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Sublime Petra

Sublime Petra

Rose-Red Caravan City Of Ancient Jordan


    Not virgin white - like that old Doric shrine
    where once Athena held her rights divine,
    but rosy-red - as if the blush of dawn
    which first beheld them were not yet withdrawn.
    The hues of youth on a brow of woe
    Which men called old two thousand years ago!
    Match me such marvel, save in eastern clime;
    a rose-red city - "Half as old as Time!"

When the Victorian Poet John William Burgon penned these lines more than a hundred years ago, Jordan's ancient caravan city was indeed of venerable age - if not quite as old as poetic licence allows! First established as a city by the Nabataean Arabs in the 4th century BC, it owed its birth and prosperity to the fact that it was the only place with clear and abundant water between the Hijaz trading centres of Mecca and Medina, and Palestine.

Hewn directly into the Nubian sandstone ridges of the south Jordanian desert, it seems probable that - given its excellent defensive position and good water supplies - Petra has been continually occupied from as early as Paleolithic times. It is thought to be mentioned in the Bible as Sela, a mountain fortress captured by Amaziah, King of Judah, in the 9th century BC, when the defenders were hurled to their deaths from the summit, and as many as 10,000 people died.

The city's Latin name, Petra - literally, "Rock" - probably replaced the biblical name Sela at the time of the Roman conquest some 1,900 years ago. Today, in Arabic, the ancient site is still called Batraa, though the valley in which it is situated is known as Wadi Musa - "The Valley of Moses" - being one of the places where, according to Semitic tradition, the Prophet Moses struck a rock and water gushed forth. Truly, Petra is steeped in history.

Originally residents of northern Arabia, some 2,400 years ago the Nabataean Arabs took advantage of hostilities between the Greeks and the Persians to extend their kingdom northwards into Jordan. Once established there, with their capital at the almost impregnable fortress of Petra, the Nabataeans became masters of hydraulic engineering and grew rich on commerce. Caravans plying the ancient trade route between spice-producing southern Arabia and the Levant found in Petra a market for their spices, myrrh and frankincense on the journey northwards, and for Mediterranean products - textiles, grains, and pottery vessels - on their return journey south. Petra - like the important Hijazi caravan towns of Mecca and Medina - was also a haven of rest and refuge for the itinerant caravaneers; a source of fresh water for their livestock, and a relay station for their horses and camels.

Although originally a desert Arab people - true Bedouin, kin to the "people of the black tents" - during the period of their power and wealth, which extended for about 400 years from approximately 300 BC to 100 AD, the Nabataeans gradually succumbed to the lure of Hellenism, the dominant Mediterranean culture of the time. At the height of their power, during the 1st century AD, the Nabataeans dominated northern Arabia, Palestine, Trans-Jordan and southern Syria. Meanwhile Petra, their capital, had taken on all the aspects of a Hellenistic city with public buildings - including a theatre, a temple and a treasury - in Greco-Roman style.

Unfortunately, the end was not far off. After having absorbed all the petty kingdoms of the Levant and prepared itself for a trial of strength with Parthia, - the sole remaining great power in the Middle  East - Rome could not bring itself to tolerate the existence of a semi-independent state like Petra in the region. In AD 106 Roman legions based in Syria, under the command of Trajan, pushed forward to capture and destroy Petra. The picturesque and opulent Nabataean capital was pushed into the limbo of history - providing not even a sideshow for the victorious armies of Khalid Ibn al-Walid, the "Sword of Islam", during his 7th century conquest of the region. In fact, Petra was destined to disappear from knowledge until its rediscovery by the Swiss traveller Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812.

Following this rediscovery - assisted no doubt by Burgon's laudatory verses - Petra became an increasingly popular, if somewhat remote, tourist attraction for Victorian travellers. Following the establishment of the modern Jordanian state in 1927, communications in the Hashemite Kingdom improved immeasurably, so that visiting Petra from Amman became more an overnight trip than an expedition. For many years, however, the impact of mass tourism on Petra has been limited by endemic instability in the region. Today, following the momentous Middle East peace agreement between Israel and Jordan, all this is about to change. Bridges across the River Jordan are opening to tourism, peace is returning to the region in general, and the "Rose-Red City" will receive visitors in ever-increasing numbers.

Petra is certainly well worth the visit. Few tourist destinations anywhere in the world are more grand, more sublime, or more unexpected. For the present-day visitor, as for their antique counterpart, there is only one entrance to the city - via the valley of the Wadi Musa culminating in an narrow fissure called the Siq which in times past made the city all but impregnable. The Siq is a marvel of nature, a narrow canyon carved by the elements in the roseate sandstone of the region, in places so narrow that only one rider can pass at a time. The final 1.5 kilometres of this canyon averages no more than 5 metres in width, winding between towering cliffs which reach as high as 100 metres.

The intrepid modern traveller, usually on camel or horseback, cannot but be impressed with the grandeur of the scene - though the best is yet to come. On emerging from the narrow cleft there stands revealed, in the most dramatic fashion, an extraordinary city built not of sandstone blocks, but hewn directly into the multi-coloured cliffs themselves.

The first major building encountered, known in Arabic as Al-Khaznah, or "The Treasury", sets the scene for the rest of the visit. Skilfully cut into pink sandstone by Nabataean Arab craftsmen almost two thousand years ago, the style in clearly Hellenistic, with a Doric facade topped by a monumental crown. Elsewhere the rocks are stratified in an array of pastel colours, ranging from pinkish-purple, through peach to the softest of yellows. In places this combination is offset by deeply etched veins of mother-of-pearl, swirling in fantastic natural patterns.

Besides The Treasury, Petra has about 800 other major monuments - certainly far too many to enumerate and describe outside the pages of a definitive archaeological survey! Most visitors will be content with seeing the Roman-style amphitheatre, the tombs in the nearby "Street of Facades", Qasr al-Bint - the "Palace of the Lady", and perhaps the Temple of the Winged Lions. Refreshments are available at the Forum Restaurant, after which the energetic may choose to climb to al-Deir ("The Monastery"), a magnificent Hellenic facade cut into striated yellow rock at a height of 1,035 metres above sea level. From here fine views are obtainable both of Petra itself, and across the Judean wilderness towards Israel and Palestine.

As the setting sun drops behind Petra's western ramparts, the modern visitor can only pause, like Burckhardt and Burgon before, and wonder at the achievements of the Nabataean Arabs. By any standards, this rose-red city is one of the wonders of the ancient world.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Pictures by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media