Saturday, September 08, 2007


I had the opportunity to visit Petra in Jordan yesterday. It is one of the first sites in the world to be designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. I thought I might share the experience.

Petra of course is a site known worldwide as a setting of an Indiana Jones movie. Its ruins date back thousands of years, to a time when it was a key point in the trade routes between ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Damascus, and Jerusalem. The Nabateans gave way to Romans, to Arabs, to Crusaders, and to the Ottomans over the long history of the site. At its hight, it was an urban center for some 50,000 people, but its modern charm is more from its spectacular physical setting.

The drive from Amman to Petra took about two hours on a very good, divided highway with little traffic. The land is flat and the ecology that of a desert. There is not much in the way of towns or agriculture en route. Occasionally one sees a flock of goats or sheep; indeed mixed flocks seem ot unusual. There are a few donkeys and camels grazing.

Quite abruptly the road comes down from the high desert plain into a town which is built at the entrance to Petra.

Petra was apparently a religious and ceremonial site for people who lived primarily in nearby towns. Later in its history, as Nabateans moved into the larger pre-Roman and Roman world, Nabateans living abroad would return to Petra, sometimes to be buried there. The ruins we see today are primarily those cut into the rock cliffs, and we were told there is much more to excavate by archaeologists in the future.

The Siq is a two kilometer long passage between rock walls. Apparently the walls were split apart in some tectonic event in the distant past. Gordon tells me that the rocks are limestone and sandstone deposits from past times when the site was covered by the sea. The path from the entrance to he park through the Siq (and further into the site) slpes down at a fairly steep grade. In ancient times and today dams and channels controlled the water runoff from the rains (about 12 inches per year), but during the interim these works deteriorated and allowed theh site to be flooded. Consequently, the ground level of the site is higher that it was at the hight of Petra's civilization. In the Siq the sand has been removed, and in some places one can see the original paving stones.

It is thought that the Siq was used for processions in ancient times. In any case. there are tombs carved from standing rocks and into the walls of the canyon in some places, as well as shrines carved into the living stone. The walls tower above one, and in places the canyon is only a few meters wide. The Nabateans piped water from a source outside the canyon and much higher to feed the entire Petra complex. One can see three channels running the length of the Siq, One apparently was with sealed ceramic pipes embedded in something like cement to preserve pressure, so the water could be raised over obstacles where necessary. Another covered had sand traps that had to be emptied periodically.

At the end of the Siq the space opens up, and facing one is the Treasury building. The name is modern, and no one really knows what it was used for. While there are three rooms inside, the building is mostly facade. There are a series of tombs in front of the the treasury facade that have been excavated. Some have been recovered with sand, but a couple have been left open. It becomes clear that the original ground level must have been a couple of meters below the current level.

We actually left the common trail through the site and climbed up to an overlook of the old theater, also carved out of the living rock. We were told that it seated 5,000 people, and that seemed credible. Still there were tombs above it, although not as large and elaborate as some in Petra.

We were able to see the insides of some spectacular tombs, where the rock was in very vivid colors. Not only the red one associates with sandstone, but blues and ochers.

Further down the ridge there are the so called tombs of the kings. One of the large sites was apparently converted into a church in Byzantine times, and shows later, more elaborate stairways and entrances.

There are large numbers of smaller tombs in another cliff near the Theater.

Coming down again into the floor of the canyon, there is the actual wadi with some water apparently because there is some greenery. There is a street with colonades and a formal entry.

Earthquakes have destroyed almost all of the free standing buildings over the centuries, but there are some columns, walls and facades.

The largest temple on the site has been excavated by a team from Brown university, and is a visitor attraction.

At the end of our walk there is a nice little restaurant with lots of shade. Behind the restaurant there is a little museum with antiquities from the site. I suppose we had walked six or eight kilometers at that point.

Then of course, we walked back. All in all it was an experience not to be missed.

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