Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The first of the 7 wonders of the world Petra

. Tuesday, March 15, 2011

It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,
by labor 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 minster 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that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;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 clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.
—from Petra (Newdigate Prize-winning poem) by John William Burgon
One of the earliest references to Petra is actually in the Old Testament. 2 Kings 14:2 calls it “Sela,” the Hebrew word for the Greek “Petra,” both meaning “rock.” This “rose-red city” (located in modern-day Jordan) is actually a series of royal tombs completely carved out of rock. The inhabitants were called the Nabataeans (an ancient Arabic Semitic people) who constructed this city around 100 B.C. There is obviously Greek, Roman, and Egyptian influence in their architecture, and they also were famous for inventing what eventually became the Arabic script. The Nabataeans’ grand kingdom eventually faded away and they lost their distinctiveness as a culture, intermingling with other Arabic and Semitic peoples.
One hundred years before Hiram Bingham stumbled upon Machu Picchu, the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt “discovered” Petra in 1812. Of course, non-Europeans had known about Petra all along, but Burckhardt was the first Westerner in over a millennium to see it. He disguised himself as a Muslim (in complete dress) which is how he was able to gain access, and later wrote about Petra in his memoirs, bringing it to the attention of the Western world.
My perspective:
You may recognize Petra from the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (or, if you’re not from my generation, perhaps the Transformers 2 movie, coming out later this summer, would be a better pop culture reference!). Near the end of the movie, Indy is traveling through the Canyon of the Crescent Moon and then suddenly a temple carved out of the mountainside is revealed, where the Holy Grail is being kept.
Steven Spielberg actually did very little to enhance it (aside from adding the Holy Grail, that is!). The approach to Petra really is like what you see in the movie. You have to wind your way through a narrow canyon with sheer walls (called the “Siq”). The Nabataeans picked this location precisely because an army could not easily invade since horses would have to approach single-file. Once you get to the end of the canyon, the first thing you see is a building called Al Khazneh (“The Treasury,” as pictured above). It is magnificent, by far the largest and most impressive building in the entire city. It is called “The Treasury” because it was believed that the urn at the top contained treasure, as borne out by the fact that it is riddled with bullet holes (because bandits thought they could cause the urn to crack open and spill its loot). The damage is quite a shame to such an amazing piece of architecture.
One disappointing fact is that the insides of these structures do not really match up to the grandeur of the exterior. But it must be remembered that these were meant to be tombs, so they are shallow. They do not extend deep despite the fact that movies have fired up our imaginations to expect all manner of things inside. Plus, they were not meant to be entered, so great detail was spent on the outside details, but the inside is relatively simple. Of course, the tombs are empty now.
Besides the Treasury, two other things are worth looking for: the amphitheater and another building called El Deir (“The Monastery”). The Monastery is the only other building that comes close to the splendor of the Treasury, but unlike most of the other buildings it was not meant to be a tomb but rather a monument to one of their gods. Petra is not a small place; it involves quite a bit of hiking to get around the whole city, and the Monastery is not close to the Treasury either, so bring good hiking shoes, expect to be covered in red dust, and liberally apply the sunscreen otherwise you will liberally roasted!
Of all the Muslim countries in the world, Jordan is one of the friendliest and most open-minded toward Westerners (Malaysia is another Muslim country which is similarly accessible), so it is a good country to visit. Plus, it is a stone’s throw away from Israel, so many people combine a visit to Jordan with a tour of the Holy Land.
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