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Published: April 8th 2017
Having been fortunate enough to have visited most of the world's great tourist attractions over the years, Petra had risen right to the top of my 'bucket list'. My concern was whether the expectation had resulted in perhaps my 'lifting the bar' a bit too high. It hadn't! Petra was without a doubt the highlight of my trip.
As predicted, the southern border crossing from Eilat in Israel to Aqaba in Jordan (the Wadi Araba crossing) was very pain free, and we were basically through both sides in around half an hour. The drive north to Petra took a couple of hours through pretty desolate country, except when we passed the outskirts of the famed Wadi Rum on our right-hand side, where huge sandstone and granite rocks suddenly sprung up out of the desert, with shapes not dissimilar in some ways to those of the Bungle Bungles in Western Australia (refer my Kimberleys blog). Unfortunately, our deviation into Israel didn't give us time to explore this interesting area, but we did get a good taste of wadis in Oman. Just prior to reaching Petra, we got the opportunity to get a panoramic view of the whole area, which set the
scene for a fascinating couple of days.
If you'll indulge me here, folks, I'm going to walk you through Petra in the order that we did it. Hopefully the narrative will be of interest, but it is clearly the pictures that tell the real story, and this will certainly serve as a great diary record for me. But first, a little bit of history. Most of the monuments at Petra were carved from the redstone by the Nabataeans, a nomadic tribe from western Arabia who arrived in the region around the 6th century BC. At its peak, it was home to around 30,000 people, most of whom contributed to the construction. This area was absorbed into the Roman Empire around AD 100 and became an important centre for trade and commerce. Earthquakes in the early days AD ruined some parts of the city and for a long time it then became a forgotten outpost, only known to local Bedouin. But after being discovered by archaeologists in the early 19th century, it has been progressively turned into the tourist attraction it is today.
While everybody talks about the Siq as being the starting point of Petra, there is in
fact about a kilometre walk before you get there along a more open area called the Bab al Siq. On the left-hand side is an attractive rock carving called the Obelisk Tomb, which gives you the first taste of what is to come. The Siq itself is a very long, narrow, winding sandstone gorge, which resulted from a natural tectonic splitting of the mountain, and this leads right into Petra itself. It is a bit over a kilometre long, can reach as high as 100 metres on either side, and reveals a wide range of the vividly covered geology of the whole region with a number of sandstone patterns in the rock walls. For those unable to handle the 40 minute or so walk into the site, there is the option of taking a horse-drawn buggy ('free' but with a mandatory $25 tip!) which, quite apart from the outrageous charge, to my mind would take away from the atmosphere of the walk in.
It will be hard to forget the first sighting of the Treasury (Al Khazna), as you turn the final and narrowest corner of the Siq. This is of course the enduring image of the city and
the particular structure that is shown in almost all publications and brochures advertising Petra, and it is not hard to see why. This rises to around 40 metres high and is intricately decorated with Corinthian capitals, decorative bands and more, with an urn on top, that has been shot at by the Bedouin in the belief that it contained a Pharoah's hidden treasure.
Past the next bend is the Street of Facades (or the Outer Siq), the name given to a row of Nabataean tombs carved into the southern cliff face. At the end of this street on the left-hand side is the Roman Theatre, carved into the side of the mountain at the foot of the High Place of Sacrifice. This was created by the Nabataeans but later enlarged by the Romans. It has seven stairways ascending the auditorium and can accommodate up to 7,000 spectators. Also in this area on the right-hand side were a series of small caves containing a range of stratified rock, with colours ranging from a salmon colour to the various shades of browns and reds of the surrounding rock walls.
On the opposite side of the valley, opposite the Theatre and
a short walk up the hill, are the Royal Tombs. These are a series of individual tombs grouped together, of which the most impressive is the Urn Tomb, which is characterized by a recessed facade above a series of arches over a two-tiered vault known as the sijin (prison). This is the largest of the tombs with an immense courtyard and interior main chamber. It was believed to have been carved around 70 AD and was later used as a Byzantine church. The other three tombs are from left to right the Palace, Corinthian and Silk Tombs respectively. The Palace has a grandiose five-storey facade, with a dam and water monument located behind the monument. The upper part of the Corinthian Tomb, supposedly a replica of Nero’s Golden Palace in Rome, is similar to that of the Treasury, but has been eroded over time, and the Silk Tomb is most notable for the swirls of vividly covered rock that make up its facade.
A further walk on leads to the Colonnaded Street, on which is situated the Great Temple complex and the Qasr Al-Bint. The former comprises a monumental entryway, lower and upper temenos and the temple itself, the
temenos being holy areas in front on the temple for worshippers. The Qasr Al-Bint is a square monument built on a podium, standing around 25 metres high, which dates back to the first half of the first century AD.
Last stop for me was The Monastery (Ad-Deir), the largest carved monument in Petra, which also dates back to 1st century AD. There were more than 800 steps in the climb up to the Monastery, representing an elevation of over 200 metres above the Qasr Al-Bint, and these are far from regular. A couple of us decided to take the easy way out and negotiated to ride donkeys up there, firstly ensuring ourselves that the animals were well-treated as we had heard some bad stories about some donkey owners. I finally arranged with a young lad who called himself Audi (a petrol-head?), who arranged a sturdy animal for me for the trip. I'd be lying if I didn't admit it was pretty scary at times, with the donkey often struggling for a footing on the smooth but uneven steps, and often going perilously close to the edge. The others on my group felt similarly, and we weren't prepared to risk
a downhill ride and had a most enjoyable 45 minute descent, where amongst other things, I stopped off and shared a glass of very sweet tea with Audi's mother and sister. I would have to say that the climb to the Monastery was well worth it, with its massive facade almost 50 metres square. The flat plaza in front was carved out of the rock to accommodate crowds at religious ceremonies, and on the left side of the facade, there is a very steep path that tourists are not permitted to climb, which leads up to the urn on top of the facade. As well as the great sight itself, an added bonus was the fantastic views from the mountain-top over the entire Petra basin and the Wadi Araba.
I could ramble on forever, but you are probably falling asleep by now, as this is closing in on being my longest ever blog! But it would be remiss of me not to give a positive mention of the locals at Petra. Sure they were all trying to flog their souvenirs, camel and donkey rides etc, but we saw very few cases of the 'hard sell' and most of them
were happy to chat with you even if you didn't avail yourself of their goods or services. As our paths crossed as we and they travelled back and forwards, we would stop to chat and I actually enjoyed the social aspects of the visit as well as the sights. Of particular interest was the stall run by one of the sons of the New Zealand lady who married a local back around 1980 and wrote the book "Married to a Bedouin". Unfortunately, Marguerite was away in Amman while we were there so we didn't get a chance to meet her, but I did buy a signed copy of her book. Also, I should mention that one of the few bonuses with the neighbouring hostilities in Syria and Iraq is that numbers at Petra are apparently well down on previous years, and we noted especially on our first day, when we didn't arrive until mid-afternoon, that the place was almost deserted. It was amazing to get photos of a number of stretches of the Siq and of the Treasury with noone standing in them.
So that pretty well wraps up a pretty full fortnight in Oman, Israel and Jordan. Next
trip, and hopefully next blog, will be a change of pace as we are taking a brief holiday later this month over to Western Australia, where hopefully the highlight will be swimming with the whale sharks at Ningaloo. Stay tuned.
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