Editors Note: Best experienced while listening to the theme from "Indiana Jones".
Raise your hand if you know what "Petra" is. And no, it's not the old Christian rock band. Now, raise your hand if you remember the place where Indiana Jones and his dad found the Holy Grail. There you have it. Once again cinema proves mightier than actual history.
When I saw Petra on the agenda for our tour, my imagination started spinning. In my head I saw myself running ahead of the group, snaking my way through the canyons and gorges, trekking for hours to stumble upon the magnificent opening in the rock walls which offer the first glimpses of the great façade of the Treasury. Quickly followed of course by a bevy of daring exploits to capture the cup of Christ.
Fortunately (for me at least) the actual experience wasn't all that far from the imagination (minus the Holy Grail part that is).
The journey to Petra begins at a small visitor's center where a few folks are selling the requisite key chains and water bottles. After passing through the beige-painted iron gates, a wide gravel path flows down and to the right. A few smaller, blocky carvings presented themselves on the large pale rocks above either side of the walkway. Our little group of six was passed occasionally by a horse-drawn carriage, usually occupied by two or three pale-skinned, overweight Americans or Europeans.
After around ten minutes of walking, we came across a turn in the road marked by a small stone bridge which crossed a well-used gulley strengthened by retaining walls. There had obviously been a lot of work done over the years, as stones both ancient and recent were apparent in the foundations of the bridge and even the sides of the canal. Our guide said the original tenants of this area, the Nabateans, enhanced the original gulley as a means to lessen the effect of flash floods and also to serve as a means of gathering water for the city beyond the canyon. He mentioned the newer stonework was commissioned a few years ago after a flash flood caught a few French tourists in the canyon with unfortunate results. Yikes. I of course at that moment looked up to make sure there were no clouds above us.
We then crossed the bridge and headed in to the "siq" or the long, winding canyon descending down into Petra. The walk was absolutely beautiful. It felt like something out of the Lord of the Rings. The only thing I've experienced even remotely close was the "Hike through Hell" in Havasupai, Arizona. Shadow and light created absolutely amazing scenes in front, above and behind us. Massive walls of red, pink and burnt orange loomed mightily over our heads. The scale was tremendous - so much so I couldn't get the floor and the sky in one frame for a picture. The path was surprisingly flat, with the majority of the way being smoothed over with crude concrete. From time to time we'd run across stretches of large old Roman paving stones which once covered the entire route.
Our guide attempted to talk to us about various aspects of the path - the occasional icon carved into the side, the terracotta canal work which brought water down from the river to the city, etc. While interesting to be sure, it's hard to keep people's (ok, at least mine) concentration when they're looking everywhere but at you, anticipating each bend in the road to reveal the perfect view.
About ten minutes into the canyon, we rounded a little outcropping, and turned to the right... The high, dark canyon walls ended abruptly about 100 feet in front of us, revealing a thin, irregular opening filled with bright sunlight. The rose-colored columns of the "Treasury" appeared like a vision. I really thought I could hear the Indiana Jones march in my head. It was breathtaking. I looked at my fellow travelers - they were all standing like statues, open mouthed. To say it was surreal wouldn't be accurate. But it was. Much to my surprise - for all the build up in my head, it did not disappoint.
Like a true tourist, I took about 50 pictures from that spot, trying desperately (and patiently) to get one without gawking people walking through, or a horse-drawn carriage prancing by.
I then walked out into the open strip of rocky floor in front of the façade. I don't know how I could be, but I was even more impressed at that moment. Looking up to see the columns flying so high, right in front of my face. How in the hell did they do that? The master planner must have been an absolute genius. How long did it take to carve? You'd have to have the patience of Job to see something like this through.
Now, the last time I saw this particular landmark on film, it was being quickly vacated by a party of Nazis and the Jones boys followed by a cloud of dust. Remembering those final few minutes of the movie, I wanted to see just how much movie magic had been created for the effect. I climbed the front stairs and stuck my head in the dark opening. Unsurprisingly, unlike the huge ornate cavern from the movie, the interior of the real building was really, really small.
We learned from our guide that this particular façade is called "the Treasury". Interestingly, it wasn't a treasury at all - it was, like a majority of the carved buildings in Petra, an ornate tomb where an entire family's members would eventually be laid to rest. It earned the name of "Treasury" from the Bedouin people who had moved into the area years and years ago. Not knowing it was a tomb, and seeing its grandeur, they assumed it would have been the city's treasury building - and like the sphinx in Egypt, the name stuck.
We eventually continued down the main path, down the "Avenue of the Facades." On either side of a road about 30 feet wide were tall, beautiful frontices carved into multi-colored stone.
I can't over emphasize the beauty of the stone. At first it didn't seem real. From a distance I thought someone had vandalized the buildings with some spray paint. A closer look proved me wrong. Obviously red and pink make up the base (Petra being known as "Rose Red City"), but nearly every façade was striped with beautiful veins of white, blue, purple, yellow and even black. It was absolutely stunning - and left me wondering how it was possible. I would love to sit down and talk to a geologist about this sometime (Gielie, Rory, Kevan... you need to visit, and we need to discuss).
The bummer of the site was the same as in many national parks and protected areas - merchants. They were all over the place. Some selling soda and water, others hawking postcards and necklaces. Just when you get into an explorer's mindset, you run into 10 guys throwing refrigerator magnets in your face. Ruins the mood a bit.
Anyway, we stopped at a little shop for some tea - I made some comments I don't think our guide liked. I partially think he was full of crap. A lot of what he said didn't pass my B.S.-o-meter. For example, he said the Nabateans were traders and merchants who built the facades not in their own style, but in the manner of those they traded with simply to appease them during their visits. This seemed strange to me, and would imply that the Nabatean people didn't have much culture themselves. I didn't like that idea.
Anyway, after our break we went up to see the Royal tombs. Amazingly, the veins of colored rock were even more beautiful here. Entire buildings from top to bottom were a virtual rainbow of color.
After a quick walk by an ancient roman church with an amazing mosaic floor, we headed along a small path where we were greeted by a herd of goats climbing the hill, looking for some dry grass.
We had some free time after lunch, which afforded us a chance to climb the 700+ rock-carved stairs to the supremely impressive monastery.
Outside of the plethora of donkeys carrying the same Europeans and Americans up the trail, and the corresponding donkey crap all over the stairs, the 30 minute walk/hike is tremendous.
Petra's amazing monastery is just as impressive as the Treasury. While it lacks the very cool canyon view/presentation, it's actually bigger than its famous counterpart, and the location in the isolated mountain pass is truly amazing.
I took some time to walk around the area, following some small trails and climbing around some of the numerous rock formations (yes, I'm apparently 12 years old). As I sat atop a large flat stone, I noticed a flash of blue out of the corner of my eye. Sitting about five feet away was a brilliant blue lizard, apparently enjoying the view as much as I. He allowed me several pictures, and didn't seem to mind my presence at all. In fact, at one point he seemed to even pose for me.
Petra is one of those places you hate to leave. Every minute changes the light and reveals something different. There's a secret majesty about the place that is haunting and exhilarating at the same time. Add this one to your list.