Leaving the Sinai and entering the port city of Taba was bitter sweet. Bitter to leave the beauty of the desert and returning to modern amenities of hotels and Wi-Fi. But sweet, because it heralds the next part of our adventure, through the deserts, but this time in another country. We overnight in Taba and the next morning our driver takes us to the port where we board a yacht that will take us across the Gulf of Aqaba toward Jordan. An overland route does exist, however this takes us through the Israeli border, and due to our particular views on Zionist politics – we chose to take the maritime route – to our comfort and pleasure.
The boat docks in the port city of Aqaba. As South African passport holders we get a visa on arrival – but our entry is subject to a tax. We are met by our guide for the next three days who will take us into the interior of southern Jordan and lead our tour in a more contemporary manner, forgoing the camels and instead adopting the 4×4 as the preferred transport means. Its cold. This is the desert and its winter, The days are balmy but as soon as the sun sets, temperatures plummet. We arrive in an area called Wadi Rum. The entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its cultural, religious and historical significance. This is the largest Wadi in Jordan and has been home to among others the Nabatean cultures and their phenomenal rock art on the cliffs. Literature from Lawrence describes the Wadi in vivid detail and paints the red rock images in your mind through the words in his tales. While the area is inhabited by tribes, it is generally quiet and appears desolate.
Our first night celebrated our culture and we hosted a braai in the Wadi, sharing our traditions and histories with our guide and companions for the next few days. The beauty of the stars and campfire in the desert is unimaginable. I have been to the location of the South African Large Telescope (SALT) as well as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in South Africa – and even there did I not see as many stars. The colours, contours and vivid beauty of the milky way and all its galaxies seems to spring out of the sky, taking the almost flat image into a 3d immersive experience. The stories around the camp fire about the stars, the histories of the region and the people almost begs a telling of some of the many African folk stories.
The next morning we started early – catching the sun rising in the East as we depart Wadi Rum and seeing the red colour of the cliffs return from the black of night. They took on an almost alien look in the moonlight; light shimmering off the frosty walls, dancing in the cold air of the night. Our journey took us toward the ancient city of Petra. Where? In the middle of the desert, in the middle of nowhere? A lost city, or a city lost? Questions we were pondering from the relative luxury from the 4×4. Why would a community settle here? What made this place so special?
During the early Christian era, around 300 BC, the Nabatean Empire saw opportunity in positioning itself along the lucrative trade routes between the middle and Far East. Not unlike modern global superpowers of today, harnessing their immense skill and experience in managing resources – particularly water and stone masonry – the Nabateans developed a significant outpost in the city named Ruqmu. Harnessing the technology of the day to control flash floods, cisterns to manage water resources – precious in the desert – and engineering the rock cliffs to channel and funnel this water into the city, Petra emerged as the most important stop on the trade routes. Selling supplies, water and providing rest, security and lodgings to travellers, the economy and popularity of Petra increased then, as its mystery and allure has in these last 2 centuries. The tremendous skill of the Nabatean stonemasons, carved into the red stone artistic masterpieces that remain as unbelievable as the mystery surrounding its “disappearance from history” and rediscovery in the 19th century.
As we entered the fabled city, we approached walking – as so many millions have before us – through a narrow channel in the stone. The red colour of this particular kaleidoscopic sandstone plays in the light, at sunrise and sunset. The natural colour gives the city its popular name – The Rose City. This long narrow entrance is set deep in a gorge, towering cliffs all around – almost dark as the light struggles to reach the ground level. The floor covered in the finest desert sand that has seen the feet of travellers dating many centuries. This one kilometre passage – called the Siq – leads to the entrance to the city. Along the sides the water channels are still visible, leading both water and weary travellers and thirsty pack animals into the city centre. As you approach the main entrance, the Siq opens up, and what greets your eyes, what speaks to your heart cannot be described in words. But I’ll try. The Siq opens up and the sky is revealed. In front of your eyes, is the most beautiful coloured red limestone face. The height – I estimate to be 50 m tall. Carved in the style many would associate with the roman empire, though we know that the Nabatean artists were influenced by travellers from around the world. This structure called the Kazneh (The Treasury) has featured in poems, novels, movies and song. The site has also been prone to war, pillage, damage and plunder. This is all part of a history as colourful as the stone walls of this city. The Kazneh, never actually contained any treasure but was in fact a mausoleum to the Nabatean King.
The city opens revealing further tombs, an amphitheatre and temple. There is further within the site the royal tombs, The Monastery – closely resembling the Kazneh – as well as the Great Temple of Petra. The site is massive – requiring more than a day to fully appreciate all the structures and to take advantage of the various vantage points around the city. The engineering masterpiece in the dams and the cisterns needs a bit more exploring to note how eloquently these structures are built into the surrounding mountain side and coloured in the same hues as the natural rock. The climate and geology of the region has shaped and formed many cities – however none as awe-inspiring as The Rose City.
Within Arabic tradition Petra is a site where Moses and his Brother Aaron is laid to rest. It holds significance in terms of trade and early Christian missions. The spread of the roman empire in the region as well as the bloody years of the various crusades have all played out against the backdrop of Petra. Following major earthquake in the early 2nd century the infrastructure of Petra was significantly impacted and many people left the city. With the emergence of sea routes and more trade taking a maritime route – the significance of overland trade routes diminished – drawing the golden age of Petra to a close. By the early Islamic period the city had been mostly abandoned, with only a few nomadic tribes using the city and protecting its location and access within their groups. It was only in 1812 that western science rediscovered the ancient city. It emerged globally as the famous lost city – preserved in antiquity and a shining example of the skill and talent of the Nabatean Empire. However the mystery of the city endured and as a skewed history recorded – modern archaeology and anthology has had to re-establish fact underneath the sands of time, empire building and politics.
In 1985 UNESCO declared the city a World Heritage Site and in 2007 the Kazneh was added to the list of the new 7 wonders of the world. The cultural and historical significance of this part of Jordan, and in particular Petra cannot be overstated. The trade routes brought literature, knowledge and technology from the East to the West. The wealth generated in the city, the science shared the skill developed – built the western world in many ways. The political, social and cultural melting spot, as a result of trade and peacetime interactions developed a regional exchange wherein diplomacy found its feet. While we have left, and the sands of Petra still remain fresh on our feet, the memories of entering the fabled city plays like the silver screen reels. Images from Indiana Jones, The Mummy and Transformers playing in our minds. More so, the sounds of the Nabatean kingdom still echo in these hills, in these stone faces and in the wisdom and technology that flowed through the Siq and onto the rest of the world.
Next week we explore the importance of this region, how Islamic society influenced contemporary culture and how the world as we know it is influenced by the technology of the Islamic Golden Age.