“It was truly a strange spectacle — a city filled with tombs. One would be inclined to think that the former population had no employment which was not connected with death, and that they had all been surprised by death during the performance of some funeral amenities.”
The quote is from French writer Leon de Laborde. The year he penned it, 1830. The abandoned city in question? Petra, in southern Jordan, a monumental ruin that for centuries was forgotten by all but a few Bedouin bandits.
Petra now, as it was when Laborde visited, is still a city of the dead.
To build tombs, though, you need life, and in its heyday Petra was fashion, wealth, power, pomp and circumstance — the spectacular seat of the Nabatean kingdom. Petra was the place to be. It was the Hong Kong or Venice of Arabia, the trade hub between distant continents for luxuries such as the aromatic Yemeni plant resins myrrh and frankincense.
True, Petra’s wealth initially depended on extortion — you pay our desert police for safe passage, or our desert police will hang you up by the ears, corral your camels and make off with your myrrh. But the protection rackets, perversely, brought stability to the region, and business boomed, making Petra one of the principle market cities of the ancient world.
The Israelites couldn’t stand the place. Petra is the most frequently cursed city to be found in the Bible. Petra produced some prominent biblical villains, among them Salome, who requested John the Baptist’s head on a plate. The Nabatean millionaire, Herod, who allegedly slaughtered the innocents, was also a particularly flamboyant child of Petra.
Incidentally, those of you who lament the commercialization of the Olympic games might reflect upon the fact that Herod was also president of the Olympic games, largely because he was the one who sponsored the construction of the Olympic village. As the French say, “Plus ca change . . .”
It wasn’t jealous Jewish curses but Roman progress that killed Petra, in the form of a bypass road built by Emperor Trajan. Petra without its stranglehold on trade was, to the pragmatic desert peoples, just another collection of grandiose tombs, temples, palaces and amphitheaters. Decline and fall took a while, but eventually everyone cleared off to set up their bazaars elsewhere and until it was rediscovered in 1812, Petra was completely unknown to the world.
Today, with Petra the flagship of the Jordanian tourist industry, the bazaars are back. Outside the site in the village of Wadi Musa there are hotels, glorious Turkish baths and even a tomb bar where one can puff on water pipes and sip cold cocktails.
Some people complain that Petra is disappointing. “Too touristy,” was how one tourist described it.
Well, yes, and no. If you join a group tour, ignore your group guide as he earnestly tries to explain Nabatean theology and spend your entire time talking about your last holiday in Greece, then yes, Petra is as touristy as you have just managed to make it.
Likewise if you visit the ruins in the early morning you will find that the approach through the narrow 1.6-km-long Siq Gorge is pretty neatly plugged by tourists.
Petra, however, is huge. “The rose-red city half as old as time” covers some 90 sq. km of extraordinarily eroded sandstone and soaring desert mountains, littered with enigmatic structures, ancient copper mines and djinn stones to appease evil spirits.
In much of Petra you are far more likely to bump into a jackal or gazelle than you are to meet mankind. The past is always close in Petra, sometimes so close — to quote a very different tourist — that “it nibbles at your ankles and makes you want to walk and walk.”
Petra can be explored on foot, on horseback or on camels or donkeys. The last method is recommended if you are ascending Petra’s sheer peaks such as the High Place of Sacrifice or the huge facade of the Ed Deir tomb. Don’t doze off or become absorbed in contemplating the views. The donkeys take particular pleasure in scraping their riders off with low overhanging branches, and Petra’s chasms are precipitous.
Every Petra excursion begins with the option of approaching the Siq Gorge on horseback. The horses of Petra very nearly died of malnutrition when Jordan threw its support behind Iraq in the Gulf War and Middle Eastern tourism collapsed. Assistance came from the Brookes Animal Hospital, a Britain-based charity that offers veterinary support in developing nations. There is a Brookes hospital near the entrance to the Siq and staff are very willing to explain their work to visitors.
Although Petra undoubtedly steals the show, there are many other archaeological sites in the region, including the crusader castle in the Valley of Moses. The castle, which is surrounded by giddying crevasses, changed hands repeatedly until it was finally recaptured by Baldwin, the 13-year-old leper-king of Jerusalem, and then strengthened by a knight with the intriguing name Pagan the Butler.
Near Petra lies the spectacular Wadi Rhum. Large parts of “Lawrence of Arabia” were filmed in the Wadi Rhum. If you have seen the movie, yes, the Wadi Rhum actually looks like that. If you haven’t seen the movie, see it. It’s rather good.
Petra also appeared in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” You’d be better off seeing the real thing. Spielberg didn’t do this place justice.
Travel tip: The holy month of Ramadan isn’t the best time to visit Petra. Good Muslims are fasting from dawn to dusk. The fast includes abstinence from tobacco and water. Although infidels can eat and drink in restaurants, tempers tend to fray and the normally charming Bedouin are not at their best. The dates of Ramadan, like Easter, change from year to year.
Spring brings with it the added bonus of flowers which carpet the mountains in glowing color. It is also a good time for life-threatening flash floods. If it starts raining, head for high ground.
In summer, furnacelike temperatures ensure few visitors. Visit Petra by night at any time of the year and you are very much alone with the ghosts.