Mysterious History in Sand And Stone

In the Jordanian desert, I was trying to discover a vanished Arab
civilization whose brief, eclectic culture is as lovely as it is strange.

Text & Photographs by Buket SAHIN

Opposite the Monastery, I sit looking 3,000 feet below to the desert hills of Wadi Araba that stretch from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. A dark-skinned Bedouin guy with tangled black hair riding a white horse slowly, wearing a traditional long white robe and red-and-white checked headdress, joining me trying to convince on riding his awesome white horse (claiming the mother of that horse appeared in the movie” Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ") and ambitiously telling me his perspective of PETRA story with a very broken English as I silently take in the sunset. I see the pride on his face as he fits the panorama so perfectly at this unforgettable sunset.

On my recent trip to Damascus, Syria this March visiting my sister recently posted from Ankara, it was inevitable to visit  magnificent  Red Rose city of  PETRA in Jordan. After we rented a van in Damascus that came with driver Ahmed we were driving thru the desert of Jordan discovering  that PETRA is both lovelier and more dramatic than any painting, photograph, or film of it. As Rose Macaulay wrote in 1953 in Pleasure of Ruins: "If ever a dead city held romance it is PETRA....hewn out of ruddy rock in the midst of a mountain wilderness, sumptuous in ornament and savage in environs, poised in wildness like a great carved opal glowing in a desert, this lost caravan city staggers the most experienced traveler." It certainly overwhelmed me.

Bedouins were still living there a few decades ago, when the Jordanian government began developing PETRA as a tourist site. The Bedouins were moved to a village that was built for them nearby, but some still return by day to do business. Ruin-worship has a strain of the-glory-that-was-Rome sentimentality, and it's hard to avoid clichés along the lines of look-on-my-works-and-despair. Henry James thought there was something perverse and maybe heartless in the delight we take in ruins, though that didn't stop him from enjoying them. Perhaps there's something creepy about tourism based on the belief that all the best civilizations have been dead for a thousand years or so. But PETRA is beyond category. Experiencing an eight-hours of driving without stopping in Amman, some annoying border delays, getting lost on the highway in spite of Arabic speaking Ahmed;  it was worth the trouble  More than most remnants of antiquity, the buildings at PETRA have the power to evoke the cultural texture of ancient civilization. For a period that lovingly preserves every sign of antiquity, PETRA has established itself as the world's perfect ruin.

Considered by many to be the Eighth Wonder of the World, PETRA, nestled within the walls of a desert chasm remained shrouded from occidental knowledge beginning during the Crusades until 1812. `PETRA' in Greek means `rock' and Bedouins guarded the beauty and wonder in this city born of sand- and limestone deposits within the canyon walls in hopes that one day they would gain for themselves the treasure they believed lay within. A Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhart disguised himself as a Bedouin and smuggled himself into the ancient city in 1812, and PETRA's wonders were known to the world at large once more.

PETRA is enigmatic," I am thinking. "It appears solitary. You're in the middle of the desert, yet you go down to PETRA. The mountains are towering all around, and at every bend, there's something new to see."

It is without doubt a magnificent city that stirs the human spirit and exemplifies the heights of world civilization and therefore is the most spectacular tourist site in all of Jordan.

Much of PETRA remains undiscovered; only two percent of the central city has been excavated. Although it later became an important Roman and Byzantine city, PETRA reached its peak under the Nabataeans, an Arab tribe whose civilization lasted a mere 300 years, from roughly 200 b.c.. to 100 a.d. PETRA was the Nabataean capital, decorated with a splendor that suggests its position as an important cultural and financial center of the ancient world. "The Nabataeans were nomad who became rich from controlling the trading routes. Suddenly they've got all the money in world to do what they want. And what do they do? They build a city."

In modern geographic terms, the Nabataeans once controlled portions of Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, as well as all of Jordan, the Israeli Negev, and Sinai. PETRA's ornate buildings were a vivid symbol of this mysterious colonial power.

Although PET RA's numerous tombs have made some visitors think of it as a city of the dead,  it was in fact a bustling, noisy metropolis of 30,000 people. But who those people were, how they lived, and what they believed is still largely buried in the desert sand.

