Rose red city, half as old as time

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Petra is an ancient city established in what is now Jordan in the 6th century B.C. by a tribe called the Nabateans. The city inhabits an extensive valley defended by a narrow canyon called the Siq. The Nabateans carved open channels into the canyon walls to bring irrigation water into the city, and covered channels for drinking water. In this way they were able to defend against numerous invaders over the centuries, establishing Petra as an important center of commerce on the trading routes between Arabia and the Mediterranean. Petra finally fell to Rome in A.D. 106 after a lengthy siege, but continued as an important population center until being crippled by an earthquake in 363.

The most notable archaeological feature of Petra is the proliferation of elaborate tombs or temples, and smaller shrines, carved into the faces of the area's sandstone cliffs. The best preserved example of this beautiful Greek-influenced architecture is al-Khazneh, or the Treasury, which has survived as long as it has thanks to the protective overhang beneath which it was carved. The Treasury may be most recognizable in popular culture as the exterior of the temple containing the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The drive from our hotel to the entrance to the Petra site took all of two minutes, first thing on Thursday, May 29. We had been told that we would be riding horses in as part of our tour. I pictured us arriving at the Treasury like Indy Jones, riding out of the Siq in a thunder of hooves. This turned out, disappointingly, not to be the case. Instead, our grand horse ride took us from just inside the site entrance to near the upper end of the Siq, a distance of only 200 meters. Our Arabians were led by their grooms. There was no free riding. Well, Laura somehow managed to convince her groom to let her take the reins from him. Me, I completely failed to communicate to my groom that I could ride a horse all on my own, or even that I knew how to mount and dismount by myself.

In the Siq, near the Treasury, in Petra, Jordan That turned out to be the only disappointing thing about Petra. No, there were two disappointing things about Petra. First was the horse ride, second was the fact that the battery of our borrowed digital camera (as it so often did on this trip) died just as we were getting to the good stuff. Everything else was spectacular (although when you imagine how a site like this is going to be, you rarely picture the proliferation of tourists and merchants cluttering it all up).

Fortunately, we also had a little Flip Video camera with us, so I'll just offer a quick rundown of our visit before letting the shaky footage we shot do the talking.

We walked the kilometer or so down the narrow Siq, studying shrines and irrigation channels and the remnants of statues as our temporary guide Hamad explained the history and religion of the Nabateans. Our first glimpse of the Treasury, a sliver of rosy sandstone architecture between jagged cliffs, was heart-stopping. After a goodly amount of time exploring there, we continued along to the Royal Tombs, the Amphitheatre, the colonnaded Roman road, and beyond.

William Shunn at the Monastery at Petra, Jordan After a visit to a small archaeological museum, Hamad left us to our own devices. It was 11:00 am by now, so Laura and I figured we had time for the optional hike up to al-Deir, or the Monastery, before lunch. The climb, along a winding route of 900 stairs cut into the mountain rock, took us about 45 minutes. I don't think either of us knew what to expect from the Monastery, but even if we had it would have exceeded our expectations. Much larger than the facade of the Treasury, the Monastery is more weathered and not so elaborately carved, but is still overwhelming in its size. Like most of the structures in Petra, there's only really one big bare room carved out behind the facade, but that facade is amazing.

After climbing further to overlook the vertiginous mountainous vista of the "Sacrifice View" (which came complete with a Bedouin merchant tent at the tippy top of its narrow promontory), Laura and I hiked back down to the Basin Restaurant in the center of Petra, where we had a reservation. We loaded up at the lunch buffet, going back time and again for the fresh falafels, which were the best we'd ever had. From the point, the hike back out past everything we'd already seen, scorning the frequent offers of donkey rides, took about another hour. All told, we spent over seven delirious hours at Petra. (And when I say "delirious," I sometimes mean it literally. It was hot out.)

To supplement our dead camera and Laura's iPhone, we shot 26 short videos at Petra, which I have arranged into a YouTube playlist to help give you an idea of what we saw. If you'd rather watch just one, I would recommend the eighth here, which offers the clearest shots of the Treasury, with our temporary guide Hamad almost audible lecturing about its history and design:

But if you want it all, give our complete Petra playlist a gander.

Anyway, we got back to our hotel, on foot, at about 3:30 pm. We cooled off with a couple of Petra lagers in the bar, while watching a disquieting television documentary/recreation of the Air France Flight 358 runway overshoot in 2005. Then we returned to the room and passed out until evening.

William Shunn drinks from the Moses Spring near Petra, Jordan Our guide Ra'ed picked us up at the hotel at 8:00 pm. He drove us out of town into the hills, to the spring that issues from, tradition has it, the very rock that Moses struck with his staff, "and the water came out abundantly" (Numbers 20:10-11). The rock has since been enclosed in a simple domed structure to keep the elements out, but anyone can enter and have a drink. The spring has produced fresh water continuously for millennia, and the water is damn good.

We drove back into town where Ra'ed took us to a little cafe for coffee, tea, hummus, tahini, and so forth. Over dinner, he talked to us about Islam for two hours—pretty much everything a Westerner might want to know but was afraid to ask. Fascinating conversation, though I'm naturally suspicious of fourth-hand accounts of scientific findings that prove the divine origin of the Qu'ran (or the Bible, or the Book of Mormon, or Dianetics). Yes, folks, it turns out there is1 a valid reason that if a fly lands in your food you should dip the little beastie in it before flicking it away. At least if you trust hearsay.

Nonetheless, it was an educational and encouraging evening, and we were sad to see our trip's last major day of sightseeing end.

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on June 11, 2008 10:26 AM.

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