The dark, starless night has a dense quality to it and the paths lit by flickering candles are surreal, throwing deep shadows onto the towering mysterious walls on either side. The path snakes its way through crevices and uneven ground finally to end at the Treasury, the most spectacular sight of Petra, the ancient ruined Nabataean city in Jordan, often called “The Lost City”, since it remained largely hidden and was rediscovered only in the early 19th century.
There is a definite romance in seeing the site at night but it is even more spectacular in the morning. Situated amidst dramatic canyons, gorges and mountainsides, it spreads over 264 sq. km in Jordan’s Wadi Musa, a magnificent valley with vibrant red and orange cliffs rising several metres into the sky. There are hundreds of sites, all directly carved into the cliff sides and are mostly believed to be more than 2000 years old going as far back as 400 BC.
The Nabataeans, a Bedouin tribe, controlled much of the Middle East and established thriving trading centres before they were conquered by the Roman Empire. Among many such centres was Petra. The remaining ruins, both traditional Nabataean and Greco-Roman, such as the network of irrigation systems, water harvesting, transport and storage, point to the expertise and skills of the Nabataeans.
Petra’s entrance is through a narrow gorge called the Siq and stretches for more than a kilometre with towering cliffs rising to more than 80 metres on either side. The cliff colours are dazzling in various shades of red, orange and pink. The gorge directly leads to the phenomenal Treasury, a massive structure, over 30 metres high and 40 metres wide, carved into sheer rock face with exquisite motifs and patterns. This is possibly the most famous of Petra’s sites and finds itself featuring as the backdrop in films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
But Petra’s magnificence lies much beyond this. The whole valley is stunningly beautiful with hundreds of rock cut tombs adorned with intricate carvings, a massive Roman-style theatre that can seat over 3,000 people, temples, arched and colonnaded streets, sacrificial altars, obelisks and several other structures all of which point to the architectural genius of the Nabataeans. Particularly eye catching is the Ad-Deir monastery, which is accessed by climbing 800 steps cut into the rock and which overlooks the valley offering spectacular panoramic views. For history and culture buffs, there are also two museums, Petra Nabataean Museum and Petra Archaeological Museum, which provide more information and displays on the excavations carried out in Petra and the rich heritage of the Nabataeans.
Words: Anita Rao Kashi