Petra - the other half

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

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Thursday, March 9, 2006

So who were these stone-crazy Nabataeans anyway? Constructors of ancient wonders of the first rate and like the Khmers over Thailand way, almost forgotten to the sands of time despite their prolific, precise and wondrous building.

Science has pretty well proven that they moved into Arabia a couple of millennia BC, quickly consolidating to control profitable caravaneering and trade routes passing through this strategic area from Africa, Europe and Asia. Goods in transit included frankincense, myrrh, spices, animal hides, ivory and silk (hence the Chinese pottery in the Aqaba museum). They had a hankering for coloured stone however so moved a little further north to the Petra area after 500BC and the first great monuments started to appear here between 200 and 100BC.

History buffs will realise that the Romans were about conquering this very land not long after - eventually annexing the Nabataean regions in 106AD. It seems that the two cultures co-existed for some time, until earthquakes in 4th and 6th centuries and the decline of the Roman Empire made the city untenable, forcing its abandonment. It wasn't until the Umayyids moved back in around the turn of the first millennium that Petra had more than nomadic presence. Fortunately there hasn't been further significant seisms since its decline or there would be very little to see now.

Anyway, enough of the history lesson. I had a three day pass so got out amongst it on an overcast second day to see the other half of the ancient city. My plan was all laid out until it failed at the first hurdle - you can't get animal (donkey, horse or camel) transport from the ticket office to the Colonnaded Street at the heart of the complex (it's regulated in stages, meaning a costly hassle), so my legs would have to do the hard work yet again. I walked to the entrance of the Siq (canyon path) and decided on the spur of the moment to take a right turn down the scenic route through Wadi Muthlim to see the tomb of Sextus Florentius.

What a great choice. Through an 88 metre tunnel cut through the rock to divert flash floods from the Siq, I continued down the valley until reaching a long and truly beautiful canyon system that stretched for a few hundred metres further into the wilds. This route is not for the infirm or faint-hearted - there's a number of 2-3m drops that you need to carefully negotiate because you don't want to break a leg in here. Also it's definitely not for anyone if there's any chance of heavy rain. But of all the canyons I've seen in the region this is the most beautiful. Worn by wind and water but still narrow and magnificently coloured by the local sandstone, it's a great hour's walk. Try it if conditions are right and you have time.

Because that's not all. At the end of the canyon you start seeing carved niches in the walls. Nothing really discernable but you sense something is coming up. The canyon opens out into a vast riverbed with bizarre and colourful rock formations that happens to provide good feed for the local goat population. Follow the path around the ridgeline to your left and some very cool cave housing starts to appear.

I don't know which one Dorotheos' House actually was but a number of these augmented natural caves are brilliant. Staircases have been carved into the rocks here and there to access higher time-formed caves and the technicolour decorations within them are superb. I'd say the best I saw in Petra and that is saying something because nice caves are all over the place. No need for a paint job in these!

I'd caught up to a couple of Swiss guys coming down the canyon and so after the arduous hike we decided to have tea with some local Bedouin once we reached Sextus' tomb. The kids were into the backpacks as soon as we sat down but that was ok because they were putting money into it. After fishing that out, returning it and downing a couple of teas we moved on to the main event.

Sextus was Governor of the Roman Province of Arabia at the time of Emperor Hadrian in 127AD. His tomb (above centre) was commissioned by his son following the will of his father and includes an eroded eagle (sign of the Legion) crowning a fertility goddess. Not much identifiable now but you can understand why the old coot wanted to be buried here. Nice one Flory!

After that I left the Swiss guys to the Royal Tombs and followed the call of the donkey (wish my video mode was working) to the Cardo Maximus (Colonnaded Street). This was obviously the centre of Roman attentions in the area and featured a variety of buildings on both sides of the road in its heyday.

Not much is left excepting some partial columns, the limestone paving and a number of intricate classical carvings. The Gateway, nymphaeum and adjacent temples are more akin to piles of rubble these days which is surprising because Roman constructions are usually the most enduring when visiting these ancient sites.

One exception is the free-standing and very solid Qasr al-Bint. It has a grand arch and the internals are worth a five minute look and climb.

The main event of the day however was the hike to Ad-Deir - The Monastery. More than 800 stairs are included in the 45 minute package through rocky outcrops and plunging gorges but the path is well worn so few take the donkey option. The result is spectacular however, in my humble opinion comparable if not exceeding the facade of The Treasury. These Nabataeans knew how to carve and at Ad-Deir that's what they did. It measures almost 50m x 50m and was constructed in the 2nd century AD. In later times (around 500AD) it was used as a church.

After ogling the Monastery for a while it was logical to walk a little further, so I headed out to one of the two view points that overlook the jagged mountain scape below. The other promontory was offering views and sacrifices but I wasn't sure whether tourists would be on the menu so was glad I chose my particular vantage point. Either way, the scenery was as good as that seen at Mt Sinai so it was well worth the small extra effort despite being a little dusty and hazy on the day.

Back down the 800 steps, I noticed a small sign pointing to another wady (valley) marked 'Quarry'. My motto on this trip is if I'm in the neighbourhood then go check it out so I headed off the beaten path (and contrary to warning signs) again and along the dry riverbed I went. Another good choice in the offing. The quarry itself was pretty bland but a lone Frenchman coming back up the path told me of a couple of springs further down so I continued on to where the Nabataeans probably first started off in this dry, rugged and scenic land - next to the natural outflow of water.

The valley here is no more than a kilometre away from the hordes of tourists doing their whirlwind tours but a veritable lifetime away from the maddening crowds. That's the beauty of this place - walk off the beaten track maybe ten minutes and you have a peace and solitude that can't be bought at most high profile tourist attractions. I wandered the green valley, filled with gigantic fallen boulders, and made my way down to the river bed to sit and enjoy nature for a half hour of resting weary bones, until I felt like leaving. The way it's meant to be I'm sure.

My final day here was dusty, cold and windy, so as I'd seen just about everything to see at Petra I didn't even bother going down. You can do it in two days (ticket costs around $US15) if you're organised, willing to walk and to forgo minor details like lunch. You don't need a guide, everything is well signposted - just get a good map and methodically cover sections instead of wandering around willy-nilly. Finally, if you do wander off the main paths onto more rugged terrain, take a mobile phone (there's coverage everywhere) in case something goes wrong.

Until next time, keep trekkin!

Next entry -> Amman

Old Rossian Proverb

The honk of the donkey speaks far more truth than the man riding it.
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