Wandering Through The Lost City of Petra

It’s hard to imagine I’m in Jordan. Just three years ago as I scanned the world atlas to better acquaint myself with world geography the tiny scribbly line that defines Jordan’s boundary just wasn’t on my radar. Yet as I ride through the desolate landscapes of this young country I find it difficult to remember what I thought of Jordan before landing in Aqaba earlier this week. To be sure, the pictures, people and places I’m encountering now don’t add up to the pictures painted in my head through my own volition or through the flood of media in the past. Friendly and helpful and the woman beautiful. The sand a golden yellow and the shadows long and narrow.

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Entering the Lost City of Petra requires a lot of hiking. You can hire a donkey, horse or camel. But better, these enterprising Bedouins make for scenic photos against the dramatic backdrops of rosy red rocks and interesting shapes and textures formed by thousands of years of wind, water and sand.

I’m glad I’m here. Because I long imagined what the red hewn rock palaces of Petra would look like in real life. Would there size dwarf me as a little ole goliath wandering the Arab world on a motorcycle. Or would I be disappointed? Photographs tend to render places with massive scale miniscule. Riding along the Dead Sea for a portion of my journey to Petra saw the Jordan sun shimmer while the desert heat and its intensity paint my nose red. Ah yes, this is Jordan and I’m still in the desert.

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The dramatic entrance into the Ancient City of Petra is through a mile long “Siq”, a cavernous gorge where the stones are as old as the city and worn through the years of traders, warriors, pilgrims and holy people.

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I was taken back by the shapes and textures of the rocks and the interesting way they changed colors depending on time of day.

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It’s hard to capture the scale of these hewn rock ruins. But I try.

Known as the “Lost City”, the rose colored rocks where Petra’s magnificence seem to thrust from were first discovered by the Western world in 1812. Sadly, perhaps the imagery has been sterilized through with the help of pop culture as it’s the set where Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones found the Holy Grail in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. Desensitized or simply made familiar through such pop culture idioms, its the nearly mile long walk through the siq, a long narrow chasm carved out of the red rock where each step builds the excitement much like the interpolation of the simple yet dramatic two notes from the Theme of Jaws creates anxiety, to borrow another pop culture reference, until a swath in the rocks reveals one of Petra’s most impressive and familiar structures The Khazneh, or Treasury.

Long before Alexanders conquest the Nabateans abandoned a nomadic lifestyle and slowly a civilization emerged throughout Arabia — Petra was its capital. Little is known about the Nabateans save they were savvy traders and highly skilled in engineering as evidence of a water system that provided irrigation through dams, reservoirs and canals. Petra was ideally situated at the crossroads of many trade routes that connected Arabian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Green and Roman traders. Built originally as a fortress, Petra soon became very wealthy. Meaning “Stone” in Greek, for hundreds of years Petra as akin to today’s phantom lost city of Atlantis. Travelers and explorers swore it existed, but there was no physical evidence, largely because its existence and location was a very closely guarded secret known to local Bedouins and Arab tradesmen. But in 1812 a Swiss explorer and recent converter to Islam, Johann Ludwig Burkhart on a three month “treasure hunt” disguised himself as a Pilgrim seeking to make a sacrifice at the tomb of Aaron. He convinced nomads to reveal Petra’s location and ultimately Burkhardt shed Petra’s light on the western world.

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Those not new to these stories are familiar with how I’ve come to respect and dig donkeys. Here at Petra where animals are used by the local people for work, it’s nice to see there’s a attention to keeping them healthy and treated well.

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Facades are built into the rock high above the path and along its ridge-line. It’s a life-size museum that’s hard to capture through the lens of a camera.

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A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, some historians note that Petra is referenced in the Old Testament but confusion and argument among archaeologists and historians have failed to identify the true origins and dates of Petra. Though there is more agreement as to the age of the buildings hewn out of the rose red rocks. For me the most impressive structure in Petra sits high atop the normal touristed Treasure, facades and tombs along the walking path. Taking an earlier morning climb up the “1,000 steps”, I was the first person that morning to see The Monastery. A structure larger and more magnificent than the treasury. Built around the 1st Century BC, “The Monastery” was built as a temple dedicated to Obodas I. And like most sites in this part of the world, its fate and history has been at the hands of the Romans, Assyrians, Persians and Christians.

I visited Petra on two sequential days seeing both sunrise and sunset over these lands and ruins. Early that morning a curious guard walked with me as I made my way to the start of the 1,000 steps. I suggested a bit disappointment that I couldn’t ride my motorcycle down the dark and narrow Siq. Recognizing and opportunity for some “baksheesh” he suggested that this could be arranged at the end of the day, but I would have to do this without stopping and move quickly. Tempting as this might sound, I couldn’t imagine how disrupting the loud exhaust of my pipe, which is desperately in need of repacking, would be to this sacred and peaceful place.

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One must climb the 1,000 steps to get high above Petra and to see the Monastery.

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2 replies
  1. Tim
    Tim says:

    Amazing photos. I’ve never seen pictures of the monastery or the other facades. Thanks for that. You’ll be touring Palmyra soon, I bet. Looking forward to it.

    Reply
  2. WorldRider
    WorldRider says:

    Tim – It’s quite fascinating and the color is so rich. Amazing how old this place is and how through the millennia they built palaces out of stone

    Reply

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