Standing in front of the Khazneh el Faroun, the Treasury of Petra, is to stand in the ruins of a majestic ancient civilisation. The giant Greco-Roman columns stretching towards the deep blue of the sky are a magnificent reminder of the extraordinary civilisation which left all this behind. A civilisation that not only carved out a flourishing empire amongst these mountains, but literally carved a city out of and into the red sandstone.
Our guide said many people only came for the Treasury; having seen this iconic building they return up the equally iconic Siq canyon and leave the rest of Petra unexplored. We only had half a day, but that is more than enough to venture further afield, although it would take days, if not weeks, to explore the whole of Petra. Only 15 per cent of the city has been uncovered by archaeologists, leaving multiple mysteries yet to be discovered.
The declaration giving Petra UNESCO World Heritage status states that, the city “bears a unique testimony of a disappeared civilisation in which ancient Eastern traditions blended with Hellenistic architecture.” Wandering the ruins of this once cosmopolitan crossroads between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, which has witnessed waves of history washing over it, is enough to send a shiver down the spine.
The history of Petra is the stuff of legend, fitting for such a remote and mysterious remnant of an ancient culture. Founded in the 6th Century BC by Nabataean Arabs, it became the centre of a vast Nabataean Kingdom built on trade across the Middle East and extending to East Africa. In 106 AD the Kingdom was annexed by Roman Emperor Trajan; under Rome it continued to flourish as a trading centre but became a political backwater.
In 636 AD a series of devastating earthquakes severely damaged the city and the city’s sophisticated water system leading to a serious decline. The city fell to Arab invaders capitalising on the weakness of the Byzantine Empire, then 12th Century Crusaders built three castles in the area and the city was again on the political map. Saladin’s conquest of the region in 1189 saw the city spiral into terminal decline. It remained home to Bedouin until its ‘rediscovery’ in 1812.
Johann Ludwig Burckhardt was a Swiss orientalist, geographer and adventurer who risked his life to explore the Middle East. In Syria he heard of the fabled city of Petra and set off in pursuit of this illusive goal. He disguised himself as an Arab scholar and reached the city in 1812. He described Petra as “a rose-red city half as old as time”.
Burckhardt went on to visit Mecca and Medina disguised as a Muslim. He would have been killed if discovered, but his Arabic was so fluent and his knowledge of Islamic religious texts so great that he easily passed as an Arab.
Burckhardt wasn’t the only adventurer to visit Petra. A century later T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) raised an army of Arab and Bedouin fighters here to attack the Turkish Ottaman Empire during World War I. The Ottoman forces were destroyed, but the British and French ultimately reneged on their agreement to grant independence to the Arab World. You can pretty much draw a direct line from that deceit to the mess we find ourselves in today.
The terrible history of this region was on my mind as I strolled north from the Treasury towards the massif of Jebel Khubtha and the Royal Tombs. As you leave the closed confines of the Siq canyon it’s possible to appreciate the full scale of what the Nabataean civilisation achieved. It’s truly magnificent.
Unfortunately, the Jordanian sun sets early in winter and we could only explore a small portion of the city. The rest, including the ‘Monastry’ building, will have to wait until next time.