Saturday, August 13, 2011

Petra: the Original Rock City

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had the amazing privilege of touring the Middle East for five weeks this summer, as a Study Abroad trip with my university. We visited Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. We would have visited Syria and Turkey as well, but because of the intense conflict in Syria, we had to cut that week out of our itinerary, shortening the trip from six to five weeks.
"The Treasury"

We spent nearly a week in Jordan, and in the midst of half a dozen Crusader castles, museums, and a ruined city or two, we spent a day at Petra. Petra is Greek for "rock," which is quite appropriate as the entire city was carved out of stone cliffs. You may be familiar with Petra's most famous facade, misleadingly called "The Treasury," (Bedouins thought the Egyptians had hidden treasure in the facade, and the name just stuck) which was used in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This is only a tiny part of the whole of Petra, and the expansive portion of the city which visitors can now explore is actually estimated to be only 11% of the entire city. Wow.

Petra was likely founded as the capitol of the Nabataean civilization around 600 BC, but most of the ruins date to between 300 BC and 400 AD. The city flourished and became wealthy as a major stop on a land trade route and its architects and artisans were strongly influenced by their great neighboring civilizations, the Egyptians, Greeks/Romans, and Syrians. By the first century BC, Petra took on even more characteristics of neighboring cultures, resembling a Hellenistic city with its newly minted coins and new amphitheater. In 106 AD, Petra was absorbed into the Roman Empire while also at the height of its splendor, but by the fourth century AD, the city declined considerably, as trade routes shifted to the sea.

Fulfilling Petra's water needs was a vast and intricate system of miles and miles of aqueducts and thousands of cisterns, all carved into the stone cliffs surrounding the city. Terracotta pipes were added during the Roman age, making the system even more efficient. Because of the constant threat of flooding (inherent to a city built in a canyon), Petra's builders also constructed a series of dams to divert excess water away from the city. Petra was permanently crippled, however, when an earthquake in 363 AD destroyed many buildings and damaged the water system.

Though Petra fell into deep decline after the earthquake, it remained a religious center and curiosity throughout the Middle Ages. The remains of a Byzantine church, including some stunning mosaics, stand at Petra. Johann Ludwig Burckhardt was the first European to visit the site, in 1812, when he paid some Bedouins to guide him there. Petra was first excavated and surveyed in 1929.

Al-Siq (the narrow canyon leading into Petra)
It's funny how out of all the films to feature a part of Petra, the one remembered most (by the West and by Jordan) is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; My group's Jordanian tour guide has been in the business for over thirty years and was actually present the day that Sean Connery, Harrison Ford, and crew filmed the five minute scene showing the Siq (the long, narrow canyon leading into the city) and the facade of "The Treasury." Also documenting the film were the "Indiana Jones Gift Shop" and the "Indiana Jones Snack Shop" near the site entrance.

As we rounded the corner at the end of the Siq and The Treasury came into view - real, gorgeous, and towering right in front of me - I knew this was going to be an amazing day. We ogled over this most famous of Petra's monuments for a few minutes before moving down the canyon, where it opens up to the "downtown" part of the city.  The cliff faces are covered with layer atop layer of tomb/dwellings ("here's my bedroom, and my grandma's buried under the floor over there..."), some magnificently carved and gigantic, while others were small and simple. We climbed up into one of the smaller dwellings to better grasp what it might have been like to live there. The sandstone walls are rippled with various colors, ranging anywhere between yellow, white, black, red, or blue, creating dazzling, natural "interior designs."

my view of the cardo from atop the cliff
Next, we climbed up to the "Urn Tomb," so-named for the giant urn carved into the top of the facade. This tomb was later re purposed and used as a church, when the city converted from its Pre-Islamic Arab religion to Christianity. A couple of the people from our group discovered a nearby stairway carved into the cliff (one of thousands in Petra) and we spent about a half hour detour up the cliff, following this precarious stair-trail. In the end, we could have climbed further, but time forbade us.

After more explorations, including the cardo, or "heart" of the city (its main street), we climbed over 700 steps up to "The Monastery," atop the cliff above Petra. This facade is the largest in the whole city and was later used as a monastery, hence the name. This climb and the jaw-dropping facade and views at the top were the definite highlight of the day. It just dumbfounds me to imagine what Petra must have looked like during its height. Wow.

The Monastery
We descended back down into the canyon of Petra and made our way to the exit, leaving behind my absolute favorite single site of the entire trip. We did not even have time to see all of what is open for tourists, and I definitely want to return and explore the city again some day.

I highly recommend a day (even two) at Petra for anyone who travels to the Middle East. You will never forget this magnificent, ancient city.

Photo credits: Deanna Leiber

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely fascinating! I must visit this one day!!