevasse like Harrison Ford into his Last Crusade.

051 Camel Caravan scene

My book says this gorge "is never more than two metres wide". I believe it's missing a one in front, however two metres sounds more excitingly claustrophobic than 12. More than the magical light play of sun on rock bringing out the purple, yellow, orange and black of minerals within the red sandstone, the Siq is a passage through time and history depicted by carvings and invention. Nabataean god statues, images and bas-reliefs are carved into the stone, while dams and water channels run along both walls. The Roman rock road and larger-than-life-sized camel caravan scenes carved into the walls evidence what life had been like during various epochs, particularly as an ancient trade centre for the commercial routes linking Gaza, Damascus and the Red Sea.

After nearly a kilometre of passing through the "history alley's" colourful patterns and stories of antiquity, Al-Khasneh (The Treasury) appears suddenly through the end of the fissure and, besides a foreground of camels, vendors, tourists and the smell of urine, it is exactly what you expect.

152 Petra Treasury

The urn carved at the top is said to contain the Pharaoh's treasure at the time of the Exodus, and the damage to the existing facade is due to Bedouins trying to shoot down the urn to obtain the treasure. I am sceptical. I bet that by the 19th century, nearly two thousand years after the construction of the Petra facades, people might have figured out a way to scale the Treasury and give a peek inside the urn to discover that it's not hollow and doesn't contain any money. It seems more likely to me that bored people were using the carvings for target practice.

Beyond the Treasury awaits the Street of Facades and royal tombs — all chambers empty save worn decoration, speculation and variegated patterns of mineral within rock. The amphitheatre and other Roman ruins are also worth visitors' perusal. Then, those who dare brave the 800 plus steps up to the 13th-century Ed Deir (the Monastery), less graceful than the Treasury but larger. The tremendous monument, with its carvings and naturally coloured designs, is thought to be where various cults over time have gathered to commemorate their god/s.

265 Petra

Descending the stone steps, worn over millennia and sand-covered to make them extra treacherous, I question why I didn't hire a donkey. I limp past strangers still gasping uphill who take the time to point out that, due to the glowing redness of my face, perhaps I should stop and rest. An exploding heart, however, is not my problem. My knees, with whom I will likely never be friends, could not appreciate what my eyes did — the extraordinary wonder of this place named The Rock.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2008

This article was published at © 2008

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