Still in the pink

This year marks two cen­turies since the redis­cov­ery of Pe­tra

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - CARRIE KABLEAN

I AM stand­ing on a high point of the King’s High­way in Jor­dan, look­ing out over the lands of the Bi­ble, ter­rain that I imag­ine hasn’t changed since Moses was a boy.

The hills and val­leys be­low, in vary­ing shades of ochre and brown, parched by desert sun, stretch into in­fin­ity and it is so easy to pic­ture Old and New Tes­ta­ment char­ac­ters wan­der­ing this land, which even now is pop­u­lated by Be­douin whose tra­di­tions and lives have re­mained un­changed by Western ideas of progress.

I am also think­ing about ruins. Yes­ter­day I in­ves­ti­gated the mag­nif­i­cent ruins of Pe­tra, which dates back to the third cen­tury BC and had its hey­day more than 2200 years ago. This rose-red city of the desert, built by Na­bataean kings, was re­dis­cov­ered in 1812 by a Swiss ad­ven­turer dis­guised as a Mus­lim holy man, whose pre­text for want­ing to find it and its se­cret en­trance was his de­sire to sac­ri­fice a goat at the tomb of Aaron, brother of Moses.

Jo­hann Lud­wig Bur­ck­hardt’s cu­rios­ity and de­vi­ous in­ge­nu­ity have ben­e­fited all who have been en­thralled by the majesty and splen­dour of the Trea­sury and other high­lights of this city that once cov­ered 65sq km, of which only a small frac­tion has so far been ex­ca­vated.

Some of Pe­tra’s ruins have with­stood the test of time — in this case, cen­turies of test­ing — re­mark­ably well.

The new­est thing on the hori­zon I am gaz­ing over now is a Cru­sader cas­tle, built circa 1150, perched on a hill­top that would have af­forded its de­fend­ers a sweep­ing view of the val­leys be­low. The ruins of this for­ti­fi­ca­tion look solid and ro­man­tic, and make me won­der about the lives of those who lived there.

I have come here from Dubai, where all is new and splen­did, or un­der con­struc­tion. Build­ings in Dubai aren’t al­lowed to grow old; apart­ment blocks built 10 years ago are be­ing torn down and re­placed. I won­der how Dubai’s glit­ter­ing tow­ers, all con­crete and sun-re­flected glass and chrome, will look two decades from now, let alone 2000 years, should some cat­a­strophic event mean they are de­serted to­mor­row.

What will arche­ol­o­gists of the fu­ture make of these skyscrap­ing ed­i­fices, each one striv­ing to be big­ger, bet­ter, taller and shinier? Will they be twisted, man­gled wrecks of steel, sand-blasted glass and con­crete de­bris? Will arte­facts la­belled ‘‘Com­puter mouse, circa 2012’’ be dusted off and ex­hib­ited along­side the re­mains of gold bullion vend­ing ma­chines ( there is such a thing at Abu Dhabi’s seven- star Emi­rates Palace Ho­tel).

It’s eas­ier to re­live the past than imag­ine the fu­ture, which is one of the rea­sons Pe­tra is so ap­peal­ing. That, and its hid­den lo­ca­tion.

My first glimpse of the city is at night. As­sem­ble at 8.30pm at the vis­i­tors’ cen­tre and you are led through the nar­row, some­times cob­bled path of the 1.2km Siq, which seems to be some great canyon formed by a mighty river but is, in fact, the re­sult of tec­tonic plates sep­a­rat­ing 70 mil­lion years ago. Its beauty will be more ob­vi­ous to­mor­row; right now it’s fas­ci­nat­ing for its height (80m) and the twisted rib­bon of starry sky that is vis­i­ble above.

Forty min­utes later the black­ness gives way to the sight of the Trea­sury, gen­tly il­lu­mi­nated by count­less can­dles at ground level. Even in the dark, the Hel­lenis­tic fa­cade, the scale and gran­deur of the build­ing carved out of iron­laden sand­stone, is im­pos­ing and beau­ti­ful.