* * * * *

Until a few years ago, the story of the Nabataeans was a badly fragmented narrative pieced together from the sparse accounts of a few ancient historians. Thanks to the efforts of Brown College  and   the narrative is filling out, its details gleaned from the great buildings the Nabataeans left behind. These artisans embellished their work in a style that combined native and Hellenic influences. Inside the great temples are columns with capitals in the form of elephant heads or chiseled into the delicate shapes of acanthus leaves. Until recently, the Bedouin were said to fire their rifles at the urn, hoping it would one day fall to pieces and shower them with gold and jewels.

In Steven Spielberg's 1989 movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Sean Connery and Harrison Ford ride on horseback toward what looks like a Greco-Roman temple built into the side of a rose-colored mountain. This is the film's great visual moments, so wondrous and otherworldly that at first it looked to me like a computer-generated melding of live action with an artist's idealized painting. Could anywhere on earth be as romantic and powerful as that? But the setting turned out to be altogether real, the ancient mountain city of PETRA in southern Jordan, a site that has begun attracting more tourists since Jordan and Israel made peace. Parts of Lawrence of Arabia were filmed here too.

Among its charms is an element of difficulty--it's harder to reach than many great monuments. You must walk to it, down the Siq, a mountain pass 1.2-kilometres long. A journey through nature toward culture, the walk itself unfolds as a surprising pleasure: I can admire the gorgeous variety of rock on the natural walls of the Siq as I anticipate the city up ahead. I know roughly what's at the end of the journey, because I've seen the photos, but the slow approach heightens the drama.

Does any other work of ancient architecture come with a more stirring overture? Finally I catch my first glimpse, between two gigantic protruding rock formations, of enormous Corinthian columns on the Treasury, the most famous of PETRA's buildings and the one Spielberg used to symbolize arcane mysteries.

It's 45 meters tall, a work of 2,000-year-old architecture elaborately carved into the pink sandstone by men who hung on ropes from the top of the mountain. The mountain that faces the Treasury has protected much of it from sandstorms and driving rain, but over the centuries the facade has gradually changed. Sculptures on either side of the main door once depicted horses and men; time has worn away the men's heads, making the results look startlingly like the work of Henry Moore. The building is called the Treasury because people used to imagine it contained a cache of coins and jewels. It's scarred by hundreds of bullet holes, the bullets having been fired at the facade by Bedouin tribesmen hoping to dislodge hidden riches.

The Treasury was in fact merely a tomb, and for just one man, a ruler of the Nabatean Arabs, who built PETRA and used it as their capital for four centuries before the birth of Christ. The Nabateans grew rich by taxing the caravans that passed nearby, and PETRA became richer still after the Nabatean kingdom was annexed as a province of Rome. In its ruins, archeologists have identified 800 tombs, along with a market, a forum, shops, baths, and a huge Roman amphitheatre, built into the mountain.

PETRA began a long decline in the third century CE, when caravan routes shifted elsewhere. Later the Crusaders controlled it, and built a mountaintop castle. But after Saladin drove them back to Europe in the 12th century, PETRA vanished from the world's maps. Its location was known only to certain Bedouins, perhaps descendants of the Nabateans, who used it as their home base.

Early in the 19th century, J. L. Burkhardt, a Swiss explorer, thought that the stories he heard about a secret mountain enclave sounded a lot like the PETRA that writers on ancient history were then calling "a lost city." He went there in 1812, disguised as an Arab, and became the first westerner at PETRA in seven centuries. Like most modern tourists, he spent less than a day, but left a vivid description in his book, Travels in Arabia. The Bedouins were not famous for hospitality, but many explorers and authors followed Burkhardt to the site and eventually made it famous.

Nestled in the mountains, the city hand-carved by the Nabataeans offered natural protection against rogue invaders. PETRA's location at the crossroads of ancient trade routes allowed the city -- with a population of anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 -- to flourish as a commercial center.

Frankincense and incense from the Arabian Peninsula and spices such as pepper from India were transported by camel caravans through PETRA's trading post to the coastal emporium in Gaza or farther north to the bazaars in Damascus and Aleppo, and on to Antioch.

