Every traveler knows that one of the stops in Jordan has to be the ancient city of Petra.
It was in some movie (and it wasn’t Indiana Jones III) that I saw Petra for the first time. I was sure that it was just another movie set because I couldn’t believe that something like this really exists. Well, you can imagine how surreal the sight is when one gets there in person.
The ancient city of Petra
Still, in the heart of Jordan, this Arab country between Israel and Saudi Arabia there lies the legacy of ancient Nabataeans we know so little about. Tourists from all over the world flock here just because of Petra only to discover other Middle Eastern beauties.
It’s not just that the ancient city of Petra is an important historical town tucked in by a mountain range and not that easy to spot from outside the valley, but the very stone it has been built from is very special. And when about 2,000 years ago that beauty of nature was put together with human artistry, a magnificent city sprung up, the one that leaves you standing in awe.
This wonder of the ancient world was constructed in such a manner that if anyone wanted to enter, it would require them to go through the long gorge called the Siq while the narrow road curves so that they wouldn’t be able to see what’s behind the next corner or how long the path is. There is just about enough space for two small carriages to pass by one another.
While I strolled through this majestic mountain gorge with the view of the rock colors ranging from white and yellow to pink and bright red, it was easy to imagine what everyday life was like once, in this ancient city of Petra and among the population that originated from Yemen.
They say that these rocks were once at the bottom of the sea and that those fossil deposits are the reason for such a palette of colors. When the stone gets wet due to rain, it changes from pink to more yellow, so don’t be surprised if the town looks a bit different depending on the weather.
Who are Nabataeans
Originally nomads, the Nabataeans began to settle in this area around the 6th century BC, but only in the late Hellenistic and Roman times did their capital achieve the importance to which its monuments still bear witness. It is believed that the actual city has been built between the years of 9 BC and 40 AD and that it was even visited by the famous Roman Emperor Hadrian.
Its glory was somewhat overshone at the end of the 2nd century AD when the center of the Arab trade was practically moved to Palmyra. (You can read more on the blog about Palmyra, Syria.) There are no Nabataeans nowadays and we don’t really know what happened to them. Still, they have left such marvelous buildings and tombs dug into mountains’ stone, that one has to sense the greatness of their city.
Petra was almost impregnable, although it was later under the rule of foreigners. There were Egyptians here, Romans, Crusaders, and Ottomans. The city was the safe haven for caravans coming from the south of Arabia, packed with spices and silk from India and Africa, and frankincense which was especially interesting. The tree of frankincense produced the incense which was widely used during the rituals of god offerings, but it was also considered a sort of medicine.
So, Nabataeans have done pretty well regarding trade and customs, and they were the important link between the East and the West, balancing among the great powers such as Egypt and Persia.
Horses or carriages
Before you reach the old city of Petra, you will come across the new settlement totally adapted to foreign visits. A lot of hotels have risen up, stores, and internet cafes, and it’s quite a good idea to spend the night here so that you can fully enjoy the majestic ancient city of Petra.
In order to get into Petra there is a fee of about 30 JD (almost equal to 30 Euros), and you will be greeted by the unavoidable posters of Indiana Jones (Petra was the star location in the third sequel!). The entrance fee is 20, but you will pay an extra 10 or so for the association that takes care of horses here, because you can go through the Siq on foot, riding a horse, or in a small carriage.
There are about 800 meters to cover in order to step into the actual gorge. If on a horse, you will be asked to give a few extra dinars of baksheesh (tips). If you fancy a ride in the carriage all the way through the Siq, it will cost around 20 JD. It’s not a bad idea to hire it when going back after you are already tired of walking, but when you enter the gorge, it would be such a pity not to be able to stop and admire the striking sandstone cliffs whenever you please.
Along the gorge walls, there is a canal dug into the rock which brought water to the ancient city of Petra from the nearby torrent. Hence, even if under siege, the city was always sure to get enough drinking water.
The majestic Treasury
After the tortuous path of the two-kilometers Siq continues, widening out at times or suddenly narrowing, the majestic facade rises up before you, the one that Petra is so famous for. Coming out of the gorge, the rose-colored building begins to appear, revealing itself more and more with every step you take. And then you finally step out of the Siq, and there it is – the surreal Al Khazneh.
Although the function of the monument is still controversial, it is most likely that it served as a tomb. Nevertheless, because of its construction Bedouins called it “the pharaoh treasury” and the name thus stuck. It was probably built during the rain of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD).
There was an interesting legend saying that a pharaoh came across Petra while going after Jews, and he hid his wealth in one of the urns using magic. You can see the signs of rifle shots fired by the Bedouins in the attempt to pierce the tholos, hoping the “treasure” would fall down.
After you see the Treasury facade, you will probably expect the same magnificence inside. But, bear in mind that the whole structure was dug into the mountain rock of spectacular colors. So, there is one huge hall and once again, you will stand in awe before its colors. (Forget about all you have seen in the Indiana Jones movie where there are numerous long corridors and halls that allegedly go from here.)
The huge theater
But that’s not all. To the right of the Treasury, the ravine progressively widens on the way to town. There you will see the huge Theater, built entirely out of mountain rock in the 1st century AD. It consists of 33 tiers which can accommodate around 3,000 spectators.
On the rock wall northeast of the Theater, s series of splendid royal tombs are visible. Probably one of the most imposing monuments of the sight, Ad Deir or the Monastery will greet you at the end of the ancient settlement. It might have been built as a temple by the Nabataeans, but it was later used by monks. The building stands high up in mountains, its layout recalls the facade of the Treasury. The urn above the entrance is nine meters high.
A true legend
At the beginning of the 19th century, Petra was a town hidden in the mountains, forgotten by the outside world. No European has ever stepped in here since the time of the Crusaders, not until 1812. There were only rumors among the explorers and a legend of “a lost city somewhere in the Middle East, carved into rocks”.
But since 1812, visitors from all over the world have been rushing to this city, mesmerized by its ancient beauty!
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