As the coarse sand and scree crunched under the weight of my moving feet, I passed through one narrow bend after another as I entered the wonderland that is southern Jordan’s UNESCO World Heritage site of Petra. The sheer cliffs and warm rose hues of the 1.2 kilometer-long sandstone gorge known as the Siq, which is the main entrance to this vast archaeological site, enveloped me as if I was being embraced by Mother Earth herself.
The sun was rising and the play of light and shadow on the stone walls of the narrow passage was mesmerizing. My only worry was that another speeding horse carriage driven by one of the local Bedouin guides would come careening around a blind-curve and run me down as I daydreamed about ancient caravans navigating such narrow passages.
The Magic of Stone
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of rock hunting with my grandmother in the fields surrounding my grandparents’ house. As soon as a neighboring farmer had plowed a field–turning the soil and exposing the layers beneath–and before planting which levels the mounds of dirt and exposed stones, my grandmother and I (buckets and spades in hand) would excitedly walk the ruts in our quest for geological treasures. All our finds from the day would then be taken back to her house and classified based on information found in one of her many reference books on rocks and minerals.
My grandmother was a rock-hound of the highest order and displayed her collection of interesting specimens on shelves and tables in a living room that doubled as a library. From those early experiences, I developed a primal fascination for stone and its connection to the very core of our planet.
It was my combined love of stone and ancient civilizations that had led me to Petra, and I tried to imagine how excited my Grandmother would be if she was walking along beside me. Quite honestly, I talked a lot to her during the 3-days I explored the hills and ancient carved temples and tombs of Jordan’s most visited tourist destination.
Just when I had begun to think I might have taken the wrong path, I came around the final bend in the Siq and saw in front of me one of Petra’s most admired landmarks–Al Kazneh, or more familiarly known as The Treasury. I had timed it just right as the pink sandstone cliff from which this rock-hewn marvel was carved was rapidly being bathed in morning sunlight that gave it a deep-rose tinted glow as the quartz crystals in the sandstone reflected the suns yellow rays.The ancient Nabataeans–a northern Arabic tribe–are credited with carving these richly detailed monuments out of solid sandstone cliffs between the 4th century BCE and the 1st century CE.
Present day Petra was known in antiquity as Raqmu and was strategically located at the crossroads of major trading routes that connected kingdoms in all directions, from Babylon in the northeast to Egypt in the south. In such an inhospitable desert environment with no Tigris, Euphrates or Nile to provide water, Nabataean design and construction techniques allowed rain water to be collected to sustain and grow the city’s population to an estimated size of 20,000 by the 1st century CE. The city’s unique water storage facilities, along with a series of oases developed throughout the region sustained traveling caravans for centuries.
The Nabataen rulers grew rich off the caravan trade and their wealth is clearly evident in the design and ornamentation of the many mausoleums that cling to the sandstone cliffs surrounding Petra. The visually stunning Treasury is believed to have once served as the tomb of a Nabataean king. Indeed, Petra’s architectural and sculptural wealth is on par with the world’s greatest monuments to human achievement as are the sheer number of rock-carved houses and tombs.
A Marvelous Place to Hike
For me, the rugged and wild landscapes of Petra encompass the best of all worlds. It’s a major archaeological site where it’s easy to escape all the tourists on one of the many trails that wind their way up and down the mountainsides and through the wadis (dry river beds). Just like the ancient tombs and houses, the steps on the trails are carved out of solid sandstone. These steps lead to intriguing ceremonial sites high on the mountain tops with panoramic views overlooking the city and surrounding rose-toned desert.
It was while gazing out from one of these high viewpoints that the story of Petra came together in my mind. The steep-sided stone ridges surrounding the strategically located city provided natural fortifications to protect against invaders seeking to attack the city. The narrow passages between these ridges functioned as city gates and could be easily defended in case of attack.
The outlines of the ancient roads as they thread their way between the sandstone ridges can still be clearly distinguished, one road heading south toward Egypt and others to the north and east. Petra flourished due to its strategic location, but it also declined due to the same factors. With the advent of maritime routes for trade, the inland city began a long decline before being all but abandoned by the early Islamic era in the 7th and 8th centuries CE.
The Current Residents
There are people inhabiting some areas of the site which will tell you they’re descendants of the ancient Nabataens. While their claims are disputed by the merchants and innkeepers of the nearby town of Wadi Musa, it is these Bedouin people who sell crafts, snacks and provide the donkeys and horse carriages for those tourists who either can’t trek up stone steps or are reluctant to try.
When the UNESCO designation was assigned to the area back in 1985, the Jordanian government built cinder block housing just outside the site for the people who had been living in the rock-hewn structures, but some still make their homes among the ruins.Thankfully, I LOVE walking and hiking so I was able to avoid further taxing the sad-looking animals that provided transportation for many tourists.
Petra’s fame has also been spread through literature and movies and the setting is truly magical when lit at night. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the Syfy channel’s Dune miniseries are two standouts that take full advantage of this unique location.
For Further Information on this marvelous site, follow this UNESCO link.