A rose-red city, half as old as time

Petra Travel Blog

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Today was a wonderful day. Exhaustion and earplugs let me have a seven hour sleep through Ken's snoring, and there was decent orange juice with breakfast.

Petra. A rose-red city, half as old as time (actually Burgon retracted the ‘rose-red’ afterwards, when he visited and thought it was more salmon-pink).

I spent the entire day wandering through Petra with Tamara. The ancient city was beautiful and wonderful. It was built by the Nabataeans when they moved from north-western Arabia to southern Jordan around the 3rd century BCE. They built Petra to control the spice, silk and slave trade routes through Middle East.

It was a thriving empire, ruling most of the Middle East until 106 CE when it was conquered by the Romans. This was only just found out, when a letter from a Roman solider to his wife in Egypt was discovered, talking about his time in Petra. The Romans had to cut off the water supply to the city and siege it for three years before they could conquer it. Once the Romans conquered Petra they shifted the trade routes through Palmyra, but Petra was still lived in until 555 CE, when a massive earthquake destroyed most of the residential caves (but left the tombs intact).

Petra is built in a series of valleys through craggy faulted sandstone. Gentle hills hit steep cliffs at the edge of Petra, we walked in along the 1.2km long, 2m wide siq (a rock cleft created by an earthquake). The Nabateans were a very technologically advanced people, with hydraulic engineering, iron smelting and copper refining. Along the walls of the siq were two troughs (which used to be covered with clay lids), one to pipe water into the city, and one to pipe sewage out. At intervals there were stairs up to the pipe, where sewage traps were placed to keep the system clean. The sandstone walls are very colourful, mostly red, but with swirls of green and yellow, where the dominant oxide changes from iron to copper or sulphur. There were icons to the gods of trade carved out along the route, and a fossilised fish in the wall at one point. The road through still retains the original Roman paving in places, with large rounded pavestones. At several points offshots of the siq were damned, the original damns were destroyed by earthquakes, but the Nabataeans used them to control the winter floods.

As the siq ends, the Treasury (Al-Khazneh) peaks through the gap, and we came out to the beautiful facade of the tomb to a Nabataean king 56 BCE. The facade is 30m wide and 43m tall, and is beautifully carved straight out of the mountain in a fusion of Nabataean with Hellenistic, Egyptian, Roman and Persian influences. The carvings are beautifully intact (the carvers started at the top and worked down, so as not to destroy their work), except for the central cylinder, which locals thought was filled with Egyptian or pirate treasure (hence they called it the Treasury), and tried to open by shooting their rifles at it, and a few of the gods which were obliterated by Christians. The actual tomb inside the massive facade was quite small, the opposite of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, with no facade and elaborate chambers carved into the mountains.

Past the Treasury we walked along the Street of Facades, with rows of Nabataean tombs carved into the mountain, each with a stairwell carved on top (the symbol of eternal life). Past the Street of Facades we entered the main residential valley, with hundreds of small houses, each carved out of the mountain. The entire mountain face with peppered with doorways, each with a carving of a stairwell above. From the residential valley was a long colonnaded street, with columns running along the road, and the ruins of shops and stores that used to sell their wares here. The road runs to the amphitheatre, which was carved out as a meeting place for business and religion in the 1st century CE, seating 3000 people, then expanded under Roman rule to seat 7000 for entertainment.

From the amphitheatre we walked several kilometres and climbed up the 800 steps to get to the Monastery (Ad-Deir), another amazing tomb facade (or a temple, it isn't sure). We walked back and visited the Lion Triclinium, Al-Habis Fortress (built by the Crusaders when they controlled Petra) and the Royal Tombs. The Royal Tombs used to be similar to the Treasury and Monastery, but are more eroded, leaving less detail, but still the imposing structures. The sandstone was impressively coloured in this region, such that some facades looked like polished marble, or abstract Aboriginal rock paintings, with the brightest swirls of colour meandering across the surface. I spent all my money on my first souvenir in the Middle East (and probably last), three old coins found at Petra, an Ottoman Turk coin (maybe 500 years old), a Roman coin (1500 years old), and a 2000 year old Nabataean coin.

On the way back we climbed up to the High Place of Sacrifice, with spectacular views of Petra and the mountains, and a sacrificial alter and table for religious ceremonies.

Turkish baths

Coming back from Petra I went straight in for a Turkish bath. We started out with a steam for half an hour, very different from a Banya or Sauna since it is not as hot, but so steamy you can only see about 50cm. It was glorious to feel the sweat pouring out, especially after eight solid hours of hiking. Then I lay on a heated marble slab for ten minutes, followed by a shower and a scrub by a Jordanian guy using a cleaning glove. After the scrub came a spa, which was too hot, and made me feel a little ill (I had to have a lie down because I felt like fainting), another shower and a massage (which I didn't like, but everyone else loved).

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photo by: vances