A Visit to the Rose Red Ruins of the Ancient City
04.03.2012 - 04.03.2012 48 °F
Years ago when I was in high school, I received a postcard from a summer camp friend that showed a massive building facade carved into the side of a mountain. I immediately recognized it as the resting place of the Holy Grail from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, which had been released a few years before. I wondered why my friend went on vacation to see a movie set. Okay, I was pretty ignorant back then, and had never heard of Petra. Once I learned that the facade was really the Treasury building for this ancient city, my interest was piqued. I made it my mission to see Petra someday.
This rocky area of Jordan had likely been occupied since early Biblical times by the Edomites. But most of what we know about Petra began around 312 B.C. when arabic nomads known as the Nabateans conquered the area. Petra became a major stop for the Spice Road, and the inhabitants prospered through control of this trade. The Nabateans were responsible for most of the incredible monuments carved into the sandstone rocks. However, the Romans eventually conquered the Nabateans in 106 AD and added some of their typical free-standing Roman buildings. Eventually, control passed to the Byzantines who subsequently built several Christian churches. With their subsequent fall to the Islamic Conquest in the 8th century and the decline of the trade caravans, Petra ceased to exist as a major city. Eventually, it became lost to the Western historical record for a thousand years. In 1812, a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, rediscovered Petra for the rest of the world. He had to disguise himself as a sheikh as non-Muslims were prohibited from entering the area. At that time, Petra was occupied by Bedouins who resided there until the 1960's when the Jordanian government relocated them all to a nearby town.
Just in case I didn't emphasis it in my previous entries, it has been freezing here. Although Petra opens at 6 AM, Bashar recommended we hold off on starting until around 9 AM so the air could warm up a bit. Even then, it was still freezing because deserts don't have trees to block huge blasts of cold air. Conveniently, the ticket office for Petra was directly across the street from our hotel. We hired a local guide who had graduated from tourism school only a few months before. He seemed like a nice guy, but I could tell he was still inexperienced and reticent. He told us that since it is the off season for tourism, he only guides one tour a week.
Included in the cost of the entry ticket is a horseback ride to the beginning of the site. We had heard warnings that the people who handle the horses will hassle you pretty hard for tips of 10-15 JD (~ $20). We figured we needed the exercise, so we decided to walk. Besides, I'm pretty cheap. This ended up being the coldest part of the day as we were hammered by freezing crosswinds.
(Left) The 1 km walk to the Al-Siq can be traversed by horse or foot. (Right) Four obelisk adorn this tomb.
The wind died down once we reached the shelter of the Al-Siq, a narrow canyon flanked by cliff walls up to 650 feet high. Some parts of the pathway still remain paved with stones dating back to the Romans. It has taken thousands of years for water to chisel this canyon out of the mountain. Unfortunately, this same effect has slowly eroded several of the monuments and statues within the Al-Siq.
(Left) Irrigation canals were carved into the rock walls to store and carry rainwater to the city. (Right) A flash flood in the Al-Siq killed 12 French tourists in 1963. Several dams have been built to divert the water away.
Many shrines have been carved into the rock walls so that the Nabateans could worship idols of their gods.
We dodged several horse-drawn carriages ferrying older tourists. We were shocked to see one horse suddenly collapse and lay motionless. Several tense minutes passed in which we were sure it was dead. Finally, the horse got up and was retired for the day. I'm no veterinarian so I couldn't tell how well those animals were kept. But, I was glad that we decided to walk.
One more victim for the glue factory.
Inexplicably, we also noticed some visitors already leaving as we were arriving. I suspect that some people only visit the Treasury building and then leave without seeing the remainder of the large city. What a waste coming all the way to this exotic location. As we approached the end of the 2 km long Al-Siq, we caught a glimpse of a statue peeking around the edges of the canyon's walls.
We emerged into a clearing with the enormous facade of the Treasury building towering over us. With the rays of the morning sun illuminating the rose-colored sandstone, the Treasury has become the quintissential structure that people identify with Petra.
