Hidden in the mountains of Southern Jordan, lies one of the biggest cultural treasures known to man. Recently, it was named as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. This place belonged to a departed race that left its glory, heritage, beliefs, and culture carved in the giant red sandstone mountains and valleys of Wadi Musa. Petra, as we know it today, is a site that no words or pictures can fully describe or do proper justice to its grandiose character and setting. But I’ll do my best to share my experience…
I still remember the first time I learned about Petra. Like most people in my generation, we learned about it through the adventurous Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade movie. From that moment on, Petra was in my travel map, but little did I know that Petra was much more than what Indiana Jones cared to share with the world.
Now, it was my time to discover more of Petra and its enigmatic yet culturally rich civilization, the Nabataean Arabs, a nomadic tribe who settled here and laid the foundations of a commercial empire around the 6th century BC.
Petra was the Capital of the Nabataeans and they turned it into an important junction for the silk, spice, and other trade routes that linked China, India, and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece, and Rome.
I was surprised by how this well-hidden place was such an important node for ancient trade caravans. Such trade even influenced the Nabataean culture and its architecture, which is mixed with Egyptian, Greek, and Assyrian aesthetics.
I’ll be honest… I was a bit bummed during my first visit to Petra. It was raining. No, it wasn’t raining, it was pouring and cold! Still, I didn’t want to miss this wonder.
The entrance to the Petra complex is an experience itself. You walk through the Siq – a narrow gorge that is about 1.2km in length. The Siq is between 3 to 5 meters wide and is flanked on either side by soaring, 80 meters high cliffs.
Can you imagine the proportions of these jagged canyon spaces? I felt like I was walking through a hidden passage that led me to an undiscovered place.
Did I mention that it was raining? Well, to my surprise, Petra is not dull in the rain. The water pouring through the canyon walls created a darker contrast between the minerals colored red, blue, and brown, which decorate the sandstone walls naturally.
The stormwater flowed through the Siq’s cobblestone and dirt floor, a quick reminder of how this site is prone to flooding under heavy rains and how the Nabataeans were able to master the water by building dams and aqueducts along the canyon, and how they were able to store the excess to survive the harsh desert draught months.
The Siq winds left and right, never showing what’s ahead except for what’s just a couple dozen meters ahead. To me, it felt like it would never end. Every turn is different, yet equally fascinating.
Then… the peak moment arrived… I could see a peek of The Treasury through the jagged canyon walls, almost like if looking at it through a keyhole. Every step I took revealed a little more of the façade, more details, more wonder, until I was there, in the plain open space in front of this magnificent 43 meters tall façade.
The Treasury, which real name is Al-Khazneh, was carved out of the sheer, dusky pink sandstone of an open space that contains no other human intervention (well, today there’s a small shop/café in front… but no biggie).
The building and mountain are one, and together they stand proud and magnificent, welcoming and humbling visitors with its beauty. The Treasury was carved in the early 1st century as the tomb of the Nabataean king Al Harth the 3rd.
Today, it represents the artistic and engineering genius of this ancient civilization.
Why is it known as “The Treasury”? Well, I’ve heard two stories. It is said that the Roman soldiers named it that way because they believed such a beautiful and elaborate structure had to signify great wealth. The other theory says that the name “The Treasury” is based on the former belief that there were hidden treasures within the walls. For now, we can only guess.
After maybe 30 minutes of drooling and picture snapping of The Treasury, it was time to move on forward with the rest of Petra.
YES! There’s more in Petra!
The Treasury might get all the attention, but that is just one building. Petra was a city.
A little further from the Treasury, the canyon walls narrow the passage again, forming like a small extension of the Siq. Then, they slowly spread apart again, revealing with a striking effect the valley that shelters the rest of Petra – the carved tomb facades, the crumbled residential buildings and the massive 3,000 spectators theater known as en-Neir.
The theater has one of the most surreal backdrops and surroundings… royal tombs. Imagine watching an open-air fire-lit performance, with the flickering of the fire casting its dancing shadow along the elaborately decorated tombs that project out the rose-colored mountain. I can only imagine how eerie those performances must have been.
As I walked further, still under the rain, I could see a colonnade that resembled the classical Roman colonnades and the ruins of a Roman temple. And indeed they were. Petra was once under the power of the Roman Empire, but the Nabataeans didn’t give their proud city so easy.
There were successive failed attempts by various rulers like the Seleucid king Antigonus, the Roman emperor Pompey, and Herod the Great, but it was until 106AD that Petra fell under Roman power.
The Romans and Nabataeans still inhabited Petra during the Byzantine period, but at that time the Roman Empire moved its focus east to Constantinople, bringing the decline of the city. This decline was also aided by the change of trade routes from land caravans to maritime trades.
The Crusaders constructed a fort in the 12th century, but soon after they withdrew, leaving Petra to the locals, and “erasing” it from the map. It wasn’t until 1812 that Petra resurrected from the dead when it was rediscovered by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. This year, 2012, Petra celebrates 200 years from its rediscovery!
My experience in Petra was overwhelming, if not mind-numbing. It was hard for me to imagine how such an impressive city could have been built out of the mountains themselves and be completely sheltered by nature. And how such a hidden place could be the center of an international trading business.
Petra was truly the grand city of the Nabataeans, and to this day, it still speaks loudly about their glory times and achievements.
While I enjoyed the color contrasts and different environment a rainy day can create in Petra, I felt that there was much more to it that I was missing. So, I needed to make a second visit with a different setting… a sunny day!
And believe me, it was a different experience! I’ll go into more detail in the next post.