Petra: A Day of Meandering in the Rose-Red City

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Maybe it’s because you only travel during the holidays? Perhaps, it’s because you toiled extra harder this year? It could also be that you need to push the travel ante a notch higher. Or simply, because you know you deserve it. Whatever your reasons may be, no reward beats going to the ultimate bucketlist destination: one of the elite New Seven Wonders of the World and Smithsonian Magazine’s 28 places to see before you die, Petra.

Located in Jordan’s southern governorate of Ma’an, there’s a plethora of reasons that make a trip to this historically and archaeologically rich city extra-special.

A short jaunt away from the Holy Land 

The idea of Petra came up in my visit to Israel.

At a certain point in a Christian’s life, I believe one should go on a pilgrimage to Holy Land. After all, if holiness per square meter were measured, no real estate on earth can be holier than where Jesus actually lived, preached, was crucified and resurrected. And so I did, traversing Holy Land and treading on the very earth where Jesus did.

It was without a doubt the most spiritually gratifying journey I have ever taken in my life, but as I roamed the streets of Jerusalem, I realized I was a land’s drive away from Petra – that it can be easily visited for a day from Eilat, Israel’s southernmost tip, and that local tour operators can arrange visas with just a couple of days’ notice. Not surprisingly, I didn’t waste any more time; I decided to chase after my dream.

The beginning of the dream

Ever since I witnessed Indiana Jones find the Holy Grail as a kid, I have always wanted to see Petra. The magnificent city in red simply intrigued me and since then, has been transfixed into my mind. Seeing it again just recently in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen reignited that longing.

The story behind the rose-colored rocks 

The “rose-red city, half as old as time,” as described by award-winning poet Dean Burgon, has a history that spans 2,500 years. It even figures in the Bible’s first book, Genesis, as the land of the Edomites, Esau’s descendants. (Remember the story of Jacob deceiving Isaac for his brother’s birthright? Esau was that victim.)

Petra’s glory days began in the 7th century BC when Nabataeans arrived from Arabia and made it their capital. They built the city, as well as most of the spectacular edifices we see to this day. At the height of their rule, Petra flourished as a center of trade, specializing in frankincense, myrrh and spices. Eventually, the Nabataean kingdom became a part of the Roman  Empire, which added to the collection of tombs. This is the reason why many of Petra’s structures fuse Greco-Roman, Egyptian and Mesopotamian elements. Soon after, as recounted in the book of Acts of the Apostles, Christianity would also reach Petra through believers escaping pagan Rome, building new churches with Byzantine influences.

In time, Petra’s glory days would come to an end. A devastating 7th century AD earthquake, the inevitable shifting of trade routes to the seas, plus a hostile Moslem takeover in 1189 all caused interest in the city to fade.

It reached a point where Petra was practically deserted except for the local Bedouins who decided to live in its caves. The city was virtually nonexistent to the western world until 1812. In those days, outsiders were prohibited from entering Petra unless one was formally invited by a Bedouin. Trespassing could prove fatal.

To penetrate its naturally fortified walls, Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt had to be extra-creative. He disguised himself as an Arab and found a way of being invited. His bravery rewarded him with his rediscovery of Petra.

Burckhardt’s successful intrusion heralded a new chapter in Petra’s history. His accounts describing the beauty behind the rocks inspired the rest of the world to see the ancient city until eventually no less than UNESCO recognized it as a World Heritage Site in 1985.

Exploring the Lost City

With the assurance that the Lost City has been found, I sought out to rediscover it myself.

My adventure began at the yellowcolored Bab Al Siq , which literally means the gateway. The first marvel that welcomed me was the austere yet impressive Obelisk Tomb carved by the Nabataeans in the first century. With time having softened its once-fine sculptural details, it was now just like seeing an image through soft lens.

From the gateway, I treaded the over a kilometer-long, winding sandstone canyon, known as the Siq. Along the way, I passed by remnants of the Dam, which includes an 88 meter-long tunnel that stands as a testament to the Nabataeans’ mastery of hydrological engineering.

Going further down the narrow pathway borne from the natural splitting of the mountains, unusual organic patterns in vivid tones of red, gold and purple revealed the areas’ rich geology. Knowing magnificence lay ahead of me, my eagerness in every step became more and more palpable and made me ponder that maybe “one is meant to learn patience and feel a little suffering before deserving the sight of monumental beauty.”

