Still in the pink
This year marks two centuries since the rediscovery of Petra
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