Departing Tanzania after a memorable visit, we made the 5-hour trip to our next destination, Petra Jordan. During our flight, we passed over some incredible areas of this vast region. The first was the longest river in the world, the Nile. We then began our flight over the largest desert on earth, the Sahara. Fun fact- the Sahara is as big as the entire 48 contiguous states of our country-which is ridiculously large. As we approached Jordan, we began our descent over the Red Sea, where the countries of Jordan, Israel and Egypt share uneasy borders. It was fascinating to finally see these geographical wonders from the air, because I am certainly not venturing anywhere near Egypt in the near future.
Having never been to the Middle East, I was looking forward to seeing firsthand an area that dominates headlines everywhere, to say nothing of its religious importance to so many. This was also going to be my first visit to a predominantly Muslim country as 92 percent of Jordanians are Muslim.
We landed at King Hussein International Airport which literally is on the Jordan/Israel border. Very cool to snap shots of the Israeli city of Elat.
Once we landed and cleared an intense security check point (think guns, dogs, long hard stares at our matching backpacks) we were on our way to Petra, a 2-hour drive from Red Sea and the Jordanian port of Aqaba.
As we arrived at night, we were able to again see the lights of several Israeli cities on our drive up to Petra. The landscape was almost other-worldly- desert with rolling hills of rock formations that held minerals shining in the setting sun. Jordan is one of the worlds largest exporters of sulfur and silica, and the rocks hold colorful veins of copper, iron and magnesium. It makes for the most gorgeous of natural beauty, similar to the Grand Canyon and portions of the southwest. Once at the hotel, we were treated to a terrific Middle Eastern buffet- I cannot imagine having better hummus. (Except of course from our neighbor Sam Saad, who manages to makes big vats of it to trade for high quality golf balls)
With Chuck being an outstanding sport, we took the early morning option to hike into Petra. First, some background:
Petra is truly an ancient city- human habitation is dated at 1200 BC. By the 4th century BC the site was occupied by the Nabataeans, nomadic herdsman and traders from northern Arabia. By the 2nd century BC, it Decameron capital of the Kingdom of Nabataea, one of the greatest trading kingdoms of the ancient Near East, extending from Medina to Damascus at its height. Intense urban development followed with a population of 30,000 at its peak. Which is a LOT of people and animals with no running water or advanced sewage system.
What makes Petra remarkable is its location, which was literally hidden. To reach the city, one has to travel down a long canyon called the Siq, which was formed naturally by a fissure between a large mass of sandstone. Marked by enclaves where statues of protective gods stood as well as the occasional watchtower, it is a marvel. You then descend into the city itself
The large cave in the middle…the entrance to Petra
Petra was a trading city known primarily for its high-quality frankincense and myrrh. During the mid 1st century BC and mid 1st century AD, Petra was a powerhouse ruled by Aretas IV, Petra’s greatest builder. Keep in mind that the Nabataeans and others primarily worshiped deities associated with celestial bodies, the natural world, and defied kings. So, frankincense and myrrh were quite important and held great value for religious reasons. Under Aretas reign, much of Petra was built, including a highly sophisticated hydraulics system (water collection and supply) consisting of dams, rock-cut cisterns, and gravity fed channels for the capture and control of spring water and rain run-off. To see this is utterly astounding given the time period we are talking about. However, I think that they should have thought a little harder about a sewage system.
Given its key location on the trade routes, Petra became a must -stop for trade and to water the large camel caravans that were required to make these fantastic treks. You came to Petra, paid a tax to water and feed the caravan, maybe traded, and were on your way. As a result, the architecture began to reflect Greco-Roman and Near Eastern elements. (Which does not sound interesting but actually was interesting, which happens when Nat Geo takes you to remote places and marches you through ruins for hours with head sets on)
The other aspect of these times was the fascination with tombs and funerary monuments. There are over 500 tombs in Petra. As only 30 percent of the city is excavated, speculation is that most of the city lies beneath the surface as it would appear that temples, tombs, and residential caves were higher up. Major earthquakes devastated Petra in 363 AD and 551 AD- one can only imagine what lies beneath.
Petra is a city literally carved into the sandstone that surrounds it. Temples, tombs, monuments were all carved into the rock as a way to protect them from earthquakes as well as erosion due to the harsh elements. The Nabataeans themselves lived in naturally formed caves or in tents- as do the Bedouins do even today.
To briefly give you the timeline on Petra, by 106 AD the Kingdom of Nabataea was annexed by the Roman Empire as part of the province of Arabia Patraea. Rome was actually more interested in controlling the port city of Aqaba, so they basically paved the main roads, and collected taxes. By 306 and the reign of Constantine the Great, Christianity was beginning to spread throughout the Roman Empire, and Petra was no exception; there is a significant Byzantine church at the site which still has its baptismal fonts.
Once Rome got hold of Petra, they began to divert trade to its own ports. This began the decline of the city. With the earthquake devastation of 363 AD, the Muslim conquests of 630 AD, and the eventual arrival of the Crusaders in 1100, Petra’s decline accelerated- the city fell into obscurity by the 12th century. Populated by the nomadic Bedouins, it was not rediscovered until 1812 by Swiss Explorer Jean-Louis Burchhardt.
