5 May 2017
It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.
– John William Burgon
Petra- UNESCO site and one of the new 7 Wonders of the world has always been on my list. Petra is suffering from erosion, weathering and huge influx of tourists which ( as always) will pose a threat to the UNESCO site. More than just a rock-cut architecture, it is also a community, a stop along the ancient trade routes and a melting pot of successive empires, tribes and religions. This rose city… this inaccessible city was only known to the Western world in 1812.
Used as a stop for caravans during the 13th-15th Century, it was eventually abandoned and fiercely guarded by the local Bedouins. A Swiss explorer J.L Burckhardt, who heard about the place disguised himself as an Arab and persuaded the Bedouins to show him the way….then the rest is history. Being forgotten is a fabulous way of preserving priceless wonders and remnants of the past. If only I could be the one who discovered something magnificent- Can you imagine just how Burckhardt felt when he laid eyes on it for the first time?
Petra was inhabited since the early times and was a region for pottery until the late 3rd century. Nabataeans or the nomadic Arabians settled in the area at the end of the 6th Century B.C. and found it to be geographically advantageous. Petra used to be plentiful with water supply and the canyon walls offered natural protection for the settlers. Water, channels, knowledge and management of water supplies to serve agricultural purposes has a significant meaning for Petra.
According to Arab tradition, Petra is the spot where Moses struck a rock with his staff and water came forth. Petra is also holy! The people eventually became skilled in raising farm animals and managing water in the form of building channels and cisterns for their stock inside the valley and surrounding areas. Petra was the hub for the ancient trade route that linked China and the Far East with Rome, Europe and beyond. Merchants and their goods would rest in Petra before embarking again on their journey. In order for food, accommodation and protection against bandits, the Nabataeans imposed tax on all the goods and made money that way. Petra flourished.
During the hike, Li Chin and I came across many points of interests that screamed out “Romans”. Like Jerash, one of the Decapolis, we were not surprised that there are places in Petra with hints of Roman rule and Christianity. The amphitheatres and colonnade streets along with the church and mosaic showed the importance of Petra for the Romans. Emperor Hadrian visited the site in 131 AD and named it after himself (as you do). However, as Petra progressed alongside Roman Rule, the area found itseld in decline. Why? Maritime trade routes were estblished and goods went over water instead of overland. Earthquakes also occurred which damaged the area. The first recorded earthquake was in 363 which destroyed many structure and crippled the water system. In 551, another earthquake struck and it was abandoned in 663 when the Arabs invaded the place. Gradually, it fell and the treasuries were looted by thieves. In terms of religion, Christianity spread across the Bryzantine Empire and Petra in 4th Century AD. Inevitably, it became an area where churches were set up. This happened 500 years after the establishment of Petra as a trade center. The Islamic conquest of 629-632 meant that most of Arabia became a follower of Islam. In 661, Muslim Umayyad Dynasty established the capital in modern day Damascus Syria. As a result Petra was isolated from the seat of power proving again that “Nothing lasts forever.” Several earthquakes brought it to an end.
We entered the site from the east where the entrance is guarded by tombs, narrow gorge and the Siq. The dam/siq is actually a short walk (1.2km) from the tourist visitor center. To see Petra, you need to walk. There is no need to get a camel or horse and they are certainly not free and included in the entry ticket. It was another walk towards the valley passing the siq before that breathtaking moment when the “Treasury” appears…in front of your eyes. It really is magical. As one of the major sites to be revealed to incoming visitors, perhaps this is why the ‘Treasury’ remains iconic not only for Petra but also for the country. However, our long trek around the valley proved one fact: there are other sites more stunning than the Treasury. Walking along the six and seeing the Treasury in front of my eyes remains one of the many to-die for moments in my life. 40 m high and intricately decorated, legend had it that a pharaoh’s tomb and treasures are inside the place. Off limits to visitors, we could only admire it from the outside.
We left the Treasury after crowds of people started to fight for that photo spot. The map with clear labels and indications took us two deeper into the Petra valley.We past a place for sacrifice and also a Roman theatre carved into the side of the mountain. We veered off the main road to see the Royal Tombs. Unlike the other structures, we could walk right inside these rock structures and try to get a sense of its functions (burial chambers). After this came the Colonnaded Street (could have been a main shopping street of ancient Petra) and the Great Temple. Li Chin and I pressed on….we were not going to leave until we see ‘The Monastery’. It was a steady hike up the slopes. With people and horses going up and down the trail from all directions, just take care and ensure you have firm footing. It was a slow and easy hike which took up into canyons and to a different side of the valley. Although it is The Treasury that has become an icon of Petra, The Monastery is equal in splendour. Some 800 or so steps and 14 km from the main entrance/ visitor centre, we turned left…walked down the stairs and there she is- Our Ad Deir.
She is Gorgeous! Built around 1st- 2nd Century AD and definitely later than the Treasury, it is the largest monument in Petra. 47 m wide and 48.3 m high, you cannot venture inside the Monastery. Used as a Christian chapel with crosses carved on the side walls, it is a lot more empty than The Treasury in terms of visitor numbers. The cafe that lies directly opposite this monument was a nice rest stop. We sat there and drank tea. We rested and chatted with other travellers before making our way back. As more visitors rushed in to catch sight of the rose city, we were told that large areas remain undiscovered in Petra. This was proven to be correct since in 2016, archaeologists discovered a previously unknown structure beneath the sands of Petra. Satellite imagery showed that there lies something underneath the sand. The thought of finding something again is possible- look at hidden temples at Angkor Wat.
This world is big enough to hide many secrets and to be given one day with an archaeological wonder is something that must be cherished!