Lost for hundreds of years to the outside world, the ancient Nabataean city of Petra is an extraordinary place to behold. The former capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, which stretched across modern-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan and a chunk of Saudi Arabia and Syria, is literally carved out of multi-coloured sandstone cliffs that glow with intense colour as the sun rises and sets.
The city is enormous – perhaps home to over 30,000 people at its pinnacle in the 1st Century AD – its construction a monumental effort. A major trading centre, huge camel trains would stop en route between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. Seeing it today, it isn’t too much of a leap of imagination to visualise a thriving and cosmopolitan metropolis with trade routes extending to the Indian Ocean and East Africa.
When the Nabataean Kingdom was absorbed into the Roman Empire it lost its former importance. A long slow decline set in, leading to the abandonment of Petra. Trade dwindled, people left, and by 700 AD the city was a shadow of its former self, at least according to archaeologists – written records are limited.
Petra is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. Everyone has seen photos of the iconic facade of the Treasury, or Khazneh el Faroun, viewed from the extraordinary slot canyon known as the Siq. This is where Harrison Ford and Sean Connery galloped off into the sunset at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is so familiar that I had a genuine fear of being underwhelmed.
I needn’t have worried, even with the occasional tour group marching past and persistent camel ride offers, this is a sublime place full of atmosphere and the shadows of history. Petra was visited by nearly a million people in 2010. Since then violent chaos in Iraq, the Arab Spring and collapse of Syria into vicious conflict have seen a dramatic fall in numbers. In 2013 there were nearly 400,000 fewer visitors, I’d guess the figure will be even lower for 2014.
We were told that the previous week had seen only 50 visitors per day. There were more than that when we were there, but not by much. This has positives and negatives: fewer people means a more relaxed environment to explore the site; it also means you’re much more likely to be targeted for camel and donkey rides, as well as unpromising looking tourist tat sold by Bedouin children.
January is cold in Jordan and we’d been greeted at the airport by rain which turned to snow when we drove over the hills towards the Dead Sea. The drive to Petra took us into the high mountains in which Petra sits, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves passing through ancient villages dating from the Ottoman Empire surrounded by snow – snow in the Middle East!
Arriving in Petra we walked through the Siq canyon between towering walls of sandstone towards the Treasury. It is perhaps the most extraordinary entrance to a city, ancient or otherwise, anywhere on the planet. We hired a guide for a couple of hours, without whom we’d have missed a lot of detail in the Siq, including a boulder that looks like a fish before transforming into an elephant.
The first sight of the Treasury facade, glimpsed from within the canyon, is startling. Entering the large space in front of the Treasury is nothing short of magical, although the smell of camels takes the edge off it a little. The whole building is a tremendous mixture of Nabataean and Greco-Roman architectural styles, highlighting the ‘global’ position of this city over the centuries.
The facade is pockmarked with holes; not the result of the wind and rain which carved this landscape, but of bullets from Bedouin guns. A destructive belief that a carved urn on the facade contained treasure was the cause. The Bedouin who have inhabited this region for centuries tried to break it open by shooting it, not realising it was solid stone. Any actual treasure was stolen long ago by tomb raiders.
If there is a downside to Petra, it is that the management of the whole place feels chaotic. There are ugly looking shacks selling tourist souvenirs; Bedouin gallop past wildly on horses, camels and donkeys, many of which look like they aren’t well treated; and, in truth, it feels a little run down. It wasn’t what I expected of one of the most famous places on the planet and Jordan’s premiere tourist attraction.