So we began our day hike into the lost city of Petra.
Nat Geo does a great job of getting you housed close to the action, so we literally were steps away from the Bab as-Siq, which means gateway to the gorge. On a clear day, if you look to the west as you begin your hike you can see Aaron’s Shrine, a whitewashed monument on the summit of Jamal Haroun- this is said to be the burial site of Moses’ brother Aaron.
Given this is the off season, there were not as many tourists. Our guides also told us that tourism was down in the region over-all due to the perceived notion that the Middle East can be volatile and may be considered dangerous. (I quickly corrected our guide by saying that this was not perception at all…this was a FACT. Our guide must not get cable news.)
As we approached the Siq (the gorge) itself, we began to see what originally may have been representations of various Nabataean deities lining the walkway. We also encountered a significant tomb, clearly one that was for a high-ranking family.
Upon entering the gorge, there are remains of a monumental arch that in its day must have been spectacular to those entering the pathway to Petra. The natural rock fissure is utterly fantastic in its glorious colors and majestic size. As we advanced, the colors shifted and shone as the sunlight hit the rock formations – you had to remind yourself to keep walking. Further we descended, noticing the niches carved to hold frankincense and myrrh and the occasional statues of various deities. It strikes you that the Nabataeans saw the Siq as more of a sacred way than a mere thoroughfare. It was also intimidating and acted as a defensive mechanism for the city.
Then you see it-golden in the sun, spectacular in its detail- the most famous monument in Petra, The Treasury. This was carved into the cliff face late in 1st century BC to early 1st century AD. Its name is derived from the urn that is at the top of the second story, which according to local legend contained a pharaohs treasure. The urn is shot up like a bad gun range target from the locals shooting at it… which is incredible given how those bullets must have bounced around the cavern walls. It probably functioned as a royal tomb in view of its significant location and impressive size. Heavily influenced by Greco-Roman architecture of the time, The Treasury boasts a number of carved deities and symbols such as eagles and lions that are well-preserved.
The main chamber of The Treasury is largely undecorated and contains two burial recesses. This is a stark contrast to the ornate facade and is typical of tomb architecture at Petra.
To the south we continued our hike to The Theater, constructed 1st century AD and carved entirely from solid bedrock. It has 45 rows of seats and could hold up to 8,000 people.
We next visited a series of royal tombs higher up in the city, passing Bedouin vendors along the way with their displays of spices, various wares, clothing and jewelry. They are still very much a part of the culture here. Tribes stayed in Petra up until 1985, at which point the Jordanian government relocated the to housing just outside the city. As part of this arrangement they are they only people allowed to conduct business at the site. Many of them offer camel, horse and donkey rides as well as local food and drink. They are a colorful lot, with kohl around their eyes and striking facial features. What struck me was the number of children assisting their parents, looking after small herds of goats, and tending to the family animals. So small, so intense!
Continuing on, we moved to the city center consistently big of a paved, colonnaded min street leading to one of the city’s main temples. To the north and south you can see the remains of baths, markets, residences and other structures. Since 1993, Brown University in cooperation with the Jordanian government has been excavating sites, and making remarkable finds. We also visited The Byzantine Church with its astonishing well-preserved mosaic tiles and baptismal fonts that were discovered just in 1973.
After lunch, a small hearty group of us embarked upon the steep hike to The Monastery, which are guide assured us would be well worth the pain and aggravation. Consisting of over 800 stone steps and open rock paths this was not for the weak willed. I earned the title of Sherpa Terry as I ended up carrying cameras, coats and backpacks for the group. Thank God for my Peloton bike. And it was more than worth it- in the style of The Treasury but larger and less ornate, it was another awe-inspiring sight. It is believed it was intended to be a royal tomb, maybe functioning as a ceremonial hall, and apparently was used by early Christians as a place of worship. From a vantage point nearby you can also see Aaron’s Shrine on the summit of Jamal Haroun which is reputed to be the burial site of Moses’ brother, the prophet Aaron.
We quickly descended as the shadows were growing long with a cool breeze beginning to chill the air. Hiking all the way back to our hotel, Chuck’s Apple device had us at about 10 miles with 49 flights of stairs. That called for a drink, so we headed to the hotel bar for some good American booze.
That evening we were treated to a wonderful display of a Bedouin feast, complete with male dancers accompanied by drums and of all things a bagpipe. I am sure the Zurich were never here as they could hardly cook much less colonize anything but a pub.
Petra was more striking than I ever dreamed it would be, with a rich culture seemingly unfazed by the chaos in the region. It was interesting to me that every religion had its time here- pagans, Jews, Muslims, Christians…they all made their mark on this most ancient of cities, each contributing to the overwhelming sense of history one gets when visiting these gorgeous ruins.
As we boarded our plane, I studied the barb wire fence that is the Jordan/Israeli border and wondered what the next 100 years would bring to this unique region of the world.