Published: January 19th 2011January 19th 2011
What an incredible couple of days!
We set off from Amman and went to Mt Nebo, which is the location where Moses saw the promised land for his people. It is here where he died and there are the remains of ancient churches here that were built in his honour. Standing there myself brought about an unexpected sensation of being somewhere quite special. From this vantage point, we could gaze at the Dead Sea down below, seeing the hills of Israel upon the other side. Jericho was plainly visible across the valley, with the site of St John's baptism of Jesus roughly halfway between where we were standing and Jericho. My knowledge of the Bible and the Quran is minimal, but there is no doubting the religious significance of many locations in this part of the world. I have certainly been learning vast amounts over the past few days about the events described in the Bible, with one of the most fascinating stories concerning Lot, whose cave was also nearby to where I was standing. The story of his two daughters spiking his drink, having sex with him and then giving birth to his children/grandchildren was so lurid that I can't imagine it being stocked in your regular bookshop were it a modern publication!
Near Mt Nebo is the city of Madaba where they have uncovered a stunning mosaic map from the 6th century A.D. depicting the major locations in the Holy Land, from the Nile Delta across to Mt Nebo. The mosaic even has fish swimming away from the Dead Sea up the River Jordan so that they don't perish in its salty waters, which neatly leads me into mentioning our next location.
I have been intrigued by the Dead Sea since I first became aware as a young boy that you float in it, whether you want to or not. Due to the intense heat during the summer months the water evaporates at a faster rate than it is fed into the Dead Sea, resulting in around 30% of the water being salt. I could not help but burst out laughing as I let myself fall into the water, only to bob straight back up as if there was a spring beneath me. My brother's girlfriend had hilarious difficulty in trying to enter the water, as she kept adjusting her weight and being flung onto her front or back in an instant. My brother and I could not help but find watching this scene highly entertaining. As we floated out from the shore, my brother challenged me to position my body as if I was standing upright. It was quite bizarre to be in that position in deep water only to have your head and chest above the surface with nothing below you but liquid. Occasionally I shifted my weight slightly and was instantaneously catapulted into a horizontal position again. We spent an hour or so just floating around in the warm water before retreating to the shore, partaking in a couple of beers as we cast our eyes over the lowest point on the planet (we were over 400m below sea level!).
The following day far surpassed anything I had previously imagined concerning Petra. This is a place that leaves you stricken with awe and wonder at every turn. We spent over seven hours exploring the ancient city, yet we could have come back again the next day and seen entirely different places over the same period of time. The scale of the city is simply immense. With the only entrance being through the towering walls of the Siq (like a canyon, except it wasn't formed by water, but from an earthquake where the earth simply cracked), your excitement builds and builds as the sunlight is blocked out and you know you are approaching the famed facade of the Treasury. The Siq itself contains many interesting examples of engineering by the hands of the Nabataean people who built this incredible city, from drainage channels to supply the city with water, through to sculptures of camels and caravan people making their way to the city for trade. As the excitement builds, it soon escapes from your mouth as your jaw falls agape upon seeing the magnificence of the Treasury facade carved into the rock. As an introduction to an ancient site, this is truly memorable. It must be over forty metres in height and the effort required to carve into the rock makes the mind boggle, not to mention the internal chambers. In recent years they have also discovered a lower section that consists of tombs, which are still being excavated. Unfortunately a few of the figures adorning the facade are missing their faces, which were hacked away by the Christians when they took control of the region. I remember similar desecration upon temples in Egypt which infuriated me. Such a lack of foresight and the willingness to destroy what are obviously beautiful and admirable places due to religion is, in my mind, abhorrent. Enough of the negativity though.
Around two thirds of the ancient city is still buried beneath the desert sands, with excavation continually going on in an effort to further uncover the full beauty of this place. We walked for many hours, in some cases through secluded valleys, yet we could see facades of temples and tombs carved into the rock walls of the valleys for miles and miles. The Nabataean civilisation prospered at Petra for hundreds of years due to its importance on the caravan route for traders from Asia, Europe and the north of Africa. This length of time would have been necessary to create such a vast and impressive city.
Visiting Petra in winter proved to be a blessing, as it was often just the three of us in a valley or wandering through a temple. From what I have read, this is extremely rare at this tourist Mecca. On one occasion the valley we were walking through seemed to end and I thought we had lost the ancient trail, then to my left I spied some carved steps behind a rock that wound their way up the cliff. This was a sensational climb, winding through narrow spaces on steps that were walked upon 2,000 years ago - and we had it all to ourselves! I could not stop marvelling at the swirling colours of the rock, with everyhting from pink to yellow to red to orange to black and every other natural shade of ochre that exists, often within a metre or so of rock. I love wandering through King's Canyon and The Olgas back in central Australia, but they have nothing on the beauty of the colours present here. We finished this climb at a sacrificial altar upon the top of the mountain, affording us sweeping views of the entire city and its surrounding valleys, with caves and carved facades as far as the eye could see. I had a talk to a local Bedouin woman here, telling her how lucky I thought she was to live in such a beautiful place.
Petra has been voted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and after visiting five of
the others, I am wholly satisfied that Petra deserves its place on this list. I feel very privileged to have been fortunate enough to visit this unique ancient city.