Jordan Journeys I: Petra, The New Wonder!!!

Date of Visit: 20/12/2006

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When we landed at Jordan’s Queen Alia airport we were expecting some chill in the air because it was the month of December. But nothing could prepare us for the biting cold that cut through our skin. As we looked around for the vehicle that would take us to Petra, we spotted this rotund man walking towards us holding a placard with our name on it. ‘Masah al khair’-may your afternoon be good- he said smiling. ‘Masah al noor – may your afternoon be bright’, we replied.

‘I am Burhaan, I will be accompanying you to Petra’, he said. The warmth of the Toyota SUV was very comforting. Burhaan, like all the Jordanians we met, was impeccably courteous and friendly. The distance from Amman, the capital of Jordan, to Petra is about 250 km. We looked out of the window and admired the sun setting on the rugged terrains of Jordan.

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Burhaan loved to chat. He told us that Queen Alia was the third wife of King Hussein, the founder of modern Jordan. They had two children of their own and adopted a daughter, Abir, a 5-year-old Palestinian girl whose mother had been killed in a plane crash at a refugee camp near the Amman airport. She herself died in a helicopter crash in Amman, and afterwards, Amman airport was renamed Queen Alia Imernational Airport.

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The evening air was freezing. The headlights of our vehicle lit the dark hilly roads. The groaning of the engine was the only sound that broke the silence. The night sky was clear. Suddenly Burhaan stopped the vehicle. We feared the worst!! Please look at the sky’ he said. We got off and looked up. The unpolluted view of the sky above was mesmerizing. I have never seen so many stars so clearly in my life. We forgot that we were in the middle of nothingness. It was about 9 PM when we reached the hotel, had a quick dinner turned up the heaters and crashed on the soft beds.

‘Please look at the sky’ he said. We got off and looked up. The unpolluted view of the sky above was mesmerizing. I have never seen so many stars so clearly in my life. We forgot that we were in the middle of nothingness. It was about 9 PM when we reached the hotel, had a quick dinner turned up the heaters and crashed on the soft beds.

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The rude sound of the alarm woke me up the next day. I got up and drew the curtains. Though it sounds very clichéd I must admit that the view left me speechless. A huge rocky valley was appearing through the morning mist. It is an experience impossible to describe. I wrapped the blanket around me and ventured out with my camera, ignoring the icy morning breeze. I had to capture the first rays of the sun rising on the valley.

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The entrance of Petra, which is a UNESCO, world heritage site, is nothing spectacular. There were posters everywhere appealing the tourists to vote for Petra in order to make it one of New the seven wonders.

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I promptly logged on to the computer kept there and voted even before I saw the place. For all I know it could turn out to be a huge disappointment. I would like to believe that my little contribution also counted in making it one of the new seven wonders of the world. For those who are wondering, let me inform you, that I voted multiple times for Taj Mahal as well.

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The men on horses who looked like Arab Bedouins were squabbling at the entrance of Petra. After some bargaining, we got on the horses and held on tightly until we reached the entrance beyond which no vehicles were allowed.

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Arriving in Petra is as dreamlike as the city’s legend. Surrounded by a ring of mountains, the only way to enter Petra is through the Siq, a long narrow passage, only 15 feet wide in places, which snakes through the mountain rock. The desert sun almost disappears on entering the Siq, so high are its narrow walls. Eventually, the gloom is pierced by a shaft of bright light as the mountains drop away into Great Rift Valley where Petra was built.

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This camel caravan relief depicts a group of camels and drivers entering Petra. About ten meters further up, there is a similar carving of a caravan leaving Petra, but that is mostly eroded. These carvings symbolize the endless procession of people and goods entering and leaving Petra, which contributed to a thriving economy. Close inspection of the upper group reveals that the lead driver, whose figure is preserved from the waist down, is wearing a loose cloth garment of wool. He holds a stick in his left arm with which to guide the animals.

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Visible before even emerging from the Siq is the Treasury, Al-Khazneh, a staggering ornate building carved out of the mountain rock. It is a massive facade, 30m wide and 43m high, carved out of the sheer, dusky pink, rock-face and dwarfing everything around it. What makes Treasury and other monuments of Petra special are the fact that they were carved out of rock with a simple chisel from the top down. It was carved in the early 1st century as the tomb of an important Nabataean king and represents the engineering genius of these ancient people. Although the Treasury is Petra’s most-well known attraction and has been photographed time and again, no photo or film can capture its sheer scale and size.

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Everyone who has read Tintin will remember the famous scene in the book, ‘The Red Sea Sharks’,  of the group approaching the Treasury riding on horses through a narrow pass to look for Emir Mohammed Ben Kalish Ezab who is hiding in the temple.

Hergé was inspired to the scene after reading an article in National Geographic. He included many details so that his drawings would be convincing. It is said that his representation of the Khaznah facade is based on David Roberts’s etching. But Tintin is only an imaginary comic book character.

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What made my day was the fact that Sean Connery and Harrison Ford had galloped on these paths for the final sequence of the film, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” which was shot in the treasury. Imagine that!!

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As we walked on, we came across, many rock-cut little houses arranged neatly in rows.  Built one atop the other, these homogeneous structures stood out due to their concentration and visually pleasing pattern. ‘Are they houses of poor people?’, I asked. ‘No, they are tombs’, replied our guide. Imagine a city of the dead…I shuddered!!
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Further down there was an impressive Roman-style amphitheater surrounded by huge mountains on 3 sides. Like everything, this was also carved out of the rock face. One could imagine this being used perhaps for the entertainment of the elite.
The Nabataean kingdom saw itself slowly surrounded by the expanding Roman Empire, which conquered Egypt and annexed Petra in A.D. 106. While the Nabataean kingdom managed to preserve its formal independence, it became a client kingdom under the influence of Rome. What was once a powerful kingdom, is today an uninhabited land, visited only by tourists and local hawkers.
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