Petra majestic

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Flag of Jordan  ,
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

After the lassitude of Dahab, travel trials on the ferry and the desolation of the beach camps on the Jordanian Red Sea coast I was needing some inspiration.

I could stay in Aqaba and go diving again but wasn't too keen on the likely cost - everything is exorbitantly priced here and diving would be no exception. I could also have headed to Wadi Rum, the centre of Lawrence of Arabia's world in his time here, which is said to be quite beautiful, but after numerous desert excursions in the past few weeks I doubt either of us would have appreciated it fully.

So I decided to head straight to Petra and see another of the ancient world's masterpieces. I'm glad of my choice because I was certainly inspired!

So I travelled up the Desert Highway, later detouring onto the spectacular King's Highway, in a local minibus to reach Wadi Mousa - the base for exploring this monumental site. The views on the King's road looking over precipitous gorges and to Israeli territory in the distance beyond started to revive my senses. Mosleh at Cleopetra Hotel made me feel at home when I arrived.

Next morning I jumped straight into it - the sun was shining and the temperature was perfect for a good day's exploration. Ticket prices are on par with similar attractions around the world which was surprising considering the scope of the site. After all, this isn't one big monument but a collection of dozens of huge carvings and canyons, so at $US7.50 a day it would be pretty good value indeed.

Accessing it is an exercise, but there is things to see all the way down as you descend into the valley. Inscriptions and tricliniums mark the entry road and The Siq, the 1,200m long deep and narrow gorge that resulted from some serious tectonic forces eons ago, is a magnificent introduction to the wonders of Petra itself. Parts of the Roman paved road through it remain, as do large sections of the water channels the Nabataeans developed to pipe refreshment into their city. Look out for it cut into the cliff walls as you pass through.

As the Siq ends you have tantalising glimpses of Petra's premier attraction - Al Khazneh - which is more commonly known as The Treasury. Made famous by the third instalment of the Indiana Jones trilogy (it certainly inspired me to come), it is one of the largest and most complete monuments here. Cut completely from the cliff face, it stands 30 metres wide and 43 metres high, the crowning, colonnaded facade is indicative of Nabataean skill and creativity when working the rose-coloured sandstone. Three rooms are carved into its depths.

It was built in the 1st century BC as a tomb for a Nabataean king so the 'Treasury' name is a bit of a misnomer, applied to it in more recent times due to local Bedouin stories that pirates used to hide treasure inside it once the city was abandoned after earthquake and the fall of the Roman empire. It's not surprising that such a magnificent creation gathered colourful tales about it.

In the morning it is pretty busy as tourist flood into the site and naturally linger before heading on to other parts of the valley. Lunchtime and the early afternoon is a better time to visit if you want some time for quiet contemplation.

Further into the site the valley widens and some of the hundreds of tombs and cave houses that comprised the city come into view. Many are huge and very precise geometric works of art, with elaborate facades carved directly from the rock-face. 2,000 years of wind and water erosion have taken its toll but the exquisiteness of workmanship coupled with the multi-coloured beauty of the rock is still obvious. The 4,000 seat theatre is another standout and every possible piece of rock and cliff has been used in this area - be it for staircases, housing or the tombs that are the main attraction.

The Urn Tomb (two photos top left) is the largest of the Royal Tombs, carved in around 70AD, including a massive courtyard and a large 17m x 19m inner chamber. The Byzantine church altered and reconsecrated it in the 5th century AD. The massive arched staircase leading to the facade itself is probably the addition and makes it a unique site in the valley. The neighbouring Palace Tomb, with up to five levels of intricate carving is aptly named despite weather damage and others in this row are all worth a visit.

From here I headed up a little used path to the top of the Sacred Hill, only fifty or a hundred metres from the main path and crowds, but seemingly a world away from behind the ridgeline. Quiet and solitude was found here, with only some sheep, goats and reptiles to be found amongst some divinely coloured caves.

This one in particular stood out. The rich reds, blues and whites beat anything seen in Egypt hands down. With a dash of yellow here and there you can see why it inspired the ancients to live and die here and why so many people come nowadays. The rock colouring is as equally captivating as the monuments and my personal favourite aspect of Petra.

Scaling down from the Sacred Hill led me to the base of a path to the top of another, where you will find the High Place of Sacrifice. It's a arduous climb but worth it - the entrance is marked by a couple of Obelisk and the High Place itself on the peak is still obvious as a sacrificial altar after all these years. It also affords breath-taking views of the valley below, especially down to newer, Roman part of the site. All you have to do is get down there.

A couple of kid goats were bleating about nearby, maybe in mourning of distant ancestors who met there fate on this very place so long ago. Probably not, but it was an amusing thought all the same. I had a tea with some guys playing a strange game of desert checkers and steeled myself for the descent into the bonsai-tree lined gorge down the other side of the mountain.

There is some good stuff down here in Wadi Farasa and it is also a quiet, peaceful area of the extended site to wander in. First stop was the Lion Fountain, a large lion carved into the cliff face as an elaborate decoration to the water collection system developed for this particular valley. Unfortunately his head was an integral part of the collector so it has eroded off now, but the body, legs and tail are still quite visible.

Further on you come to the Garden Tomb and Triclinium, whose information plaque suggested that although one part was a tomb, another was a dwelling and reservoir complex housing the guy who kept the water flowing. An important job no doubt in this dry land so little wonder he picked up some of the best real estate. Adjacent to it is a prettily-coloured Banqueting Hall that made good use of the striated sandstone which would have been a very beautiful room in its time.

Much of this was part of a Roman military settlement that spanned the valley in its day. The Soldier's Tomb, Banqueting Room and a few column bases are the only evidence of this today but a detailed information board nearby illustrated the structure that would have encompassed it all. It must have been a strange but compelling posting for the Legions sent to defend this territory.

The distances around the site don't look far on the map but the inclinations and terrain you cover is pretty arduous. It takes a while to get anywhere so by now I was ready to call it a day and head back to the hotel. All I had to do was get to The Treasury and let my feet do the rest.

This meant skirting around the ridgeline ending up somewhere near the Theatre so I could descend to path on the valley floor. Rugged going yet again but the caves, used as dwellings back then (and occasionally nowadays) were an added bonus to this off-road expedition. The rock colouring and formations were again unlike anything I'd seen elsewhere, so whilst my feet wanted to keep going there was regularly something new to stop, look at and shoot. Nice.

Eventually I did make it back to tomb central in the failing light. The Treasury was almost deserted making for some more great photos and reluctantly I turned my back on Petra for the first time. Hopefully tomorrow will be as good as today.

Next entry -> the other half of Petra - phew!

Words from the Wise #28

"Happiness is not the absence of problems but the ability to deal with them"
Anonymous compliments of Nathan H.
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Where I stayed
Cleopatra Hotel
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technotrekker on

Re: No time for love Dr Jones!
'She talks in her sleep...'.

Oh well mate, looks like I chose... wisely!

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