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Paradise regained

By Juliet Highet

Nestled within an impregnable valley, the “lost city” of Petra is a spectacular expression of culture, mystery and drama

“Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,

A rose-red city half as old as time”

Such evocative words were written by a traveller of the Victorian era, Dean Burgon. He forged his way on a camel across desert wastes, into the wilderness of southern Jordan. Petra, a legendary city of the ancient world, “half as old as time” and carved from “rose-red” rock, had been lost to the world until another 19th-century explorer, John Burkhardt, stumbled across it by chance and wrote about the extraordinary monuments he saw.

Like a gigantic crack in the Nubian sandstone of Petra’s mountain barrier, the Siq snakes along for nearly a mile between rock walls that seem almost to meet overhead.
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Two centuries have passed since Burkhardt’s writings first started inspiring historians, archaeologists and globetrotters to make the once long and arduous journey into the mountains surrounding this city - ancient Petra, capital of the Nabataean Arabs. The fact that it now takes only three hours to speed down the King’s Highway from Amman, does not in the least detract from the sensational impact of the site. Petra is still formidable, magnificent and mysterious.

The drama - and the mystery - begin on arrival. You must enter Petra on horseback or on foot. This enforced slowing-down of access into the valley site naturally has the effect of making one fully appreciate the impact of the Siq, the canyon entrance. Like a gigantic crack in the Nubian sandstone of Petra’s mountain barrier, the Siq snakes along for nearly a mile between rock walls that seem almost to meet overhead. The Siq was Petra’s protection against surprise attacks, needing only a few soldiers to hold the 300-foot-high passage. After an overture of about 25 minutes on horseback, the Siq makes one more turn and out of the gloom is revealed the towering brightness of Al Khazna, the Treasury. Set in a frame of glowing rock, it is an astounding structure, about 27 metres wide by 40 metres tall, and like all the others at Petra, carved out of the rock face. Within the giant columns is a great central chamber with doorways leading to smaller rooms.

Turning to the right past the Treasury, the Siq begins to widen, and the antiquities become more and more numerous. Proceeding down the valley, through a spacious passage between the cliffs, on every side are elaborate tomb facades. The effect is absolutely stunning, for one can hardly separate what is man-made sepulchre from natural rock formation. As the trail widens, a giant second-century Roman theatre looms up on the left, cut entirely out of the rock face and capable of seating about 4,000 spectators. Several superb statues have been recovered from the Theatre, including a marble one of Hercules, which one can see later on at the site’s interesting little museum. Now the valley opens up completely to a plain 250 yards across, covered with ruins, foundations of buildings, fragments of columns and vestiges of paved streets - all clearly indicating that a large city of possibly 30,000 people once existed here. Many of the monuments are visible on the main valley road, but some of the most exquisite and important structures, such as the Monastery and the High Place of Sacrifice, are reached by precipitous footpaths up the mountainside. The Monastery is one of the largest and most handsome temples at Petra, built in the 2nd century AD for the Nabataean deity, Dhu-shara.

What was Petra and who were the Nabataeans who created this highly evolved civilisation? They were a Semitic people from north Arabia, who settled in Petra around 800 BC. Archaeological evidence suggests that they were a mobile people who ranged across wide reaches of the desert on camel, carving out an empire that extended as far as Damascus in Syria. By about 300 BC, the Nabataeans had started to build their capital city in the impregnable mountainside of Petra, from which they controlled the main trade routes that criss-crossed the ancient Arabian world. Petra was one of the most important junctions on two of the world’s oldest trade routes. The Incense Road led north and south of the city, connecting the Greek and Roman empires with southern Arabia. This linked up with the Silk Route through northern India to China. Another major caravan trail was the old highway from Egypt to Damascus, on which Petra was strategically placed.

At the height of the Nabataean empire, the entire valley floor was covered with public and private buildings housing priests, merchants, farmers, camel-drivers and foreigners who came in on the caravan routes. The decline of the Nabataean civilisation began when, in 106 AD, Petra lost its independence and was incorporated into the Roman empire. Although the city reached its architectural height under the Romans, its importance as a caravan route began to dwindle. During the early Christian era, Petra became part of the Byzantine empire, and then later fell to the Arabs. Then came the cataclysmic earthquake that decimated the city in 562 AD. Now, once again, it is possible to travel into its astounding rose-red expanse - that marvel of atmosphere, ancient technology and beauty.


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