Journey to Petra in Jordan
Author: Pearce Gunne-Jones "Xcapia"
The sky is a dusty blue as I make my way along the rather ominous sounding Desert Highway from Jordan’s shimmering Red Sea coast. Even at this early hour, I can feel the searing Middle Eastern sun radiating through the bus window. Ahead, the sun dances and gleams off the jet black tarmac, like reflections on a fast-flowing river. All around, mountains rise up dramatically, their sheer sides and craggy outcrops menacing and imposing at the same time. This lonesome, inhospitable landscape, seems ill-suited to all but the hardiest of souls.
My reverie is broken by the sharp turn of the bus, as it turns off the main highway and towards my ultimate destination, the fabled ancient civilization of Petra. Nothing fills me with more excitement but also nervous trepidation at the thought of venturing into this almost mythical place. My nervousness stems from an inner fear that my idealized view of Petra will be compromised by the reality of mass tourism, tour groups and tacky souvenirs. I feel somewhat apprehensive as the bus draws closer.
The highway slowly ascends as we near our destination. Down below, hidden amongst the valleys and canyons lies Petra. The bus meanders its way through countless low rise buildings and chaotic streets, vibrant with life. Here, everyday life carries on, side by side with the remains of this ancient civilization. Before long, the modern entrance to Petra is within sight; advertising boards in multiple languages reflecting the international appeal of this iconic site. Beyond the ticketed entrance, there is an assortment of souvenir stalls, eateries and energetic sellers brandishing the finest of Petra related kitsch – stuffed camel anyone?
Beginning the descent, local Bedouin approach offering camel rides and horse and cart excursions. It is an unassuming start as the path gently descends. Before long however, the small outcrops of rock became larger and more dramatic and the path meanders its way around these towering natural phenomena.
The Nabateans as a civilization are cloaked in mystery and intrigue. No one is sure from where they originated, some say from the area now known as Yemen, others the eastern regions of the Arabian peninsula. What is widely accepted however, is the ingenuity and engineering feat of these people who created a sophisticated water run-off management system in this most arid of locations. Even today, one can make out the intricate water channels they cut into the rock, testament to how advanced they really were. The mystery of their subsequent disappearance and abandonment of Petra is therefore the more intriguing.
The anticipation builds, as the path narrows and as the rock face on either side becomes steeper. Intricate patterns emerge in the rock, near marble like in their appearance. As I progress, I look up to the sky, which is now just a slither of blue between the rock.
Having gained infamy from the Indiana Jones movie, The Last Crusade, the Treasury building is surely amongst the greatest sights of Petra. It epitomizes the ingenuity and prowess of this famed civilization. Through a mere crack in the rock face, I catch my first tantalizing glimpse of the Treasury, its sand colored façade lit up by the sun.
A few steps further and the Treasury is revealed in all its glory. The sudden opening in the rock creates a natural amphitheater. Its regal columns and fine detailing reflective of the skilled craftsmen. Historians are divided over the purpose of the Treasury and how it might have been used. This natural square represents the hub of modern-day Petra. Tourists jostle for the best selfie angle, trying to crop out as many of their fellow tourists as possible in the process. Amongst the hustle of activity, camels sit idly in the center, often shrouded in Bedouin rugs. They look around unimpressed, for naturally they have seen this all before.
Onwards beyond the Treasury, other structures are less intact but no less astounding. The theatre, tiers cut into the rock, countless tombs up high, the monastery and colonnaded street. One could quite easily spend several days exploring and finding corners of this immense site where your only companion may be the occasional passing camel.
Amongst the many stalls that are set up amongst the remains, I notice prints on display of the works of David Roberts. Perhaps no one has made a greater contribution to the image of Petra within the public psyche as this Scottish oil painter from Stockbridge. From Petra’s discovery by Johann Burckhardt in 1812, Roberts’ contribution transformed public awareness in the nineteenth century from what was once a distant, unfamiliar place, to a recognizable landmark on a par with the Sphinx or the Pyramids. Historic views and perceptions of Petra were undoubtedly shaped by Roberts’ work.
The rock faces of Petra gradually turn all hues of orange as sunset approaches. One can easily appreciate the artistic inspiration that this place has provided to generations of artists and photographers. If I had a canvas and paint to hand, I would use some Burnt Sienna perhaps, with a touch of Indian Yellow. As the day draws to a close, it is a sign that it is now time for me to leave Petra. Whilst retracing my steps past the Treasury building, my mind wanders to the one question surely every visitor finds themselves asking. Why did the Nabateans ever leave this place? A place where they engineered water management within an arid desert landscape, a place where they created such building feats as the Treasury out of the sheer rock face. The more I consider this question however, the more I conclude that in some ways, I would rather we didn’t know. For what would history be without some mystery and intrigue, and Petra certainly has that in abundance. Walking towards the entrance gate, I discover that my shoes have become encrusted with Petra sandstone. Perhaps it is my inner Indiana Jones that makes me want to never clean these shoes again.
If you go:
• Bring comfortable footwear: surfaces are uneven and can often be rocky underfoot.
• The main parts of the site, especially around the Treasury, can become exceptionally crowded. Be prepared to get there early to beat the worst of the crowds.
• Even in the height of the season, make sure you venture beyond the principal sites, as it will still be possible to find a quieter spot free of selfie sticks.
• Depending on the time of year, unsurprisingly it can get very hot, with limited refreshments available within the site itself. Make sure you bring an ample water supply and plenty of sun cream. Whilst there are many shady spots, large parts of Petra are completely open.
• Highly recommended is experiencing the Petra night show. Starting at 20.30 from the Petra visitor center every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, these tours take you to the Treasury with the only light source coming from 1,500 candles providing a truly memorable and unique experience.