Written in 1996 for Gourmet magazine
To journey in the Middle East is to tread the dust of ancient history; and in the classical world no other ruin has the reputation of Jordan’s Petra, that “rose-red city half as old as Time.” Forgotten for centuries save by a few scholars and bedouin tribes, it had been the wealthy capital of the Nabateans, who flourished around the time of Christ. On “rediscovery” in the early 19th century Petra became a metaphor: the legendary lost city of Arabia.
Having admired the Scotsman David Roberts’ lithographs from his daring 1839 visit, I’d long wanted to see Petra—hidden like a sandstone dream after a winding, narrow passage through rock. Even today, to reach it summons an ancient wonder.
I went later than I should have, in early June, when the south of Jordan is already too hot. Petra lies amid stupendous valleys reminiscent of the most dramatic American southwest: huge folded waves, hills, and gnarled fists of stone, seemingly impenetrable. To travel here is to trace Biblical events—first you cross the spring of Moses. Then past the new sand-colored town of Petra, nestled on switchback roads that descend. A few modern hotels, a ticket, a gate. You are walking a dusty road with thistly hillside rising on one side. Horses are chuffing; women pass, swathed in black.
The road winds through lunar outcroppings, many of which are tombs with gaping temple-entrances carved out. A red-headdressed bedouin on a white horse canters past; Petra has long been in bedouin hands and they still have the concessions, like providing visitors with horses, donkeys, or buggies. Then a canyon starts, and you enter the siq, the serpentine corridor of rock.
Though it goes on only about a mile, you might as well be moving back centuries. The time-travel sensation is increased by the remains of an ancient dam and diversionary tunnel the Nabateans cut to protect against flood—for the enclosed city’s perpetual enemy was onrushing water. The siq descends; rock walls tower on both sides with carved niches, missing their statues. Welcoming shade, complex outcroppings with occasional trees, bird calls, pools of light. Your footsteps crunch the sand as the shadows deepen, and a darting lizard seems disrespectful.
A paved Roman road and a water gully begin. More niches, a flowering oleander—then abruptly it rises before you, through a convenient cleft where the shadowy walls nearly meet: a fragmentary vision of civilization in a burst of light, a glimpse of elegant floral columns, a winged goddess carved on a facade. This moment will be remembered as one of the architectural epiphanies of your life.
A few steps more, you come out of the siq, and a temple known as the Treasury is revealed entire, a camel kneeling appropriately before it—that miraculous moment to which no photo can do justice, when everyone becomes an explorer discovering Petra (“the rock”) for the first time.
Like most names for Petra’s buildings, the Treasury—El Khazneh in Arabic—is misleading. Originally a cult-temple of a king, the formal perfection of its twenty columns and its high stone urn had bedouin convinced for many centuries that this was where Petra’s riches were still hidden; numerous bullet-marks on the urn are a result of potshots to remove the lid. The treasure, of course, is the building itself, to rival any in classical Greece.
The Nabateans were a desert trading people who, from the 6th century B.C. on, developed a genius for urbanism and commerce. They soon controlled the region’s spice trade, expanding until they were less middlemen than overlords; Petra made an ideal trading crossroads, protected by the siq. Natural diplomats whose language and culture were a truce of East and West, the Nabateans were known for a humane system of justice and prowess at water management. Myrrh and frankincense—resins collected from trees in southern Arabia—could reach Petra by camel caravan in a mere two weeks, and Mediterranean ports like Gaza a week later.
These long caravans paid escort taxes on entering Nabatean territory and were led swiftly across by cameleers. Each city acted as rest-stop (at Petra, caravans stayed outside the siq) and also as a clearing-house. Fresh camels and crews were provided, goods traded, local items like Dead Sea bitumen added to the merchandise.
Petrans were both merchants and bankers for the caravans, investing large sums over vast trade routes outside their territory, and this way the Nabateans could reach out to most of their known world, exchanging goods and ideas. They maintained trade representatives as far away as East Africa, Italy, and the Aegean; hence the cosmopolitanism evident in every carved rock, where Greek, Assyrian, Egyptian, and Roman architectural details jostle each other in a singularly Nabatean style.
