So iconic is the image of Petra’s Treasury facade that one approaches it excited to have fulfilled an ambition yet with trepidation that it might underwhelm. Petra though deserves the description ‘breath-taking’ as few other sights do. As one turns a slight curve in the siq, the narrow cleft in the mountain leading to Petra, one glimpses its Classical broken pediment and columns; an involuntary intake of breath followed by a low ‘wow’ testifies to its impact. This is very much as its creators intended, placing the view just so to impress the new visitor, of which Petra had many, then as now.
Surrounded on all sides by high vertical walls of warm coloured rock, the sandy floor in front of the Treasury offers a natural forum for crowds to mingle. Millennia ago these crowds would have been the Nabatean residents of the city of Petra and traders from all points of the compass; today it is global tourists and local Bedouin offering their donkeys, camels and local knowledge for a price.
The grandeur and fine detailing of the Treasury with its Roman motifs, broken and blurred remains of reliefs and pockmarks from Bedouin bullets (looking to trigger a release of hidden treasure) holds one’s attention until curiosity to see the city itself beckons. A narrow defile to the right of the Treasury leads to the city, a canyon of burial chambers carved into the sandstone and a finely crafted amphitheatre capable of seating seven thousand spectators. Further on the gorge opens to a wider valley that once housed many buildings and the bulk of the city’s population, reckoned to have been 20,000 at its peak. Further on again, up more than eight hundred steps carved into a steep crevice in the rocks, one comes to a high plateau and another elegant carved facade, similar if simpler than the Treasury, known as the monastery.
From the perimeter of small heights around the monastery’s plateau, there are fine views of the steep, serrated and forbidding hills that form the eastern mountain range of the Jordan Valley. Like the city below, in its heyday this plateau would have been paved and rimmed with columns, overlooked by an impressive classical acropolis on the height directly across from the monastery facade. What a vision this lofty architectural beauty must have been under the glorious amber of the setting sun.
The quarrying and carving necessary to create Petra’s tombs and temples was an astonishing achievement, barely possible to conceive, even if sandstone is regarded as a relatively soft stone. The physical effort was combined with mathematical precision and a high degree of architectural design and planning. Nabatean motifs are merged with Classical ones, as befits a metropolitan city with all its international influences. The famous Treasury building though seems to be a step up in its forceful articulation of Roman design, to the exclusion of Nabatean influence, standing as if in testament to the power of Rome. Indeed Petra’s wealth attracted inevitably the attentions of the Romans who brought it under its sway in the first century BCE.
Like all cities, Petra had an economic rationale. The Nabateans were originally pastoralists from the Arabian peninsula who developed sophisticated systems to maximize the use and storage of water, including sculpting the land to created water retaining sumps, building dams and creating earthen conduits to direct water run-off and flash floods into cisterns for storage. This allowed for patches of sustainable agricultural production capable of providing food and and water supplies for travelers and caravans along the trails criss-crossing the arid landscape: Combining these opened trade routes throughout the region.
The Nabatean economy was fueled by this trade and Petra emerged as a hub, linking north (Damascus), south (Aqaba), the Asian east and European west via Petra itself; another Nabatean hub at Avdat in the Negev desert of Israel offered a stepping stone to Gaza port bristling with ships from all over the Mediterranean.
Petra is one of the few historic places that probably benefits from the hubbub of tourists and the insistent Bedouins offering rides on their camels and donkeys and snacks, freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee in pavilions. The activity helps one visualise the city as it once was, a crossroads for the intrepid and the commercially minded. But it does take an imaginative effort to summon up a vision of the buildings that must have crowded the gorge at the city’s heart. They were shattered by a series of devastating earthquakes in the fourth century during Petra’s Byzantine era, so destructive in fact that they led to the abandonment of the city. By then, the orginal Nabatean culture had long been diminished under Greco-Roman influences. And Petra was also by then probably more of a religious centre since much trade had been diverted north to Palmyra in modern day Syria.
Lost to time, Petra remained a location known only to the Bedouin who had begun to arrive in the region in the 14th century. Their secret was prised from them by Johann Ludwig Burkhardt, a determined, intellectual and audacious Swiss explorer who entered the city in 1812 disguised as an Arab scholar.
Until recently, Petra’s man-made caves and hollows were home to Bedouins but its inhabitants were encouraged by the Jordanian Government to move to nearby accommodation providing not just modern amenities like water, electricity and wifi but proximity to their employment servicing the tourists coming to Petra.
One of our traveling companions was from New Zealand and was therefore familiar with the story of Marguerite van Geldermalsen. Originally from New Zealand, van Geldermalsen had travelled the world including Petra in the early 1970s only to fall in love with a Bedouin whom she married. She lives now in the new village nearby. We met her son, one of three children born and raised there, who was manning the family stall, set beneath the impressive Royal Tombs, selling jewelry, objets d’art and of course his mother’s compelling autobiography, Married to a Bedouin (Virago, 2009).
Part of the fascination of Petra is the glimpse that it provides into the life of the region some two thousands years ago. It owed its existence to the flow of trade that came naturally to a region that sits at the juncture of Europe, Africa and Asia. The tectonic instability of the crunching continents that meet here at the apex of the Rift Valley ultimately doomed Petra.
Today it is the instability of conflict and consequent security concerns that dooms the trade and cultural mix that should come naturally to the people in this wonderful region, as indeed it had done in times past though one suspects not as definitively as today. Crossing the Jordan-Israel border either side of the Allenby Bridge now is a taxing and bureaucratic affair; no commerce currently enters Gaza. True, armies criss-crossed the region since times immemorial and archaeological layers testify to the waxing and waning of influences; Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader, Muslim, Mamluk, Ottoman, French and British.
Petra though reminds us of what the region once was and can be – dynamic, free flowing, a nexus for trade and far-away cultures to mix creatively and influence each other. Only peace makers can make that the future too.