The BBC should be showing the marvellous David Lean film Lawrence of Arabia in its new Film Club series on Thursday nights and as always, that film takes me back to my trip to Jordan some years ago, to Petra, Aqaba and Wadi Rum. This is Petra.
Ahmed shines his torch upwards on to the rock-like walls that rise on either side of us to a slit of night sky hundreds of feet above and whispers “Be careful”. I place my feet carefully on the narrow path trodden by ancient tribes centuries ago, a path along which we tourists now travel to view the hidden city of Petra.
Nothing I had read prepared me for my first sight of the fabled Treasury – the most photographed place on the site, a richly deep-hued pink building that had been carved from the mountainside. In the centre of the building was a huge doorway in front of which camels swirled about as their owners petitioned customers to hire their beasts (all guaranteed very tame and ‘no spitting, madam’). In hindsight I think it was good that camels were there to spoil the effect as without them one could well suffer from the Stendhal syndrome (a fainting fit when overcome by the beauty of a place, first recorded by the author in Florence).
In the centre of the doorway stood a Royal Palace guard, resplendent in a long tan-coloured robe liberally bedecked with red bandoliers slung casually over his shoulders the bullets for which were also topped with red, a dagger worn centre stomach, red tasselled sashes and the obligatory red and white chequered kufiyah. I was awestruck.
This was 2012, exactly two centuries after its rediscovery by the explorer Burckhardt, and I was visiting the ‘rose-red city’ of Petra which had lain in ruins for 500 years since its abandonment after the Crusades. Now famous once more due to the work of explorers, painters and film-makers, it still has the power to excite awe and wonder and the approach to it through the narrow gorge is the perfect way to come upon it. Take a guide if you can, chances are he will have been born in one of the caves on the site before the advent of tourism and will have a host of stories to tell you.
Petra’s vast wealth derived from its position as a crossroads of the world where it traded in frankincense from Arabia, spices from India and silks from China. I struggled to imagine caravans of 5,000 camels arriving at this once mighty trading post which Ahmed assured me was the case. How did they negotiate the narrow passages to the entrance? Where did they all live? How did they live? And how did they cope with the smell? Ahmed just smiled. “It is true”, he said, “don’t question, live in the magic”. But it’s not magic; the history books tell me it was so.
Away from the Treasury you are in an ancient city of ruined streets lined with Classical façades, a city that housed approximately 30,000 people at its peak, who spoke Aramaic, the language of the Dead Sea Scrolls – in fact, the language of Jesus Christ. Over 80% of the site remains to be excavated and the heaps of rubble you see dotted around were once houses, shops, and communal buildings.
If it’s not too hot (always go early morning if possible) and you have the energy, it is worth climbing the mountain gorge to the High Sacrificial Place, 850 well-cut steps past extraordinary coloured rocks to where there is a façade even larger than that of the Treasury: a doorway and columns 150 feet high. Your reward is breathtaking views over Petra. No one knows for certain what took place here, whether the sacrifices were of animal or human, but evidence of human sacrifices have been found in surrounding towns/cities. Your other reward can be the freshest lemonade with soda you’ll ever have from the very essential café at the top.
Historical bit: The original inhabitants of this 6th-century BC world of temples, Roman theatres, monasteries and chambers, the Nabateans, set up their city-state, defending their home with ease until 106 AD when it fell to the Romans. After the Romans came the Byzantines, then the Crusaders, until by the 16th century Petra was all but lost to the west. A Swiss Explorer, Louis Burckhard, penetrated the hidden city in 1812 and the world became aware of the wondrous city that had once been the centre of a trading empire that stretched from Saudi Arabia to Damascus.
There were few tourists when I visited Petra in 2012 just after the conclusion of one of the many disputes in that part of the world. My guide was fond of saying “We are a small friendly family with some noisy, disruptive neighbours but we welcome visitors” and that was the extent of our political discussion. Now once again I fear there will be few, if any, tourists, and the friendly, welcoming people of the area will miss the tourists. Go visit if you can, when things get better. These friendly people needs and welcomes tourists.