The Hidden City of Petra

The ship that I served on had been detached from blockade duty and we had come on a port visit to the Jordanian port of Aqaba, that lies at the head of the gulf of the same name. And, as is the want of sailors on shore leave, a group of us took the opportunity to see some of the local antiquities, Jordan not being lacking in such.

We travelled by bus to Mount Hor which lies on the eastern flanks of the Wadi Arabah then transferred to horses for the final part of the journey through the Al Siq, a winding valley that slowly rises and constricts until you are passing through a serpentine rock gorge so narrow at some points you can touch either side with outstretched arms.

As you ride you start to notice the almost tangible quiet of the place, only the clattering of hooves on stone breaking the silence of the summer heat baking off the rock walls of the gorge. Then suddenly the Siq opens up and in front of you is Al Kazneh, the Treasury.

No one knows why and for what purpose it was built, but the local bedouin believed it to be a burial chamber for treasure. You can still see the pockmarks in the urn atop the facade, from bullets fired by Bedouin treasure seekers, in hopes of smashing it open and releasing a shower of golden coin no doubt.

Walking across the narrow valley that is the southern most extent of Petra and up the steps into the interior chamber of Al Kazneh, one can then turn around to view the entrance to Al Siq on the other side of the valley. And I think the architects, whoever they were, had this view, as well as the reverse, precisely in mind when they built here.

After the stillness the next thing that one notices is the unbelievably beautiful sandstone. Some visitors have likened the colour of Petra stone to rose but to characterise it with a single adjective is to do a great disservice. The rock of Petra is so layered and flecked with colour and striation that it glows with an internal fire as the light of the sun catches it, like a frozen river of reds and ochres.

As one walks down the valley you pass by the darkened empty doorways of the tall rectangular shaped tombs of the street of facades, reminding you that you are in fact walking down a street in the city of the dead.

Then the valley starts to widen out to the north west and there nestled at the base of the En-Nejr mountain you come upon a massive amphitheatre in the Greco-Roman style providing a commanding view of the city and the tombs to the visitor.

Continuing to walk down into the Wadi Musa, the Valley of Moses, that bisects the city you start to notice that there are tombs all over the valley, some large and ornate ones but mostly small and simple tombs, with some barely more than a hole cut in the rock.

As one continues to explore the city you find that the mix of greco-roman styles set against the austere, almost minimalist, severity of the native Nabatean tombs gave the strange feeling that the past in Petra has been jumbled and shuffled together, almost like a deck of cards.

Walking through the central valley one starts to notice the recurring use of a step motif as a decoration in this case a style borrowed from the Assyrians.

High up on the mountainside lies the first of the royal tombs, the so called Urn Tomb.

One climbs up a series of stairs to get to a wide balcony that provides a commanding view back over the city, and to the other royal tombs on the other side of the valley. In the distance you can see tucked agains the northern shield of mountains is the temple of the Winged Lion and the Turkmanian tombs.

Petra is one of the most breathtaking remnants of the ancient world that I have ever seen, my only regret is that I didn’t have the time to fully explore the city and all its wonders.

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