“It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned.
But from the rock as if by magic grown, eternal, silent, beautiful alone.
Not virgin white like that old Doric shrine, where erst Athena held her rites divine.
Not saintly-grey, like many a minister fane, that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain,
but rose red as if the blush of dawn, that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn.
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe, which man deemed old two thousand years ago.
Match me such marvel save in eastern cline, a rose-red city half as old as time.”
John William Burgon.
Gazing out across Wadi Musa in the early morning hazy sunshine, it’s easy to see how Petra remained a mystery, lost and hidden to the Western world for hundreds of years. Sand and dust swirl and dance across the towering rocks and beehive shaped structures of this seemingly arid and inhospitable landscape, a gauzy veil camouflaging the secrets below. Closing my eyes to listen to the soft murmurs of the wind I can almost imagine it is the surging sound of water springing forth from where Moses’ staff struck a rock, bringing a river of life to the Israelites……..just one of the many myths and legends that are connected to this mysterious valley.
Drawing closer to the entrance of the “Lost City” the sound of hoof beats echo against the vibrant red sandstone passageways, amplifying the sound to that of a thousand hoof beats of a Nabataean cavalry protecting their city from an onslaught, it is very easy to slip into the stirrings of one’s imagination in Petra. The scent of horse mingles heavy in the air as the noble steeds adorned in coloured finery carry those tourists unable to walk, pulling them by cart, sweat glistening their coats under the merciless heat of the sun.
The meandering path of the Siq offered much needed shade from the relentless sun, the beautifully coloured sandstone cliffs provided a cooling shelter, the occasional glimpse of azure blue sky peered through the stone, a stray finger of sunlight illuminating the rich tones of the rock before the passageway narrowed again, the stone blocking out virtually all heat, light and sound. This impressive entrance to the Lost City was formed when an earthquake split the rock dramatically in two; later the flowing waters of the Wadi Musa and the desert winds blew through this newly formed gap, smoothing the edges into curves. One wonders perhaps that nature conspired in formulating such an impressive entrance to the Nabatean city. Our guide Sam pointed out the various niches, shrines and carvings along the way, the historical and archaeological content, explaining the presence of the water channels but also allowing his thoughts and ideas to flow through adding to the mystery and intrigue of our surroundings. Anticipation was building as we neared the end of the Siq, ready for the climax to the journey, and just as the gorge narrowed; the soft curves of the Siq framed an extraordinary sight, bathed in sunlight, the sandstone seeming to glow, our first glimpse of Al Khazneh, the Treasury.
The sheer size of the Treasury itself is awe inspiring, a beautiful, intricate façade delicately carved out of the face of the sandstone, dwarfing us to the mere size of scurrying ants. Legend has it that there is a store of treasure and riches hidden beneath the pink carved rock, the bullet holes present in the upper urn testament to man’s obsession with gaining riches beyond belief, each gunshot a dream for undiscovered treasure. The Hollywood machine further glamourizing these legends, Indiana Jones bursting forth from the Siq in search of The Holy Grail. Historians soon quash such myths and legends countering that in fact the Treasury is just a colossal burial tomb, like many of the other huge sandstone facades we encounter as we continue on our journey deeper into the Ancient City. Ribbons of reds, golds and oranges streak across the sandstone their intricate patterns disrupted occasionally by the presence of gapping dark holes, passageways to the tombs below.
Local Bedouin traders hawked their souvenirs, children played and laughed, the rich aroma of midnight dark coffee hung in the air, camels strolled lazily by, their long lashed eyes drowsy against the heat and the sand, the ever present sound of hooves played a staccato as horses and donkeys ferried tourists back and forth………the City of Petra still a hive of activity as it was thousands of years before, past and present in unity.
We had only paddled in the shallowest depths of Petra as the haunting sound of the Call to Prayer rang out across the valley, dragging us back to the present from our thoughts of an Ancient Past. In a similar fashion it is estimated that Historians and Archaeologists have also only scratched the surface of Petra, new discoveries and excavations are being made every day as the quest to discover the truth of this Ancient City continues. Painting the true picture of life in the Hidden City, “Married to a Bedouin” by Marguerite van Geldermalsen is a fascinating and insightful story of an intrepid young woman from New Zealand who fell in love with and married a Bedouin from Petra, living in the traditional way and calling a cave home.
Taking my last glances at The Treasury, the last rays of sunlight stroking its rose red façade, I once again became lost in my own thoughts. As humans we have a desperate need to know the truth, pride and ego push us to discover the answers, to find the solution to age old questions, historians and archaeologists continue to dig for the why in Petra, to solve the mystery of the Lost City……, but isn’t it nice to revel in the unknown, to delve into the mystique, to swim in the currents of uncertainty and become lost in the romance of myth and legend?
As I entered the Siq and Al Khazneh faded from view, I closed my eyes and heard the hoof beats of a distant past, I believed in the magic.
Author: Janine Whyte (Indiananeeners Globetrotting Cowgirl.)