Our guide told us that the name is a misnomer--no treasures were stored there. There was an ancient myth that the Exodus pharaoh chased Moses and the Israelites all the way here. Encumbered by his vast wealth, he then stored it in the giant urn carved at the top of the building. Of course, historically this couldn’t have happened. But it didn’t stop Bedouins from shooting the urn hoping that gold would spill out. Instead, the building was likely used as a tomb, possibly for a Nabatean king. In the past few years, excavations were carried out discovering several more rooms below the structure, but these are inaccessible due to a covered grate. The decorations on this building demonstrate the many influences that other cultures had on the Nabateans.
In the center is a badly eroded statue of the Egyptian goddess Isis.
The two equestrian statues at the bottom of the Treasury represent the mythical Graeco-Roman twins, Castor and Pollux, the patron gods of sailors and travellers.
After enjoying a warm tea and taking the obligatory pictures of the Treasury, we continued on towards the rest of the city. We passed a large open-air theatre initially built by the Nabateans and improved by the Romans.
Although the performances may be in 3D, this theatre still has no IMAX compatibility.
The site is teeming with smaller caves that were used as tombs in ancient times.
Although there is no evidence that these were used specifically by kings, these more ornately-carved structures have been labelled as
We eventually arrived at a long colonnaded street that dated to the Roman occupation. Sadly, most of it is in complete ruins. Paving stones still cover a good portion of the road, but most of the columns have fully collapsed and lay to the side. More excavation and reconstruction are needed to restore it to the semblance of the structure it once was.
(Left) Remaining columns. (Middle) Remaining road stones. (Right) Remaining guards.
Ruins of 'The Great Temple' that has been excavated by Brown University.
On a hill overlooking the colonaded street are the excavated ruins of Byzantine era churches. Their mosaic floors are still well preserved and beautiful works of art. We reached the end of the colonaded street where we saw the Qasr Al-Bint, a three-roomed temple dedicated to the chief Nabatean god Dushara. Although it was damaged by an earthquake in 363 AD, it is the only free-standing stone building still remaining in the city.
(Left) The Qasr Al-Bint. (Right) Amazingly, the arch at the entryway still stands, albeit it looks like a gentle zephyr could cause it to collapse.
At that point, we ditched our guide and decided to do the hike to the Al Deir which is also dubbed the 'Monastery' for some unknown reason. The path comprises 800 steps that wind up the mountain.
(Left) The locals were smart enough to use donkeys. (Middle and Right) The pathway to the Monastery.
The majority of tourists to Petra tend to forego this journey. A small handful (mainly older folks) hire donkeys to carry them up. The rest of the people who made the trek tended to be younger and in decent shape. That being said, it wasn't really difficult, just somewhat tedious. At the top it was sometimes worse because of the occasional wind-tunnel effect. Harsh sand and small pebbles were whipped up leading to an unwanted exfoliating facial.
As we rounded a corner at the top of the mountain, an enormous structure greeted us. Although not as ornately carved or decorated as the Treasury, the Monastery’s dwarfs it in sheer size. The doorway alone stands 8 meters high. We ended up hiking further up the mountain to get a better vantage point to view and photograph the massive structure. Altogether, it took less than 2 hours to make the round trip to see the Monastery.
It would have been nice if the Nabateans had built the Monastery 800 steps closer to the rest of the city.
(Left) A restaurant lies empty on top of the mountain. Location, location, location. (Right) Further up the mountain is an immense room with a small shrine sullied with modern grafitti.
Along the way down, some of the locals manned stands selling cheap trinkets. At least they had the sense to wait until we were heading back down the mountain before they asked us to view their wares. The bedouins, for the most part, were polite. They didn't harass us too badly like we had expected. Usually, a simple 'no thanks' was all it took and they left us alone. Several of them also had their children with them. The Wife noticed a cute little boy and girl. She gave the boy an apple and motioned him to share with his younger sister. He shook his head 'no'. So when the little girl came over, The Wife tried to hand her a bag of potato chips. Seeing the superiority of the salty snack, the boy handed the apple to his sister and grabbed the chips. It's good to see that all cultures appreciate junk food over healthy snacks.
This house comes with a two car garage.
We finished up with the rest of the excavated areas at Petra. Astonishingly, experts believe that only 15% of the site has been excavated so far. The whole experience at Petra took a total of about 6 hours. Did we see every nook and cranny there? Probably not, but we were satisfied that we got our fill of this exotic location. Sadly though, we never did find the room containing the Holy Grail. It's probably all for the best because I’m sure that I would have chosen...poorly.