In 106 A.D. the Nabateans fell under Roman rule, which was typically benevolent and constructive. As cities to the north rose in trading power Petra lost its importance, and in the 2nd century the Nabateans became more agricultural and moved their capital up to the Sinai to recapture commerce from the Arabian Gulf. Massive earthquakes every two centuries hurt Petra’s viability, and it was mostly abandoned in the 7th century.
For a thousand years bedouin tribes kept silent on its existence. Its name was familiar only to classical scholars until the courageous young Swiss explorer and linguist Johann Burckhardt, disguised as a Muslim student, entered in 1812. Soon all Europe learned of Petra.
Early travelers and artists often took their time seeing the site; Petra now tends to get included as a single arduous day stop on a week tour of Jordan. But to allow Petra only a day is an injustice; not to see every individual monument (there are over 800) but to let memory absorb one of the man-made wonders of the world. It’s too overwhelming to take in hurriedly, and the Petra I describe in this article can be seen in one very active day only if you’re in great shape.
The difficulty of any visit to the deep past is completing the picture. The paradox here is that most of what survives are tombs of several types: much of Petra is a carved, palatial necropolis. A motif of columns around gaping dark tomb entrances gives an obsessional unity; still, one should imagine those temple-like tombs in a bustling city of the living, those valleys and hills covered with mud houses and stone villas, pre-earthquake.
After a wider second siq, with tombs on both sides, the cliffs open to reveal the grandeur of the city valley. First the huge, commanding amphitheater, the site of plays and the struggles of gladiators and animals. The amphitheater seated about 5,000 before an earthquake collapsed the stage and the backstage columns, and it’s worth going up an interior passage to come out like a spectator on the cheap high seats. (There’d have been cold drinks for sale on the way.) In another part of Petra a smaller theater was filled with water in the rainy season, so that mock naval battles could be enacted.
The valley broadens gradually, and to the east along one cliff-face a long array of Royal Tombs has been carved in a line like a majestic honor-guard. Here the size of the site takes hold and the distinctive local bedouin souvenirs, of sand in many colors dripped carefully into little bottles to make pretty images, seem appropriate, the many hues of Petran rock writ small. They bring to mind the visit of the artist and nonsense poet Edward Lear in 1855, who wrote that “All the cliffs are . . . in stripes.” His cook, Giorgio, put it more vividly: “Oh, Signore, we have come into a world where everything is made of chocolate, ham, curry-powder and salmon.”
The Royal Tombs convey the enormous scale of the city. The Palace Tomb with four massive columned Roman doors; the Corinthian Tomb, more eaten away but with a floral urn above; and the Urn Tomb itself, tremendously high, a colonnaded courtyard on its upper level, used as a Byzantine church in the 5th century. It is difficult to parse the magic of these grand edifices that flow with a precision and silken grace from the rock. Half-eaten by time, they are no less wonderful, and in contemplating them, incongruous details emerge—like raised geometric designs, with hints of art deco.
By the theater a sloping path climbs to the High Place of Sacrifice, the most well-preserved of the ancient world. (I suggest hiring a guide for this two-hour walk; it’s easy to take a wrong path.) Heading up the gorge the view back is spectacular, past whorled and mottled continents of otherworldly rock in rust and rose and cream, striated like marble cake. Eventually a worn processional path begins, its indentations the weathered steps of priests, up and around desert cliffs with pink oleander blossoms everywhere. Near the top are twin stone obelisks, representing the fertile male and female Nabatean deities. In typical fashion they weren’t brought here; Petrans simply carved the mountain out around them.
On the summit, after a bit of a scramble, is the High Place itself, a small sunken courtyard of stone with an altar and space for, presumably, only priests and honored guests. Here, before a vista of layered mountains and valleys, animals and sometimes humans were sacrificed for nearly ten centuries.