It’s not a trea­sury at all, though, but a huge tomb con­structed for a Na­bataean king called Are­tas III (who ruled from 87 to 62BC). Some­where along the line, the tale evolved that an Egyp­tian king had hid­den his trea­sure here while pur­su­ing the Is­raelites; al­though that has never been proved, the moniker re­mains. Poor old Are­tas III. I find out this, and lots more, the next day. In­quir­ing about hir­ing a guide at the vis­i­tors’ cen­tre, I am jovially in­formed that I may have the ser­vices of the sec­ondbest guide in Jor­dan.

And the best guide would be? His Majesty King Ab­dul­lah.

One of the many things I learn about Jor­dan dur­ing my very brief visit is wide­spread rev­er­ence for the King. I am also struck by the rel­a­tive tran­quil­lity of this coun­try, which shares its bor­ders with Syria, Iraq, Is­rael and the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries.

But the Arab Spring has dealt a harsh blow to Jor­dan’s tourism busi­ness: in Pe­tra, for in­stance, there were 4000 vis­i­tors a day last year, but now there are about 400.

The sov­er­eign of the Hashemite King­dom of Jor­dan be­ing un­avail­able, Ahmed steps in.

A guide is a good idea: not only is Ahmed knowl­edge­able, he’s a visual de­ter­rent to the hawk­ers of gen­uine Na­batean and Ro­man coins and don­key rides. He paints a com­pre­hen­sive pic­ture of life in Na­bataean times. How these an­cient no­mads ar­rived in south­ern Jor­dan from the Ara­bian Penin­sula and, as con­sum­mate mid­dle­men, came to dom­i­nate the trade routes, levy­ing tolls and pro­tect­ing car­a­vans laden with frank­in­cense and myrrh, Chi­nese silks, In­dian spices, ivory and an­i­mal hides from ri­val Greek fac­tions, Has­moneans and Ro­mans.

Pe­tra be­came their head­quar­ters and home to 30,000 peo­ple. The well- trav­elled Na­bataeans mixed as­pects of Greco-Ro­man, Egyp­tian and Me­sopotamian ar­chi­tec­ture with their own, as ev­i­denced in the Trea­sury, the Monastery and else­where. They were also skilled hy­draulic en­gi­neers.

Ahmed points out rem­nants of Pe­tra’s so­phis­ti­cated wa­ter sys­tem, vis­i­ble along the sides of the Siq, which in day­light is clearly two sides of the same piece of rock.

In the midst of the main part of the city, with my back against an­cient tombs and gaz­ing out at the grand-scale colon­naded street and up to the High Place of Sac­ri­fice, I am brought back to the 21st cen­tury by a lo­cal on camel­back whose mo­bile phone ring­tone is Bob Mar­ley’s Buf­falo Sol­dier. Ev­ery­one has a mo­bile phone, of course. Jor­dan may cling to tra­di­tions of the past, but even Be­douins need Black­Ber­ries.

Pop­u­lar wis­dom is that three days in Pe­tra is a re­quired min­i­mum. I man­age 11/ and leave

2 know­ing I have only scratched this arche­o­log­i­cal sur­face. On the way to Am­manair­port, I man­age a quick float in the Dead Sea, then it’s back to Dubai — from the low­est point on earth to the shadow of the 828m Burj Khal­ifa, the world’s tallest build­ing, in just a few hours. Friends take me to Abu Dhabi to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It is huge (it can ac­com­mo­date 40,000 wor­ship­pers) as well as hugely im­pres­sive. All white mar­ble, with insets of semi­precious stone on the walls and floor, goldem­bel­lished col­umns and Swarovski crys­tal chan­de­liers, it is stun­ningly beau­ti­ful, like the Taj Ma­hal on steroids.

Float­ing through it in the com­pul­sory black abaya (loaned to fe­males), I am told that it was Abu Dhabi’s for­mer ruler Zayed bin Sul­tan al-Nahyan’s vi­sion to show the beauty of Is­lam. Mod­est it is not. But, just like Pe­tra, this build­ing should still look glo­ri­ous af­ter 3000 years.

The Trea­sury, above, was carved out of rock; an­cient dwellings in Pe­tra, left

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