My very first encounter of Petra was based on the adventures of Dr. Henry Walton Jones, Jr. Jones was a professor of archaeology, who in 1981 was tasked to locate the ark of the covenant. In 1989, his adventures continued as he traveled to the Canyon of the Crescent Moon, leading to arguably the most stunning feature of the natural world: a beautifully carved monument / complex on a red sandstone.
However, Dr. Jones, Jr. is not a real person. In pop-culture, he is more popular as the Indiana Jones. The Canyon of the Crescent Moon is also a fictional site. It was modeled after the very stunning Petra in Southwestern Jordan.
My second encounter was at National Geographic Channel’s documentaries Lost City and Time Scanners. In both documentaries, I learned that majority of this ancient city’s infrastructures were carved directly into sandstones. Also, the ancient Jordanian city of Petra was “lost” to the Western world for several hundreds of years until its rediscovery by John Lewis Burckhardt, a Swiss geographer in 1812.
In 1985, the Petra Archaeological Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, the whole park (also the whole city) is known as the new seven wonders of the world.
My current encounter was on 4 December 2022, the second day of the Holy Land Tour. This time, Petra was encountered live.
Going to Petra from Amman was a bit of struggle – but it was all worth it.
First, It took us 3 hours or so to arrive in Wadi Musa, the gateway to the City of Petra. I dread long land travel because I have a hyperactive bladder. Thank goodness, the coach had a toilet. We also had a stop-over on an isolated dessert building, two hours after departing from Amman. Nonetheless, the other memorable experience in this long travel was the hi-way itself. As I recall, our tour guide mentioned it was called the Dessert Hi-way 15, connected to the King’s Hi-way, which I will talk about in the next post.
The scenery was super exotic, in a sense that, it is somewhat different from the hi-way encounters back home in the Philippines such as the NLEX, SLEX, TPLEX, Skyway, etcetera. This was a first time for me: traveling in the middle of a dessert, with a window-view of Jordan’s beautiful vast dessert. I was in full awe with the amazing sceneries of bedouin life and the pictures of thriving communities in the middle of the dry dessert.
Second, from Wadi Musa entrance, visitors have to pass by a 2.5 km trek to finally reach the most stunning locale of the complex. But going there meant passing by amazing ruins or the carvings on sandstones left by the Nabataeans or the original settlers of the ancient city and the Al Siq, a natural geological fault opening, creating a tunnel-like path, and separated by tectonic forces. Our tour guide mentioned that the pathway was later “perfected” by water.
Note: the Nabataeans were also known as master-builders of water-systems – dams, aqueduct-like structures that brought water from the rivers and the sea to the public baths and parks of the ancient city. Our guide mentioned that a dam was once upon a time built at the edge of the Al-Siq, the now entrance of Petra City. The collected water was transported from Wadi Musa to Petra via ingenious architectural structures carved on the two sides of the tunnel-like geological opening Al-Siq.
The National Geographic documentaries explain that the Nabataeans were in Petra since about 312 BCE. According to archaeologist Zeidoun Al-Muheisen of Jordan’s Yarmouk University: “The vast majority—85 percent—is still underground and untouched.” This was echoed by our tour guide. I realized, if the entire complex was just 15% and our experience of it was only about 5% of the 15%, it means a weeklong exploration is required to really dive into all the corners of the entire complex. Imagine, we were there for almost 5 hours, which I thought was already long.
At the end of this long natural tunnel-like trek or this dim, narrow gorge, winding its way approximately 1.2 kilometres, we are led to Petra’s most elaborate ruin, the Al Khazneh (The Treasury). This structure is believed to have been the burial site of Aretas IV, Nabataean king in the 1st century CE. Today, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the entire Petran complex and arguably in the whole of Jordan. I note that the ruin was not always called Al Khazneh until the early 1800s. The origin of this popular name was based on a lore that the site once-upon-a-time contained treasures. In fact, the ruins was almost completely destroyed because some Bedouins threw stones to its facade for the belief that treasures are hidden there.
Today, no one is allowed to enter the ruins. Humidity from the crowd visiting the site has caused damage to the sandstone, said UNESCO. Hence, there is a lurking danger of the entire complex to collapse. According to our guide, white spots have appeared on walls and columns. Scientists have tested these spots and discovered to possess high PH level. The culprit for this high acidity level: the visitors’ hands resting against the walls. There is also vandalism, another problem that the Jordan cultural ministry had to face during the time the treasury was still opened to the public.
The City of Petra was a very popular city during the ancient times. it was an important stop-over of foreign traders of the ancient trade route. These merchants carried precious goods grown or manufactured in Arabia, Asia, and Africa. Not to forget, the Nabataeans were also nomads. The structures they created are arguably influenced by many cultural motifs: Hellenistic, Romanesque, Classical, etcetera. These people were cosmopolitans. They possessed an aesthetic disposition of openness to various cultural influences.
As time passed by, new routes were discovered, especially in the Northern region of the Arabian peninsula. In 363 BCE, Petra suffered another blow when a violent earthquake destroyed the city and its water-supply system. This paved way for many Nabataeans to leave the city and settled to other cities with enough water supply. And until the end of the Byzantine Empire, Petra became a “ghost city.”
For many of us, the treasury was the final pit stop. This is understandable because of the tiring trek from Wadi Musa. However, my curiosity and amazement brought me to explore other sandstone ruins and to my surprise an ancient amphitheater – about 1 km away from the treasury.
The amphitheater is one of the most recent structures of the city, dating around late 1st century CE. It was built during the time Petra was under the imperial rule of the Byzantine Empire. A huge part of the theater was carved out of solid rock, while the main stage and the exterior wall were artificially constructed. The auditorium consists of three horizontal sections of seats separated by passageways and seven stairways to ascend, as noted in the information booklet. The theater could accommodate a number of approximately 8500 people and follows similar architectural patterns of Roman theaters, which enhances superior acoustics. I have no accurate proof about this claim because visitors are also not allowed to enter the theater.
Given a chance, I would want to explore more of the complex. I felt my curiosity was still wanting at the end of the 5-hour exploration. Based on the documentaries I have seen, a must-see for cultural enthusiasts is the Al-Deir or the Monastery. However, its location from the Treasury was about a four-hour trek, and it is considered the edge of the entire ancient city.
The question perhaps, why is Petra included in a Holy Land tour, considering the agenda was to experience the ancient cities of the Bible? The location of the Petra is Wadi Musa, literally the Valley of Moses. Moses, in this context, is the Biblical Moses. In the Jordanian Christian tradition, Moses is believed to be buried in one of the mountains between Petra and Musa.
Weeks after visiting this shiny red and rose city, I am still in awe and I still have this hunger to explore Petra in its full glory. In fact, this World Heritage Site made me realize that there is so much in Jordan to explore. I want to go back to Jordan and understand its glorious past through the country’s ancient ruins in Petra or wherever.