Before this week, the Grand Canyon had remained the most incredible thing I’d ever seen. Petra changed that. Stretching around 7km from tip to tail, this incredible complex beguiles and astounds, with new wonders around every corner and from every peak.
I ran out of words to describe Petra after the first hour, so I’ll let you fill in the blanks: Majestic, Impressive and Imperious; Breathtaking, Phenomenal, Staggering and Astonishing.
Arriving in the afternoon, after a relatively pleasant bus ride south from Amman, we arranged for a guide, paid the entrance fee of 55 dinar and entered. Our guide Mahmoud was a young Bedouin, who had actually lived in the caves of Petra for the first two years of his life. Though initially probably constructed as a series of tombs for the Nabatean people 2500 years ago, the caves became the home of tribespeople who lived here until 1985. At that point, the government created a purpose built town for them just over the hill and opened the area for increased tourism. In return, the Bedouin people continue to work in the valley, earning a good living guiding and offering rides and food, and retained the right to visit at any time in perpetuity.
Because of this arrangement, all the locals are related to each other in one way or another. One tried to convince us to take a camel ride, until we mentioned we had a guide already: Ah, you are with my uncle, he said. Mahmoud’s brother in law owned a small stall offering drinks. His best friend, with a strong Kiwi accent and degree in electrical engineering from The University of Auckland, was selling books detailing the story of how his mother, a western woman, had come in the 70s, married a Bedouin and never left.
The main thoroughfare to the tombs is through The Siq, a ________ narrow gorge through high, beautifully coloured rock formations. Naturally created though seismic activity, the rock literally split apart, rendering a gap in the stone that continues for more than a kilometre.
In ancient times, Petra sat at a cross-roads between the East and West. Every camel train passed through this area and as a result the Nabateans were influenced by a lot of different cultures, fusing Greek, Roman, Oriental and Byzantine architecture and technology. Evidence of sophisticated dwellers appears early on with aqueducts carved into the rock to carry fresh water into the city, the remains of an imposing gate at the entrance, and a specially constructed tunnel to guide water from flash floods around the mountains and then deposit it onto fertile plains where it could be used for irrigation. ________ carvings line the walls and heighten the sense of being transported somewhere special.
It does not disappoint. The Siq deposits awed visitors into a small plaza and presents the most famous view of Petra: the Treasury. Used as a backdrop in Indiana Jones, it is even more ________ in real life. Stretching up around 40m, it is estimated to have taken 35 years to carve, from top to bottom, and reflects the diverse influences on Nabatean culture with carvings of Nike, Isis, Castor and Pollux. It is no wonder people stop and stare.
Further on, the path opens into a vast canyon, housing hundreds of ornate facades. Every step brings yet more views of yet more ________ structures, all remarkably well preserved. However, for Petra at least, it is true that beauty is only skin deep. Though incredible efforts have gone into the ornate exteriors, the interiors are plain, typically consisting of one to three unadorned rooms.
Only the carved structures now remain, but before a 3rd century earthquake destroyed them all, the valley was also home to hundreds of free-standing homes. It is estimated that yet more wonders lie beneath the strewn rubble; an excavation only twenty years ago unearthed yet another spectacular Roman temple, hinting at further structures still buried.
Climbing to the terrace of four temples elevated on the right hand side of the canyon yields ________ views of the sprawling vista below.
There was so much to see that after four hours, with the sun starting to descend, we made the decision to make our way back slowly and return the next day to see more. Being among the last to leave the park, we found ourselves back at the Treasury with only four other people. Sitting in front of this ________ edifice in silence, as the sun turned the rocks hue from pink, salmon, rose streaked with oxidised black, to a rich red, then orange, terracotta and burnt umber was something approaching transcendental. Self-actualising. Attempting to adequately capture the experience with only my poor words and photos is futile.
Day two promises much.