The descent follows a different route, via steps and paths both recent and ancient, by ravines and grottos. After many staircases there was suddenly a carved lion fifteen feet long, slender and sinewy. Once water had sluiced from its missing metallic head and run in cunning tunnels all the way to the city far below.
Extremely steep stairs lead down to elegant tombs which all resembled temples hewn out of rock, the most illustrious with three Roman soldiers on its facade. Across what was once a courtyard and portico—now bare rubble—is a funerary banquet hall hollowed from the cliff, with fluted columns along the interior walls and Petra’s most gorgeous patterns.
Beyond is the elaborate Renaissance Tomb, whose arch and six urns make it arguably the most sophisticated design in Petra. The way continues down Wadi Farasa (wadi means riverbed), finishing at the valley’s head after astounding views of giant temple-tombs shaped from a cliff and visible only from here. They add to the staggering immensity, the otherworldliness of a city not built but carved out of sandstone. At the valley’s head the impressive colonnaded main street ends in Roman paving stones and an arched temple, one of the few free-standing buildings that survive; it was originally dedicated to Dushara, the principal Nabatean deity, and later to Zeus and Aphrodite.
There are two museums in Petra, one by a little restaurant and the other in a tomb on the adjacent cliff-face. Both collections give a sense of the city’s daily life: small oil lamps, gold jewelry, bronze statuettes, terracotta figurines, coins, jars, gaily decorated bowls and pots, glass bottles, and larger statues of gods—some Egyptian, some Roman (Dionysus and Venus) and their Nabatean equivalents—along with enormous sculpted heads, winged angels, griffins, and gorgeous flowering pediments. Ceramic pipes attest to the Petran skill at supplying a metropolis of 20-30,000 with plenty of water via channels, aqueducts, and cisterns.
Most startling were the heads of winged lions, which were always delicate—whether in the earlier geometric style, or the realist style that followed the Roman invasion. Around both museums, stone tablets with animal and human figures in relief added a missing element to the site’s empty niches and broken torsos.
A nearby path meanders up to the largest and most impressive monument in Petra, known as Ed-Deir or “the Monastery.” No one coming down agreed as to how far away it was; in the end it took me under an hour, with rests to admire stone medusa heads and extraordinary views.
The path up is like a mountain equivalent of the siq. After many hundreds of worn steps and a couple of mildly steep moments, at 4,000 feet a pass leads through the usual scrub trees and boulders alongside a jumbled rock massif. I ambled into a kind of open courtyard past an abutment of rock, took a few steps, turned, and nearly fell to my knees.
Much wider and taller than the Treasury far below, the Monastery seems cataclysmic, carved to a deliberately inhuman scale—its muscular columns eerily smooth, its great urn towering over a doorway already four times the height of a man. It looms like a carved palace of justice eight stories high on a desert mountaintop, its softest colors revealed by the polished light of late afternoon.
Beside the Monastery a rough-hewn staircase traces a canny path up. I saw a daring young man make his way around, over, and emerge on the roof—then somehow clamber onto the lid of the urn, up the tulip handle, and then on top of that—while far below we all gasped and placed bets on whether he would jump or try a handstand. When I left he was still relaxing on the lid, admiring the view.
On my way down, I passed a bedouin goatherd playing a metal flute and singing to his flock. At the bottom, donkeys were braying to Arab music, the camels chewing and resting in the dirt as their owners lolled beneath canvas tents, enjoying a gentle peace at the end of the day.
A last sight of the Treasury, in lustrous light, just before the siq: here Petra ends in absolute glory, the decoration so ornate, so balanced and graceful—those human and mystical figures, the leaves and flowers on the columns. I stared at the bare rock beside it and thought: They started with only this. Art is not progressive; twenty centuries have not bettered their result, produced any structure more stately or more moving. That stone could be carved to such a softness and a classical formality, and with such freedom, seemed a miraculous statement of civilization.