“A rose-red city half as old as time,” poet John William Burgon has said of it in his 1845 Newdigate Prize winning poem Petra.
Concealed from the rest of the world for many centuries before made famous by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812, the ancient city of Petra dishes a unique attraction emphasized by its rock-cut architecture where old settlements, royal tombs, temples, and palaces were directly hewn out of massive rock walls.
Established by the Arab Nabataeans as their capital city as early as 312 BC, Petra showcases the construction and engineering skills of the Nabateans as evidenced by their ancient methods of water collecting and irrigation designs to which modern engineers see with admiration and even emulated by present-day urban planners. Situated at the slopes of the biblical Mount Hor and surrounded by the mountains of Wadi Aqaba, it gives the impression of a city that completely grew out of the rocky mountains.
We started our brisk walk from the wide walkway enveloped by small hills dotted with royal tombs and ancient settlements. The further we went the narrower the path leading to the Treasury becomes. I savored each step, stopping to appreciate the glistening colorful walls. Not long after, we reached the part where the canyon becomes slender and the famous Siq would start. The Siq is a mile-long narrow gorge that features stunning rock-wall formations gleaming of dramatic rose-red and glittering golden hues when kissed by the seeping sunlight.
The dreamlike sensation of walking along the Siq presents the appropriate antecedent before one rests their eyes on Petra’s most elaborate ruin, the Al Khazneh or “the Treasury.”
Magically cleaved directly into a sandstone cliff, the well-preserved condition of the Treasury projects a visual banquet that lingers in your sight and summons you to just stare longer. I stood there in sheer awe, mesmerized by the façade, when a local Bedouin tapped me on my shoulder asking if I wanted to ride his camel for a photograph.
The Treasury is anything but related to the ancient Nabataeans’ finances. The Al Khazneh was originally constructed as a tomb during King Aretas IV Philopatris’ reign in 1st Century AD. The term “Treasury” originated from a legend when Bedouins fired multiple rounds of ammunition at the urn located at the top of the Al Khazneh, hoping to break and spill out the gold coins they believed was hidden inside the urn, which turns out to be made of solid sandstone and stores no secreted treasure.
|Some of the doors lead to ancient tombs such as this one|
The history of Petra runs far back and wildly, as it has witnessed the countless passing of kingdoms and sustained the reigns of many kings under the Nabataeans to the Romans until its decline during the Byzantine era.
Centuries of bygone history still stood before us and as I stared at the cave walls surrounding us and the amphitheater that was impressively cut and sculpted into a solid hillside sandstone wall, I made an attempt to imagine what it was like during the glorious years of Petra. I closed my eyes and when I opened it, I briefly pictured an illusory image of an eventful city, where the wives are peeking out of their homes summoning their husband workers while they ax and grind the thick sandstone walls carving new tombs and temples. I was dwelling deeper into my imagination when a young Bedouin boy tugged at my hand. “Two dollars for postcards,” he says, showing me a bundle of 10 postcards. I said, “Sure, but let’s take a selfie first.” He held my hand and dragged me to a spot where the sun shone.
After taking a self-portrait together, I handed a two-dollar bill to the young Bedouin when he asked me “one dollar more for my school,” grinning. What is one dollar more anyway, in a place where the ancient Nabataeans gave more than they could, their artistry, craftsmanship, courage, and a lot more, to build a city that remains long after their kingdoms have gone forever.
As we conclude our jaunt to Petra and started our walk back, I stopped along the Siq and touched the face of the outer wall and wondered what if the walls could talk. Then I started my walk again, through the history concealed and engraved at every corner of the Lost City of Petra.
This is a segment of our 12-day Holy Land Business famtour organized by Tala Travel in Israel and NITAS (Network of Independent Travel & Allied Services Philippines). For inquiries on how to avail of the “Holy Land Tour” in Egypt, Jordan, and Israel, email the NITAS consortium at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
*This article appeared on the Lifestyle pages of the July 24, 2016 issue of Manila Bulletin*