MAYBE as he never went there, a little known Victorian poet-cleric is mainly responsible for an ongoing fiction the once lost city of Petra, in the Jordan Desert is “rose-red”.
Report by Dusty Miller
Dean Burgan’s lines “ . . . match me such a marvel, save in Eastern clime
A rose-red city half as old as time,” from “Petra”, are still quoted widely, but the city is built in sandstone rock mainly rose-pink from natural iron ore. Other ores, mainly copper and sulphur, add greens, blues, yellows, pure white and many brown hues, which in parts of the ancient 40sq km settlement, home to 25 000 people 1 000 years before Christ, result in a vast array of shades, forming a beautiful marble effect in some stonework.
For all its undoubted past glories and present matchless beauty, most of Petra’s carved stone constructions long ago crumbled to dust, eroded by desert wind, fierce heat, sunlight, icily cold winter nights and occasional flash floods.
The living part of the city – the Acropolis—is totally gone, what remains is the Necropolis: the City of the Dead
You enter Petra, on foot, horse-, camel- or under-nourished overworked donkey-back, from Wadi Musa (Moses’ Valley) down a torturous 1,2km long natural cleft in the solid stone called El Siq. Varying in width between three and 16m; the original inhabitants, Nabataean Arabs, paved it.
These amazing people also carved channels the entire descending length of one side to carry water from a perpetual stream in the otherwise burning desert to a thirsty populace, making interlocking ceramic pipes on the other side.
In Biblical times, Nabataea dominated trade routes in Arabia. The kingdom stretched from Damascus, Syria and included parts of the Sinai and Negev Deserts. Their increasing influence and prosperity was a serious threat to Imperial Rome, whose legions occupied the vast area.
The settlement probably disappeared during Roman times, when an earthquake destroyed its water-carrying system, storage dams and cisterns left by the Nabataeans.
The Crusaders, fighting Saladin, built a fort there in the 12th century but soon abandoned it, leaving the mysterious ruins: then around 2 000 years old, to Bedouin tribesmen.
The site was lost to civilization until, in 1812, young Swiss explorer, Johan Ludwig Burckhardt, literally stumbled upon it, hidden in a fold in the flanks of Mount Hor in a rift running between the Dead Sea to the north, Red Sea in the south. This—in an Asian desert – is the northern extremity of the Great Rift Valley, which runs through East Africa, appears in Zimbabwe as the Great Dyke, petering out in Mozambique.
It was 1924, long after Lawrence of Arabia—he started the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turkish Empire with the present King of Jordan’s great-grandfather, in Aqaba in 1916—was stunned by Petra’s archeological sites and sights, that scientific exploration began.
I took a day trip from Egypt’s ritzy-glitzy Red Sea beach resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. “Day” is no understatement. After a 250km pre-dawn coach trip up Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, fast catamaran ferry journey across the Gulf of Aqaba, another bus trek 200km into the Jordan Desert, lunch at Petra Marriot and conducted tour of the World Heritage site, then the return leg, it was 23 hours plus from being collected from my hotel to delivery back: hungry and cold in January. The excursion cost $175.
I could have gone again—and probably would – 15 months later, when the MSC cruise ship Melody tied-up at Aqaba a fortnight into a three week voyage from Durban to Genoa, Italy, (when a Somali pirate attack had been repelled off the Seychelles) but I thought the time available to see the ruins was too little.
All down Petra’s Siq there are carvings, small, some cave-like, tombs and votive niches both sides of the visitor, cut into sheer walls soaring more than 100 metres. At the end of the trail is the breathtaking tomb, misleadingly called Pharaoh’s Treasury. Clearly influenced by Alexander the Great – who soldiered here circa 312BC – this magnificent feat of architectural engineering, with iconic two-tier Corinthian columns, looks as if was plucked straight from Athens into an unfriendly desert.
At 39,5m high, it is thought it took2 000 artisans 20 years to carve out of sheer sandstone, working from the top down, on primitive scaffolding, wielding chisels while hanging from ropes. Intensely ornate, figures of gods and goddesses, Castor and Pollux Zeus’ twin sons, Greek and Roman legendary heroes, animals and flora are carved into the imposing façade.
Due to the “Treasury” tab, countless generations of nomads thought the structure -: believed to be the tomb of King Aretas IV – held untold wealth; a funerary urn crowning the construction is peppered with thousands of bullet holes from guns of Arabs convinced “treasure” would pour down on them. Close to it is a dining room, or triclinium, carved from an existing cave, where Nabataeans dined to honour their dead.
Petra’s largest monument is the Dier or monastery, reached by climbing 800 steps cut into the rock to the 40mx50m structure. Clearly an important pilgrimage site of the ancients, worshippers and priests formed a processional route from the open area in front of the monument. In the 4th century AD it became a Christian monastery, during the Byzantine era; crucifixes adorned its walls.
Tombs are not only those of Arab peoples. Close by is the mausoleum of a Roman governor of Arabia, Sextius Florentius, built by his son, in AD130.
Petra owes much of its undoubted drama to its natural surroundings: hidden for centuries by the waste of the desert, behind soaring mountains sandstone and porphyria. The red-stone setting is so theatrical it was used as the location for the film Mission to Mars, simulating the Red Planet’s topography. The Treasury backdropped Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade and Petra starred in less well known flicks: Passion in the Desert, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and Sisters of Mercy.
(You can reach Petra easily from Amman or Aqaba, Jordan; Sharm el-Sheik, Taba or any Egyptian Red Sea Riviera resort or Eilat in the south of Israel.)