The Ancient City of Petra
Jordan’s Desert Treasure
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
The ancient city of Petra was lost to the West for 300 years until it was rediscovered in 1812 by a Swiss traveller.
Hidden by a winding canyon passage, the visitor is rewarded with a glimpse of the magnificent Treasury, carved from living rock over two-thousand years ago. On route to this fabled pink city, which famously appeared in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, ERIC PASQUIER crosses a vast desert capturing the changing hues and swirling patterns revealed on the beautiful rock formations.
The highlight of any trip to Jordan must be the ancient city of Petra.
Located in a great rift valley about 80km south of the Dead Sea, Petra, meaning ‘rock’ in Greek, is where 2000 years ago the Nabataeans carved glorious facades into the vertical, pink rock faces to mark their temples and tombs.
Since the Nabataeans, Petra has had seen a variety of cultures come and go through the ages and each group has left its mark in some way. Standing in the midst of this stunning composition of ancient stone, the air is heavy with the echoes of the past, yet seems at the same time alive with the energy of the successive centuries of people that have made Petra their home.
Around 100 AD the Romans took over the city from the Nabataeans and, impressed with what he saw upon his visit, when the Roman Emperor Hadrian visited in 131 AD, he named the city after himself: Hadriane Petra. In late antiquity, Petra had its own Byzantine bishop and much later, in the 12th century, the Crusaders came, built a fort and soon left again, leaving the city to the locals.
A change in trade routes led to Petra’s decline and it was virtually forgotten by the outside world until 1812 when Swiss explorer John Ludwig Burckhardt heard about its existence from local Bedouins and convinced them to lead him to the legendary city. The rose-red carvings that Burckhardt encountered upon entering the city must have taken his breath away and have continued to captivate visitors ever since.
Without knowing its location, Petra would be impossible to find, for it is hidden at the end of a deep, narrow, winding gorge called the Siq – the only access to the city.
At the end of the 1.5km journey through the Siq stands one of the most spectacular of Petra’s structures: the Khazneh, which means ‘treasury’.
With its elaborate façade, the Treasury has become the most famous face of Petra. Carved out of a 40m high cliff of solid rock it has been remarkably well-preserved – probably due to its sheltered location. It was here that Harrison Ford found the Holy Grail at the end of the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Despite its name and despite the many myths of the treasures hidden within, the Treasury was built as a tomb, most probably for the Nabataean King Aretas IV, who was responsible for many of Petra’s architectural treasures.
In Petra, there are about 800 carved monuments that have been attributed to the Nabataeans – an indication of how wealthy and powerful they were.
Under the Nabataeans, Petra flourished as an important trading centre along the main caravan route between Arabia and Syria.
The Nabataeans made good use of their position and charged all traders a tax to pass through the city.
Apart from being clever businessmen, the Nabataeans were also famous for their advanced hydraulic engineering systems made up of various dams and pipes with which they were able to prevent flash floods and control their water supply; piping water from miles away.
El-Deir, situated high on a hilltop, is similar in style to the Treasury but is larger, simpler and less well-preserved. One of the site’s main tourist attractions, the façade is 50 metres wide, 40 metres high and is crowned by a giant stone urn. El-Deir is also called the Monastery because it was used as a Christian church during the Byzantine period when existing structures were often recycled. A Byzantine church and some remnants of ancient Byzantine walls have been discovered on the site and the mosaics in Petra’s Byzantine church are one of the city’s lesser-known highlights.
There is a path leading up to the top of the Monastery from which you can view the surrounding cliffs. From this vantage point, you can see how the soft sandstone gradually changes colour from pale yellow to white to rich reds and browns. Over the centuries the wind has carved the stone into dramatic waves and whirls. Oblivious to their ancient surroundings, small lizards in bright colours scamper busily across the rocks in the bright sunshine. Cut into the rocks on the western side of the hilltop are three tombs which together are known as the King’s Wall. In fact, although they are not as elaborate as Petra’s main monuments, the cliffs are dotted with tombs carved into the rock.
Unlike the other temples and tombs which have been cut into the rocky cliffs, the Qasr al-Bint Firaun (“Castle of the Pharaoh’s Daughter”) is built of large yellow sandstone blocks. It was built in honour of Dushara, the Nabataean’s main male deity. Dushara’s lover, Atagartis, the Nabataean fertility goddess, was worshipped in the Temple of the Winged Lions opposite. The name of the temple comes from the exquisite stone carvings of flying lions inside. Behind the Qasr on top of the Al-Habis rock, you can find the ruins of the fort built by the Crusaders in the 12th century.
Paved with large stone slabs and lined by Roman columns, the main street through the heart of the city is obviously of Roman origin. Other Roman remains include a public fountain and a large amphitheatre big enough to seat 8,000 people. The Romans also built various tombs in the Nabataean style and an impressive Triumphal Arch spanning the Siq, which is still in place today.
Considering the serious earthquake that destroyed half of the city in 330 AD, it is surprising that there are still so many structures have managed to stand the test of time. Now Petra is one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the Middle East, with a timeless appeal attracting travellers from all over the world, year in, year out.
Although Petra is Jordan’s most famous archaeological site, visitors should certainly take some time to discover the country’s many other attractions. Mount Nebo, overlooking the ‘promised land’ is where Moses is believed to have died and Christian pilgrims have been coming here for centuries. From the top, the view of the deep Jordan Valley fringed by mountains is fantastic. Not to be missed also are the mosaics of Mount Nebo’s Byzantine church.
From Mount Nebo, a road winds down to the Dead Sea – the lowest point on earth at 400 metres below sea level. At night you can see Israel on the other side and if the sky is clear you can even see the lights of Jerusalem twinkling in the distance. The Dead Sea’s warm salty water and rich minerals make it a favourite place for holidaymakers.
The majestic scenery of the Wadi Rum is literally straight from the set of Lawrence of Arabia. Here the Bedouin live as they have lived for thousands of years, tending their sheep and goats amid the shifting desert sands and ancient rock carvings attest to the area’s rich history of human habitation.
The Jordanian capital Amman also has its share of interesting archaeological sites, but the city generally is too big and busy to warrant a long stay. Just east of Amman are the ‘Desert Castles’. While they are not really castles, these ancient buildings surrounded by desert speak to the romantic in all. Some of these ‘Desert Castles’ are actually medieval Arab fortresses; others are ancient rest-houses for the old trade caravans of yore en route to Jerash and Petra. There’s even an antique bathhouse now listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site for its beautiful early frescoes.
If all things historical get your imagination racing like a chariot at full tilt, Jordan will not disappoint. Follow any point on the compass in this ancient land and you will encounter a historic gem; cast your eye upon any rock and you will find a sign of civilisation; read any road sign and discover the names of biblical towns. Finally, go to Petra and be transported back in time to a distant age as you stand face to face with the monumental façades painstakingly carved by Nabataean hands.
With only one percent of the city having been excavated in the course of the past 100 years, there are bound to be many more discoveries to continue delighting both future visitors and scholars alike.