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The Rose-Red City of Petra

Watson E. Mills (here at The Treasury) has traveled to Petra twice during his 140 overseas trips. “My initial visit in 2000 was really special because I made that journey with my son, Michael. We rented a car in Amman and drove to Petra. From there we continued south through Wadi Rum all the way to the Gulf of Aqaba where the countries of Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia converge. It was a truly remarkable journey.”

In 1845, John William Burgon wrote a poem entitled “Petra.” His description of this ancient Nabataean city in modern-day Jordan, concluded with this line: “[it is] a rose-red city half as old as time.” Since the mid-nineteenth century, these nine words have taken on a life of their own and you find them in virtually every brochure or article about this amazing place as THE way to describe it.

Petra, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, is an ancient desert city located about three hours south of Amman, Jordan. I had first come to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of this desert site when I saw the film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” in 1990. It took me another 10 years to come here and see it in person. In fact I have traveled here twice — once in 2000 and again in 2008 — both visits were during the month of August when perhaps this desert area is at its most unforgiving! Indiana Jones rode into this ancient city on horseback. Unfortunately I had to walk in — a 1 kilometer journey — in temperatures above 110 degrees. A trek I will not soon forget!

Nonetheless, I must confess that it was a romantic, if not a surreal, experience to enter this lost city hidden deep within the desert mountains. Meeting Bedouin people along the way in their desert garb, leading their donkeys through the sand, is like a journey back in time. As I approached the end of the narrow passageway that leads into the city, my first view of the building cut into a sandstone wall was breathtaking, even though I had seen this particular structure hundreds of times in guidebooks and in the movies. There was something about finally seeing it with my own eyes — its resplendent ancient, carved facade reflecting the rays of a bright August sun into the darkness of the entrance passageway that impacted all my senses.

Today, almost 175 years after the poet’s description of Petra as “a rose-red city,” it reflects the effects that the elements of the desert have had upon its once soft exterior hues. Petra’s cliffs today reveal an even more extraordinary array of colors streaking through the stone. Some of its most colorful facades now reflect a rainbow of colors including everything from scarlet to yellow to purple to brown. These colors seem to complement the green foliage, the pink of the flowers, and the deep-blue sky. There is, however, one place in Petra that remains truly “rose-red.” It is the first structure you encounter on a pilgrimage here. It is the Treasury — the signature structure at Petra. This facade is illuminated in the afternoons by sunlight reflected off the surrounding, pinkish walls and truly forms a remarkable initial impression.

End of the Siq

The entryway into Petra, known as the Siq, is a 3,300-foot passageway that leads from the visitors’ center to the ancient city. The width of this passage varies from 10-40 feet. Its height also varies but rises, in some places, to more than 260 feet. The main part of the Siq is created by a natural rock formation, while the remainder was carved from the stone by the Nabataeans. The Siq starts near the original Nabataean dams that not only prevented flooding along the passageway, but also collected water for use inside the city. On both sides of the Siq, there are channels through which water flows from Wadi Musa (“Valley of Moses”) into the city. On the right side, there are pipes made like pottery jars to carry the water. On the left the channels are carved into the rock and covered with panels of stone. The floor of the Siq is paved with stone slabs, part of which can be viewed in their original location. The interior of the Siq is decorated with Nabataean sculptures, some of which are situated very close to the channels carrying the water. This is due to the Nabataean belief that water was sacred. At the end of the Siq, the remains of the city’s gate are still visible.

The Siq ends in a plaza flanked on the far side by Petra’s most magnificent façade — the Treasury (“Al Khazna”) which has been carved out of the sandstone face of a cliff. This structure is almost 130 feet high and 80 feet wide. It occupies two floors and is intricately decorated with friezes and other figures. While its original purpose remains unclear, there is almost unanimous agreement as to its antiquity: it was constructed in the 1st century AD. Some archaeologists have suggested that it was a temple, while others have thought it was a place to store documents. The most recent excavations have unearthed a graveyard beneath the Treasury suggesting that its original purpose may have been a burial site for King Aretas IV. The Treasury is comprised of three chambers, a middle chamber with an additional chamber on either side. The elaborately carved facade represents the Nabataean artistic and engineering genius at its finest.

The Nabataeans were an Arab tribe who first appeared in the 6th century BC. They migrated from the southeastern section of the Arabian Peninsula. By the 4th century BC they lived as nomads in tents, spoke Arabic, and had little interest in agriculture. By the 3rd century BC they settled at Wadi Araba between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, and by the 2nd century BC they had developed into an organized society. Initially Nabataean life was centered in Petra, but later it expanded into the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean). Although the Nabataeans successfully resisted military conquest, the cultural norms of its Hellenistic neighbors influenced them in many ways, e.g., architecture and art. The ever-increasing prominence of the Nabataeans economy gradually came to the attention of the Romans. So in 63 BC, the Roman general Pompey sent a Roman legion to cripple Petra, initiating a period of decline.

There are many other interesting structures along the main cobble-stoned colonnaded street of Petra: homes, shops, burial sites, religious monuments, etc. But the second most visited site at Petra (behind the Treasury) is the Monastery which is situated high up in these beautiful sandstone mountains. Getting there is the trick, but I really wanted to make this journey, even though the guide books point out that more than 800 steps must be climbed. I garnered every bit of nerve I could muster, and with a half dozen bottles of water in my backpack, set out in the mid-afternoon sun. “One, two,” I started to count off the steps as I bounced along, knowing full well how far it was to the top. The temperature had dropped a little, now hovering around 102 degrees. The sun’s rays were intense and unobstructed, yet somehow I remained confident of my ability to endure. About a third of the way up, I found a spot shaded by a wall and sat down to wipe myself down and drink two bottles of water. “It will be worth it,” I repeated to myself over and over.

First glimpse of the Monastery

Sometime later, when I reached the 600th step I was laboring much more heavily and felt I was about to flounder. I was now in a completely open area with no reprieve from the sun. Nonetheless, after resting for several minutes, I managed to resume my climb. Knowing that the end was finally in sight, I found the determination to push myself on, stopping only for short intervals to catch my breath and wipe my brow. “There can’t be many more steps,” was a recurring chant I spoke to myself. As the intense heat reached a tipping point and my body was beginning to respond accordingly, I really did sense I was just about there. As my eyes began to re-adjust to the shade of the natural walls along this crooked path, the walkway suddenly flatted out and there sat a lovely, elderly Bedouin woman who welcomed me with an engaging smile: “You made it!” she said in unaffected English. I could have kissed her! Just over the warmth of her welcoming smile I, saw it! At first glance it appeared even more incredible than the Treasury. I found a shady spot and sat down. I could not divert my watery eyes from this stunning structure. Its carved details, its enormity, its age. I found it a more astounding sight than the Treasury, which is saying a lot indeed.

On my descent, I passed many hikers struggling to reach the top. Several asked me, “How much farther?” “Is it worth it?” “A thousand times over,” I said, without hesitation. As I continued my downward trek into the setting sun, the number of hikers began to dwindle sharply as the day was coming to an end. In this solitude I found myself reflecting upon the question put to me. “Is it worth it,” of course, may be applied to many aspects of travel — from the initial decision to venture far from home, to questions of costs, both physically and economically. What was my conclusion reached along a trail in this “rose-red city half as old as time? “Absolutely! Stated in the words of another veteran traveler: “Live to Travel. Travel to Live.”


Next time: “The End of the World?” The Ancient Mayan City of Chichen Itza