Have pen, will travel. Sending letters.
A letter from Jordan. In which is given a more or less detailed account of a walk through the ancient ruins of Petra.
Jordan, February 2008
how are you? How’s the weather back home? Ah, you know I’m baiting you, don’t you. But to be honest, weather here in Jordan is not exactly all bright sunshine at the moment. But … everything in turn now. As you know, one of the great things about archaeological field research is (well, next to all the fun you have digging in the dirt of some remote place, of course) that somehow you always end up meeting great people and seeing awesome places. So, when spending some weeks on this mission to Jordan (that Chalcolithic-Early Bronze Age site at the arid outskirts of bright Aqaba at the Red Sea which, actually, should be topic of another letter soon), it was no question that one of the rare free days would have to be spent nowhere else but in … Petra, that mythic ‘town’ (well, a number of tombs and temples, actually, but you get the idea) cut out of the rock.
So, one late Thursday afternoon (as Friday is the traditional ‘day off’ in the Islamic world, our excavation certainly not being an exception here) a small group of archaeologists rented a car and set out to the desert, heading north to find this mysterious place they heard of. What they didn’t reckon with was the fact that despite the sunny and rather warm preceding days they spent in the field didn’t mean winter had come to an end in Jordan at all (I told you about the weather, didn’t I). Yes, the more we progressed northwards through the desert, the colder the night was breaking. Sudden rain became hail and even snow with every step closer to our destination. A sigh of relief left our lips when finally the small town of Wadi Musa appeared from this impenetrable white drift which had forced us to slowly crawl down the rimy road. Quite happily we moved into that small inn in some side road; a second blanket making up for the missing heating that night …
Excitement and curiosity made us get up early (well, missing heating helped too), the prospect of visiting the old structures right on our doorstep almost created an atmosphere similar to Christmas Eve, somehow I’m sure you can relate. So, without taking the time for an extensive breakfast we left. Given the dimension of the town which – in the light of day – seemed to consist of hotels of all sizes and classes mostly, the streets were surprisingly lonely. Winter still, I guess – not exactly tourist season, apparently. The weather however, was on our side now: still a bit chilly in the morning, but without rain or even snow.
Not more than a short walk down the street and we were already standing right there at the ancient Nabatean ruins, almost merging with the modern-day town. Again, only a few other people were waiting at the gates (‘Winter’, you say?), so it did not take too long to finally move past the entrance area with its small shops selling snacks and souvenirs (Indiana Jones being pretty omnipresent – would would have guessed that?). Interestingly, the ancient site is situated in a strategically advantageous position; hidden between cragged sheer rock walls, accessible only through a small steep mountain trail or through a long, deep canyon – the latter one, the Siq as it is called (I save you the time to look it up; it’s Arabic for ‘shaft’) being today’s visitor entrance. And for a reason, I’m telling you! Just try to picture this scene: towering sandstone cliffs, bright rosy banded black and white, surround this narrow gorge. A small shadowy path, here and there not more than two metres wide, leads the visitor towards the first highlight of the ancient rock city. No director could have staged this first encounter with the monument more dramatically than nature (and the Nabateans, of course) did. After meandering through the mountains for one and a half kilometres, the path suddenly opens into a larger space, yet still surrounded by rock. I had to blink – first blinded by the sudden bright sunlight after the comparatively dusky atmosphere in the canyon, then by the sheer breath-taking view in front of me. Al Khazneh, the so-called Treasury (however, actually a 1st century Nabatean mausoleum of course)! Dignified. Monumental. Can you imagine? Its carefully carved façade, the mighty columns and pediment almost shining in the sunlight. All of this crowned by a large stone urn which, as legend tells, is holding a treasure – I guess, this explains the numerous bullet holes (and – before you even think about packing your suitcase to follow me- just for the record my friend: that darn thing seems to be pretty massive).
