Friday, 16 July 2010

The Rose Red City

 It seems no work of Man's creative hand,
By labor wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
Eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
Where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
That crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
That first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
Which Man deemed old two thousand years ago.
Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
A rose-red city half as old as time. 

 -John William Burgon
We woke early and left for Petra at 8 am. It was not quite early enough as the gates open at 6 am and by the time we had got tickets and linked up with Mahmoud, our guide, there were already people walking back and we weren't quite early enough to dodge the folks on bus tours. Not that there's anything wrong with people on bus tours, of course, but they do seem to have a penchant for standing in front of the pretty bits taking pictures of each other, and there are usually 40 of them. I had three expectations of Petra. 1. that it would be hot. 2. that it would be crowded and 3. that it would not live up to the exalted imaginings I had of the place. I was right about 1 and 2, but I was wonderfully wrong about number 3.
Nabatean tomb
We walked down the entrance path, past a few tombs hewn into the sandstone. Mahmoud, who had been raised in Petra pointed out the differences in Nabatean and Roman architecture. This city, situated to control the caravan routes through Arabia had been capital to the Biblical Edomites, then the Nabateans.  It had fallen under the control of the Romans, the Ottomans and the Arabs. All had left their mark but it was the Nabateans who made it what it is. A kilometer down the path we entered the narrow canyon called the Siq which is Petra's front door, and it was here that I realised that nothing in my imagination could possibly prepare me for the experience of the place. The Siq is in some places a hundred metres wide, and in others five. As you walk down the gradual slope towards the city it curves and turns, shifting from cool passageways to open sunny plazas, all naturally formed, of course. The sandstone twists and turns skyward: pink, ochre, red, burgundy, tan, cream, white blending together or laid in stripes or fading one into the other. In the walls are small tombs and niches, stairways, dams and partitions. A water channel runs the length of it, and was once connected to an ingenious system of cisternsand reservoirs. There is Roman paving underfoot, and perhaps Nabatean paving under that. In places there are the remains of what must have once been huge and impressive statues, and all of it is carved out of the rock.
A dam and part of the water channel in the Siq
It is not hard to imagine what it must have been like: from the ferocious desert the traveller would have entered this cool pink alleyway; running water on both sides; pools and cisterns dotted regularly along the course; trees and gardens planted in terraces or in small side valleys; cool even paving underfoot. It must have seemed like paradise.Then nearly a mile in, there would be the sight which remains unchanged, 2,000 years later. Turn a corner, and through the slit which is the end of the Siq is "The Treasury," glowing pink in the sunlight. I had seen it in hundreds of pictures. It was the backdrop for an Indiana Jones movie. But nothing prepared me for its beauty nor for its grandeur. Seeing it is to be transported back to the time before this was a ruin.

 A couple of tourists getting a snap in front of the Treasury
Emerging from the Siq the illusion of timelessness disappears in the bedlam of gawking tourists, stalls selling cold drinks and souvenirs, vendors flogging camel or donkey rides and children accosting us with armfuls of trinkets. 5 dinar sir, because I like you, but if you twist my arm who knows? I might go lower... The wide courtyard is full of movement, but there is nevertheless a sense of hushed quiet: Petra is bigger, older, more serene than the frantic pantomime of the courtyard in front of the treasury; and besides, the Nabateans were traders and would heartily approve of their descendents making a buck in this place. The valley opens up and in the walls around us are many tombs, homes and monuments carved into the rock. To make a cursory survey of the city would take, so they say, about three days. It is huge and we had one day. So we walked. It is possible not to walk. There are camels and donkeys for hire and you can, if you want, ride to even the highest points in the city, but walking, particularly with a knowledgable guide, connects you with a place in a way nothing else can.And thankfully, as we moved away from The Treasury out into the bright sunlight and the rest of this huge city, the crowds thinned.
Bridget and Scott look into the striped house
In about 3 hours we walked the length of the city and climbed up the 900 uneven, broken, steep steps to "the Monastary" (names are a bit arbitrary and bear no relationship to the original use of the buildings) and then further up to a place where the whole city and the deep rift valley containing the dead Sea lay before us and the mountains of Israel lay beyond. We dined in one of the two restaurants, the one housed in a large tent. We looked at the remains of the Roman collonaded street, and entered a house whose naturally striped walls and view out over the amphitheatre had once made it a guest house for VIPs.
The Monastery. The 2 people in front of it give a sense of scale
By the time we began the return journey up the Siq the temperature was well into the 30s, we had lready walked about 8-10 km, some of it almost vertically and my shirt was sodden. The sun was directly overhead as we walked back and the Siq took on a whole new character. An hour or so later we were back in the hotel with showers and a pool and beds. Petra is the reason I wanted to come to Jordan in the first place, and the trip has been worth it for today alone. I shall be back.

1 comment:

Verna said...

Kelvin - thank you for this wonderful description of Petra. I have looked at photos of Petra for years wishing that somehow I could afford to get there, but never knowing anyone who had actually been there. The photo of the monastery with its tiny people in front of it is one of the reason why I have wanted to go there - don't think I have ever been to a man-made place which is so huge in contrast to human size. Thanks for the photos and vivid descriptions.