The Nabataeans, pagans who had brought their religion, culture and engineering genius from what is today's Arabian peninsula, spoke a distinctive Semitic language that may form the base for modern-day Arabic.

They held off outside conquests for hundreds of years, until Roman legions of the Emperor Trajan finally overcame both geological and social military barriers to occupy the city in 106 A.D.

Then for a few centuries more, PETRA became a Roman town complete with baths and colonnaded streets.

The rise of an alternate trade route in Palmyra, Syria, led to PETRA's decline as a focal point for commerce by the fourth century A.D.

Somewhere in the recent past, Bedouins took up residence in the cave like ruins, until the Jordanian government forcibly relocated them to a village nearby.

Little was known about its history from that point, until recent archaeological finds, including a Byzantine church complete with an archive of papyrus scrolls, opened a new page on PETRA's life.

These latest findings show that the city continued to survive into the fifth and sixth centuries.

But by the seventh century A.D., and the advent of Islam, a veil inexplicably fell over PETRA, only to be partially raised in the 12th century by Crusaders who built a fortress here.

PETRA, which means "rock" in Greek, was rediscovered in 1812 by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Hearing rumors of fantastic ruins from the Bedouins, Burckhardt disguised himself as a Muslim sheik and ventured into PETRA with a suspicious local guide who, along with others, wanted to keep the ruins' location hidden.

Burckhardt nonetheless saw parts of the city and spread the news of what he discovered.

The entryway to the city center is known as the Siq (pronounced seek). This winding narrow cleft in the mountain forms a dusty, mile long hike to the most impressive of sites, the El-Khazneh (treasury).

The path narrows to 20 feet in width at times and the walls are several hundred feet tall. Waves of color swirling through the rock face in the Siq, as in all of PETRA, range from pale gold and white to shades of pinks and rich reds to chocolate brown.

PETRA's position as a trading post depended on the availability of water, and Nabataean traders were expert hydraulic engineers.

"The Nabataeans saved every last drop of water," says Erika Schluntz, assistant director of Brown University's Great Temple Excavation in PETRA.

Catchment basins for water runoff, underground channels, as well as cisterns to house water are found all over the site, and canals carrying water from nearby springs in terra-cotta pipes are carved into the sides of the Siq.

In Roman times, the great gorge's path was paved with stone. Some parts recently uncovered by excavations remain visible today. Carved indentations in the walls served as altars to the Nabataean's chief deity, Dushara.

Just when it seems as if the Siq will never end, you catch a glimpse of the most amazing site of PETRA through an opening as wide as two horsemen abreast. The salmon-colored edifice stands 120 feet high, a stunning example of Hellenistic architecture with graceful Corinthian columns.

A stroll down the stone-paved, colonnaded main street of Roman PETRA past ancient debris of what was once a marketplace leads to the courtyard of the Temple of Dushara. The only freestanding building in PETRA, it is composed of large yellow sandstone blocks and is popularly known as the Qasr el-Bint Firaun (the castle of Pharaoh's daughter).

Settled today in front of the temple are the local Bedouins some say may be descendants of the Nabataeans. They offer camel rides for tourists who squeal with surprise as the desert beasts struggle to their feet, jolting the rider forward and then backward.

Across the way is a recently excavated fifth-century Byzantine church, magnificently decorated, telling us something of the economic standing of the people of the time, which helps archaeologists and historians learn more about the Byzantine chapter of PETRA and the region.

After an overnight stay at Edom hotel with my family, next morning I am anxious again to be at the main gate sharp 6:00 am after a most delicious middle-eastern breakfast in a cave-like room  "
We are leaving the unforgettable RED-Rose city of Petra with utmost sad feelings and I know I will  be back sometime soon as it captured my heart with its locals and aurora. Soon after our trip to Aqaba where we take a short glassboat trip in Red Sea  to see the coral reefs we are heading back to Amman along Dead Sea"

© Buket SAHIN,
April 30, 2001 / NYC

BAHAR sayisi web'dedir.



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