January 7, 2010
Jordan Trip II: Petra
Tim: If you take a trip to Jordan, you must see Petra, which was recently chosen as one of the "New Seven Wonders of the Ancient World" along with the Colosseum in Rome, the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal in India. We boarded our bus in Amman for the three hour ride to Petra and as we were making our way through the crazy traffic, we saw a shepherd herding about 100 sheep right on the streets with the traffic. A startling sight for westerners!
The ancient Nabataeans built their magnificent city at a main juncture in the trade route from China and India to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe and taxed commodities going through. This, and their ability to build water conduit systems (modeled after Roman channels and cisterns), gave them a flourishing culture in the desert and enabled them to construct the city chiseled out of rose-colored rock faces. The rock cut architecture is a combination of Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Assyrian styles and was done roughly between 600 BC to 300 AD. The Nabataean culture fell into decline when the Romans annexed Petra in 106 AD and trade routes shifted from caravans through Petra to shipping on the Red Sea. The Romans later abandoned Petra, an earthquake shook it, Muslims and Crusaders sacked it, and from the 12th century on, obscurity claimed it and it became known as the "lost city." The first modern European to see Petra was Johannes Burckhardt, a Swiss geographer who travelled there in 1812 disguised as a Muslim pilgrim.
The narrow gorge leading to the city was not created by water and large scale erosion, like the Grand Canyon, but mainly by tectonic shifts. Everywhere we looked in the mile-long siq, we saw magnificent swirling designs in the sandstone, in an abundance of colors and shapes. At times the passage was so narrow that it blocked the sunlight. As we walked through the gorge, we were passed by horses, camels and horse-drawn buggies. We chuckled to ourselves as we watched tourists bounce up and down in the buggies as they bumped over the cobblestones, thinking it would be a smooth ride and a pleasant alternative to walking. The way the horses' hooves echoed and reverberated though the gorge was fascinating, a remarkable sound to remember along with all the glory that met the eye. Just when we thought the gorge would never end, El-Khazneh (the Treasury) appeared through a crack in all its rose-colored, Corinthian-columned glory. We walked for about another mile past dozens and dozens of facades carved into the rock faces, some small, some over hundreds of feet high and wide, some intricate and detailed, some eroded beyond recognition by wind and sand.
We stopped at a cafe/souvenir stand near the amphitheatre for some Arabian coffee and were entertained by camels passing by and two feral kittens wrestling on the ground. The walk back through the gorge was quite a different experience from the walk in. We saw rock formations we missed and the sunlight played differently on the rock walls in the late afternoon than it did at mid-day.
So we got to see a wonder of the world, felt very small and insignificant, but relieved that our civilization doesn't have to chisel its cities out of rock anymore.