And so, step by step, I surged forward until the slightest hint of Petra’s most iconic façade peeked through the narrow gorge. The preview was like a first sip of fine wine with the promise of more. Seeing the contrast between the soft rustic form of the gorge with the crisp, intricate lines of the façade signaled that finally, splendor was about to unfold.

Beauty beyond belief

Nothing quite prepared me for the sight I held. The Treasury, locally known as al-Khazneh, is beauty beyond belief. And yet, standing there, imbibing its presence, I knew it was for real.

Some say The Treasury is home to a King’s treasure, others that it’s a Pharaoh’s Tomb. To me, whatever it once was is just as mysterious as how such impeccable beauty was carved from a mountain. Whoever designed this facade must have seen beauty with the eyes of God.

Rising 40 meters high (think 13-story building), The Treasury is intricately designed with Corinthian columns and ornate architectural details. A number of mythological figures adopted by the Nabataeans from Greek and Roman worship, like eagles and other creatures, adorn it.

Believed to be the mausoleum of a Nabataean king, the Treasury is crowned with a funerary urn which is said to conceal a pharaoh’s treasure. Throughout the ages, the Bedouins have been attempting to find its lost treasure, scarring the façade with visible, permanent holes. Sadly, unlike Indiana Jones who found the Holy Grail behind its walls in his last crusade, their quest has led to naught.

I could go on all day staring at the Treasury pondering on its mysteries, but the city of Petra did not end there.

Beyond The Treasury

My sadness from detaching with The Treasury was short-lived when I saw the vast crimson-colored landscape ahead of me. The Street of Facades features Nabataean tombs carved on several cliffs, and I found remarkable, if not bewildering, the very thought of poking huge holes in mountains to function as tombs without today’s sophisticated tools.

Also carved into the side of the mountain is The Theatre. Romans are said to have encroached on Nabataean tombs during their expansion to accommodate 7,000 spectators. I closed my eyes and imagined listening to the crowds chanting for the gladiators who fought to their deaths during the Roman occupation of Petra. Knowing their penchant for gore, it wasn’t difficult to imagine all the blood that must have once spilled in this arena.

Past The Theatre and on the right side is grandeur and magnificence in mountainous proportions, the Royal Tombs. Consisting of four adjoining mausoleums – the Urn Tomb, the Silk Tomb, the Corinthian Tomb and the Palace Monument – these exquisite tombs with intricate Greco-Roman embellishments are a stark contrast to the minimalist simple lines of the Nabataean tombs in the Street of Facades. Though brutally punished by time, there was no doubt its every line, angle and shape was carefully thought of.

More structures followed suit, leaving me spellbound throughout my lingering. The Church, built in the 5th century AD, must have once been grand, judging by its floor mosaics that  time hasn’t withered. The Colonnaded Street, built by the Romans as Petra’s commercial and social hub, and now only survived by a few of its columns, is picturesque. The Great Temple, built by the Nabataeans at the end of the 1st century BC, has elaborate floral decorative bands and limestone capitals. In the olden days, only priests were allowed to enter its highest point, but the day of my visit, I decided to defy some ancient laws by climbing its zenith.

Finally, I reached the Qasr al-Bint , which literally means Palace of the Pharaoh’s Daughter. This squareshaped temple is said to be the most important in Petra, and it stands strong and dignified.

Off the beaten track 

If your thirst for Petra’s marvels has not been quenched, there are a few more off the main trail. The High Place of Sacrifice, with its elaborate sacrificial rock altars, has stunning bird’s eye views of Petra. The ad-Dayr or the Monastery, modeled after The Treasury, was at some point used as a Christian chapel. Dating back to the early second century, it is one of Petra’s largest monuments. You’ll need about an hour to climb its 800 steps.

A blanket of gold to end the day

It wasn’t until a layer of gold blanketed the rose-red city with a dazzling, striking fiery hue that I knew the day was over. Sundown was upon me in more symbolic ways than one. The setting sun meant that the rediscovered city of Petra, along with its mysteries and treasures, would once again be lost in the darkness.

At least for now, I can rest in knowing I could always find the image of the Lost City should I need an easy escape. Its image has forever been etched in my mind. All I have to do is close my eyes and relive the memory.

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