Flintstones, Indiana Jones and Lawrence of Arabia

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Jordan  ,
Friday, December 8, 2006


You've seen Petra. God's gift to film sets. It is an astonishing place, and none of my photos will do it justice. I abandonned cycling and skipped everything else Jordan has to offer- the dead sea, Roman ruins, crusader castles and desert moonscapes- to have time to see it. And was glad I did. Who could miss the 'rose-red city, half as old as time'? (Technically it is neither, but no one could care less)

Hewn from the very living rock, as the cliche goes, it was the capital of the ancient Nabataean kingdom for many years, before being taken over by the various subsequent empires. In a sense Petra spoils you, as arguably the most exquisite tomb and dramatic moment are when you reach the end of the Siq- the narrow passage between high cliff walls by which you enter Petra- and the 'treasury', a huge and ornate facade,  is revealed before you. The two most well known tombs in Petra are named for what they were not. The 'treasury' was a tomb, but according to myth one of the urns in it's facade contained some treasure, and the 'monastery' was a tomb, but later Christians used it for services.

The well trodden trail from the siq to the monastery's 'high place' took me past the Roman amphitheatre, the 'high place of sacrifice', the 'five tombs', the Roman temple, the old church, the museum and innumerable little hollowed out caverns which might have been tombs, or dwellings, or barns for all I knew, but which begged to be explored.

Wandering around, climbing up bits, looking in bits, trying to take it all in. I was nearing the top of a steep path when I heard a womans voice.

-would you like some tea?

I'm English. Until recently I was a student. I am not capable of saying 'no' to that question. So I sat on a rock and had syrupy Bedouin tea with two women and their infant children. They asked me where I was from. Told me they lived in a nearby Bedouin camp, ever since they were evicted from Petra itself twenty years ago. They showed me their homemade jewellery and fake roman coins, which I duly admired. I really don't mind people trying to sell me stuff, - everyone has to make a living- so long as they don't mind me not buying, or use being annoying as a sales technique. If you ever hear me say

-he was so annoying I bought one in the end just to make him go away

you may assume I have given up on life.

The more impressive tombs have, after being excavated from the cliff-face, been decorated by carving into the surrounding rock pillars, lintels, cornices and so on to give the impression of a traditional free-standing structure. Some, the monastery and treasury in particular, do look very impressive. But I couldn't help but wonder why they weren't more imaginative. Since the 'structural' forms were added last, why make them conform to standards required in ordinary construction? Why not have pillars that curve, or taper to an impossibly fine point, supporting improbably large capitols... Or, better still, why have pillars? Ropes, taut but with loops in; or spirals, suspended from nothing...  Well, thats what I 'd have done anyway. 

The monastery was worth the 900 steps you have to climb to see it. Bigger but less detailed than the treasury, and with a nearby viewing platform from which, on a clear day, you can see over the dead sea and into Israel. It wasn't quite that clear, but the view was still breathtaking.

On my way to the high place of sacrifice I stopped at the roman temple and church. Both of which would get more ink if they were elsewhere, but colonnades and mosaics are just too prosaic for Petra.

The high place of sacrifice was perilously windy, on a day when sand was scouring the people in the valley. (I resolved early on to buy a 'teatowel' in Egypt, since I looked even sillier with a jumper draped over my head) The steps to the high place didn't go all the way up, so the sense of adventure was heightened by having to find my own route up scree and boulders. There was an altar, an excavated rectangle creating a ledge for the participants of ceremonies to sit on, and a circular bowl for the blood of the sacrifice to collect in and channels for it to run out again. I sat, alone, imagining the ceremony, drinking in the view and recovering from climbing nearly 2000 steps that morning.

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