Monday, June 7, 2010

Petra

Our next stop, Petra, is considered by some to be one of the new wonders of the world.
Our next stop, Petra, is considered by some to be one of the new wonders of the world. The Nabataeans, an ancient Semitic civilization, built the ancient city of Petra in what is now the Jordanian governorate of Ma'an, and ruled there until 363 BC. The city was of strategic importance in the silk and spice route from Asia, and as a result, fell under Roman and later Byzantine control. After the Byzantines, Bedouin tribes moved into the city and remained there until the mid 1980's. It was around this time that Petra began to receive tourist attention, eventually developing into one of the top tourist locations in the Middle East. Spending a day in Petra makes it clear why this is so.

We began at the visitor center where we got our tickets for entry into the city. Accompanying us was our tour guide Emad, who provided us with information about Petra as we went along. Once inside, we were each given a horse for the first part of our journey down the main trail. We trotted into the first major checkpoint called Bab Al Siq. In Arabic, 'Bab' means gateway and the Siq is the gorge that leads into the ancient city of Petra. As we approached the Siq entrance, we were able to see squared monuments carved from rocks, known as the Djinn blocks. We then came to an Obelisk Tomb, carved by the Nabataeans in the 1st century AD, above which four pyramids and a niche with a statue stood representing the people buried there.

We then came to a dam built by the Nabataeas as a preventative measure against flash floods. At this point we were asked to dismount our horses and continue on foot. We entered the Siq, which is a natural gorge split in the mountain, and leads directly into Petra. The lurid geology of the gorge was quite breathtaking. On either side of the gorge ran stone water channels, which the Nabataens used to transport water to the city. The Siq also held many sacred carved stones and relics left behind by the Nabataeans.

Eventually the Siq opened up into an incredible courtyard containing the first great façade on the trail, the 'Treasury' (Al Khazna). This 40 meter high building gets its name due to a huge urn that sits atop a pedestal near the top, which according to local legend contains a pharaoh's treasure. This impressive structure also is decorated with statues of gods and angels carved from the stone of the cliffs.

Moving deeper into the city, we came to what is known as the 'Street of Facades'. It is the name given to the row of monumental Nabataean tombs carved into the cliff face. Further town the trail we came across the 'Theatre', an ancient auditorium that was destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt during the Roman occupation of Petra. We also passed 'The Nymphaeum', a semi-circular public fountain shaded by a 450 year old pistachio tree. We then walked down a colonnaded street and caught a glimpse of the 'Great Temple' before grabbing a bite to eat at the end of the trail.

The whole trail was approximately 4 km, and after lunch we were afforded a few hours to explore on our own. Many of us split up into smaller groups and ventured into ancient façades and royal tombs, or climbed along the ancient Nabataean pathways along the cliffs to the many niches and vaults chiseled out of the mountainside.

After an adventurous day exploring the wonderful architecture and geology of Petra, we headed to our new hotel hot, tired, and feeling a bit like Indiana Jones in 'Raiders of the Lost Arch'.

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