National Geographic has put it on their list of “25 Places You Must See Before Your Die” and UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site in 1985. It is the iconic image of Jordan and the main tourist attraction for the country. From the time I first saw a National Geographic article on it as a teenager I had wanted to see Petra.
Arriving the evening before allowed me to get a early start so I could beat the crowds but it is a tradeoff because the light at 7:30 or 8 in the morning is not the best for photos… the sun is not high enough in the sky to enter the canyon. However, I did escape the Chinese and German tours and tomorrow I will visit later in the morning to take advantage of the change in light.
The entrance to Petra is through a narrow limestone gorge called the “Siq” (the shaft) and I can honestly say that it was one of the most beautiful walks I have ever taken. The forms, colors and textures were fascinating and the play of light filtering into the canyon from different angles made for an ever changing panorama. I could have stayed for hours and hours just looking at the canyon at different time of the day.
As one comes to the end of the Siq your first sight of Petra is the Al-Khazneh (The Treasury) which is the quintessential image for the ruins. It is what we are all familiar with from movies and photos. A poet described Petra as “a rose red city half as old as time” and the first glimpse of The Treasury made me believe it was true.
Possibly as early as 312 BC this was the capital of the Nabataean empire which stretched from Arabia to the Levant. A creative outward looking people they built a capital at the crossroads of the caravan routes and controlled the area until the Romans in AD 106. The Nabataean ruins we see are of royal tombs carved from the sandstone and the remains of Roman temples and public spaces.
The valley is a natural amphitheater with the surrounding cliffs carved with tombs and temples. I walked the valley along the Roman road and I marveled (as I always do) at what these ancient cultures accomplished without the benefit of power tools and gasoline powered engines. The delicate carvings, the stone columns, and huge blocks of stone…I continue to ask myself, how was this accomplished?
I walked from tomb to temple climbing from the valley floor up the sides of the cliffs where there were beautiful vista of the valley and the surrounding hills. I looked down on the groups of camel and donkey drivers trying to get a fare. In the morning they want to take you up to the monastery, a tomb high in the hills about a 40 minute walk for the fit, and in the afternoon when the tourist are hot and weary they offer rides back to the beginning of the Siq. They are persistent and sometimes annoying but eventually get the message if you’re not going to bite for the ride. As everything in the Middle East all the prices are negotiable….haggle!
I took two days for my visit which allowed me to go in to the Siq at different times of the day for photos. I could also take the time to just sit and observe the Bedouins as they worked the tourist. They had some amazing approaches to inducing you to buy whatever goods or services they were peddling. One young man walked up to me with post cards and when I said no he replied come on “make my day… I didn’t!