And guess what? This ‘Treasury’ is only the prelude! With every step further, following the dusty path through the mountains, new miracles emerge from the rock. Tomb next to tomb, crypt stringing to crypt, one architrave following another – the face of the rock almost seemed deepened by the burial caves carved into it, façades as elaborately executed. What a sight. Can you imagine that sight? While anything but unprepared (how often did I ponder about large-sized illustrations of glorious Petra?), elegance and perfection of these masterpieces chiselled out of the stone left me speechless (efforts in planning and labour remain inconceivable) – and still I am failing to describe their beauty. Simply lacking words, sorry. Just when you think, that must have been the most impressing temple or most beautiful tomb you’ve ever seen, you turn around and see something even more impressive, yet more beautiful. How must Burckhardt have felt back then, (re-)discovering the city in 1812, not knowing what treasure was waiting there for him?, I’m asking you.
Passing Roman temples and colonnades, souvenir sellers, camels, donkeys and horses, tea drinking Bedouins and playing children, we were making our way through the ancient city and necropolis. It’s an impressively large site (be warned: a single day day won’t be enough to see it all, one day is insufficient to explore the stone city, to delve into all the small valleys to the left and to the right, to follow all steps up … even two days won’t do, I’m convinced). The sun passed its zenith already, the number of visitors and tourists multiplied, and the path led on – for kilometres!, finally reaching steep stairs cut into the rock. Rampant, these were winding up the mountain, uncounted and uncountable. The Bedouins’ donkeys (ready to carry up the more lazy tourists, you won’t believe that picture), finding their way almost blind, seem to be much more confident and sure-footed than the average visitor if you ask me. But the rough going is worth it, at the end of that steep and arduous mountain path another jewel of Nabatean architecture was awaiting us: the majestic, imposing ‘Monastery’ – Ad Deir.
It took us only a few steps further and the whole breath-taking beauty of the Arabah opened below our feet. On top of Petra! It needed a moment to let this sink in. The view limited only by the far mountain range at the horizon. It was, well yes my friend – even at the risk of sounding pathetic – it was peaceful here, away from the busy pathways, tea shops and visitor crowds. Quiet. Contemplative. Only me and the landscape in front and below – a really meek feeling caught me and there was no chance to elude this atmosphere. I just had to sit down and realize that we are only a very small part in this giant creation. Admit it – you didn’t expect me to be that … well, sentimental, did you.
But alas, there was not much time for self-reflexion. The sun was about to set already and – since we were supposed to show up on ‘our’ site the very next morning (after all, that was no vacation but a regular working day to this crowd of archaeologists) – this meant, it was time for us as well, time to approach the descent. When we went back to the now almost abandoned stone city (most tourists left in the meantime and the Bedouins of the B’doul tribe living there already retired to their homes as well), the busy atmosphere of the day was gone and even the stone façades changed their colour to a paler hue of red and rose. Ancient Petra was retiring, too.
Now, what do you think? Isn’t that exactly the kind of adventure any archaeologist is dreaming of not so secretly?! This really was one of those excursions you don’t forget easily. Leaving quite an impression, you bet. Well, I’m afraid I have to close this letter now, work is almost calling again. You know, we start early over here, so this should be enough for today. But of course, I will write again as soon as possible.
PS: One ore word, if you don’t mind. In case you still are planning to come to Jordan and see the place for yourself, and if you still have energy and time left (another day in the desert would be just what you need, right?), I would highly recommend to take this time and go a little bit further north – not much, just some kilometres – to pay a visit to Siq al-Barid, so-called Little Petra. You won’t regret this – I know you won’t. We surely didn’t (upon our return at yet another free weekend)!
‘Little Petra’ may be smaller than it’s more famous counterpart, but it’s also very similar – façades cut out of the red sandstone tombs, mausolea and, of course, stairs. But, and that is its big advantage, there are nearly no tourists (the groups are almost exclusively cart to the larger site), no barriers, no fees. That means, you are free to explore the ancient complex – climb up narrow stone stairs, enter tombs and temples, roaming the valleys.