Going Places: The rose-red city of Petra

Going Places: The rose-red city of Petra

The entrance to Petra’s hidden heart is a narrow winding gash in the mountains, in places only three metres wide. Called the Siq (pronounced ‘seek’), this rocky corridor snakes its way for a kilometre or more between sheer cliffs – sculpted and shaped by time, and fantastically coloured.

by John Cooney

Picture an ancient city. Buried deep in a steep-sided canyon. Surrounded by mountains and endless desert. Canyon walls painted in swirling yellows and oranges and vivid rose-reds.
The city old and weathered but still stunningly beautiful. And the name of that city: Petra …

Petra knocks your socks off before you even see it. I mean, the Middle Eastern Kingdom of Jordan specialises in amazing backdrops – from the red sands, palm trees and tidy, limestone-white towns to the lifeless, mineral-rich Dead Sea. And en route to Petra we spotted scenes that could’ve been biblical: like Bedouin tents amongst the sand dunes, and sun-blackened men in flowing robes, leading herds of livestock across the timeless desert. 

But it’s Petra we’d come to see … 

More than 2000 years ago the Nabataeans (a tribe of nomadic Arabs) carved a city out of the rose-red rock and built a thriving empire based on agriculture and trade. Petra was protected for several centuries by a ring of impenetrable mountains – but, after a couple of failed attempts, the Romans finally grabbed it in 106 AD. 

The entrance to Petra’s hidden heart is a narrow winding gash in the mountains, in places only three metres wide. Called the Siq (pronounced ‘seek’), this rocky corridor snakes its way for a kilometre or more between sheer cliffs – sculpted and shaped by time, and fantastically coloured. 

It was cool down there along the bottom of the ravine. In places the vertical walls seem to meet 200 metres above our heads, dwarfing us modern-world pilgrims and shutting out sunlight. Some of our group lurched their way through the Siq on speeding horse-drawn ‘chariots’ – the rest of us got our feet dirty by walking the dusty cobbled road, oohing and aahing at nature’s artistry, at the worn remains of sacred nooks’n’crannies, and at still-intact terracotta pipes from a water-channel cut into the rock walls by the Nabataeans. 

If we listened carefully, we could almost hear the echo of ancient voices calling us forward to the wonders up ahead. And I found myself recalling the words of a colleague: “Hard to think of a more awe-inspiring way to wander into history!”

Some 30 minutes later, we turned a corner. And suddenly, there at the end, through that famous narrow slit in the sandstone cliffs, we caught our first glimpse of Petra’s iconic Treasury
(Al Khazneh). Well, it’s called a treasury, but it never held any money. It’s a monumental tomb, chiselled into the rock wall, with columns and balconies and porticos and a wide, sloping staircase that hints of a Greek temple. 

Downhill from the Treasury, the wadi (valley) widened out to create a larger thoroughfare. And, more-than-a-little overwhelmed, we joined the crowds: bedecked donkeys with overflowing saddlebags … costumed, high-heeled girls hawking jewellery … irritable camels grumping at their irritable owners … and tour-groups from who-knows-where clustered around their tour guides. 

The panorama just kept expanding, with more haunting ruins, hundreds of them, scattered among the rocky heights – some carved into cliff faces, some in ravines, some on craggy ridges. Here a 7000-seat Theatre (designed by the Nabataeans in the first century AD, then enlarged by the Romans) … there some grand archways leading to a colonnaded street … here an impressive Monastery, Al Deir, located on a mountainside up 850 steps … there a Sacrificial High Place (still stained with animal-blood) … plus endless Royal Tombs, each more elaborate than its neighbour.

Have you read the book ‘Married to a Bedouin’ by Marguerite van Geldermalsen? It’s a heart-warming account by a Kiwi woman who fell in love with and married the handsome Bedouin she met when touring Petra decades ago. It’s a lovely read, providing a fascinating real-life background to this uniquely different location and its uniquely different residents. 

Why am I telling you this? Well, that afternoon, we met her NZ-educated son, Raami, in his little souvenir shop perched on one side of the wadi. And, later, we clambered up through crumbling rock and ankle-deep sand to the humble hilltop cave that was once this happy family’s home. 

Fantastic? No, better than that. Double fantastic!