Petra – an oasis in the middle of the desert

Jordan. The ancient city of Petra.

Petra is a place that attracts you with its unique atmosphere and ancient secrets. The unique symbiosis of architecture and natural massifs appears as a single ensemble in color and texture. Hidden in the caves of the legendary city at the crossroads of ancient trade routes, the wonders of Petra offer a plunge into a mystery that still torments the minds and hearts of both scholars and lovers of wonders.

Petra is a legend, the journey to which for centuries remained only a dream, but today is available to anyone who wants to dive into the most amazing labyrinths, preserving the secrets of two thousand years ago. It is one of the most recognizable UNESCO heritage sites and one of the Seven New Wonders of the World, a real treasure of Jordan – and the whole world. In ancient times, Petra, thanks to its unique location in the middle of the grueling trade routes between the seas, became a legend. The former capital of Idumea and Nabatea, lost in the sands with the decline of overland trade, today attracts more than a million visitors a year for a reason. Petra is a marvel even today.

The Roman columns of the Great Temple Complex in Petra

The Roman columns of the Great Temple Complex in the city of Petra

Petra is a unique city – an architectural ensemble combining into a single whole the caves, streets, tombs, crypts, palaces, temples and other buildings carved into the steep cliffs, inscribed into the dry river bed and natural amphitheaters. Petra greets with facades reminiscent of the ancient Roman classics, surprises with ornate columns and intricate bas-reliefs, appearing as an amazing work of art. It is an oasis in the desert and a real treasury of ancient examples of architectural solutions blended into the natural rock massif with amazing subtlety.

The secret, lost city has given birth to many legends of countless treasures and the Holy Grail, which many travelers over the centuries have tried to find. After the Romans and the loss of its importance along the trade routes, Petra remained a mere legend until it was rediscovered in 1912 by the cunning, deception and considerable courage of the legendary orientalist Burckhardt. This Swiss was the first in the new history to persuade the nomads to open to him the way to the legendary city covered with mysteries. Since then, the Wadi Musa desert has become an object of full-fledged tourist pilgrimage.

Qasr Al-Bint (Palace of the Virgin) is one of the best preserved ancient structures in Petra.

Qasr Al-Bint (The Palace of the Virgin) – one of the best preserved ancient structures in Petra

Petra is a phenomenon; no one has discovered the exact story of its origin. The “newest” buildings are no older than the 6th century AD. The first of the open ones appeared about 2 thousand years BC (if the results of modern analyses and scans are to be believed). There is simply no reliable data and facts about Petra: no one can say anything definite about this unique place and the mystery of its origin. Even today, no more than a third of the labyrinths and caves hidden behind the magnificent facades of Petra have been explored. Buildings and corridors are revealed daily, adding a few more pages to the four-thousand-year history of this phenomenon.

Columns along the Roman cobblestone road in Petra

Columns standing along the Roman cobblestone road in Petra

There are many theories about the origin of Petra. But most concerned scholars agree that Petra was first discovered and inhabited by the Idumeans and flourished already inhabited by the Nabataeans, the tribes who settled in this rocky city after centuries of nomadic life in the desert. At various times the legendary city has belonged to the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Crusaders. The architectural treasures of Petra are the consequences of the conquest by Rome. And the Bedouins were the last to call it their haven.

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Bedouins long ago left the labyrinths of Petra, displaced by politics and commerce, which made Petra a real tourist gem. But their craftsmanship can still be admired today. After all, unique jewelry and sand bottles are the main souvenirs from Petra for any visitor. And everyone can ride camels and learn more about the Bedouin culture. The original inhabitants and peoples of the desert were evicted from this unique place in order to make it a true gem of the desert and one of the main tourist complexes of Jordan.

Portrait of a Bedouin in Petra

Portrait of a Bedouin in Petra

Petra surprises long before it arrives. After all, even the journey to the Treasury is a special adventure. The road to Petra seems to suggest a passage from darkness to light, from the dark ages to enlightenment, experiencing one of the most stunning contrasts. The gloomy, sullen, seemingly frightening Sik Gorge, with its narrow passage between the almost completely closing cliffs, is stunning not only because of its depth. To get to Petra, you need to descend 80 meters into the ruins of sandstone, plunging into darkness under the oppressive weight of the Nubian rocks. During this gloomy kilometer passage on horseback, on foot or in a phaeton, it is as if the line between fiction and reality is blurred. And the wild gloomy gorge prepares as well as possible for the miracle that opens after it – the incredible shades of pink that play on the masterfully carved in sandstone facades of Petra.

The scenic route to Petra through the Siq Gorge

The scenic route to Petra through the Siq Gorge

The most famous – and most striking – in Petra even today remains the facade of the Treasury. El Khazneh is the first thing that opens to the eye of Petra. The subtlety and craftsmanship of its carvings can match any masterpiece from the Hellenistic era. The Roman facades carved into the rock are the first thing that opens after exiting the Sik Gorge. But it is not the only treasure of Petra. Expanding almost unexpectedly, the natural amphitheater reveals thousands of crypts and the main street framed by a colonnade. Labyrinths, caves and corridors transformed by masters have many surprises in store. Unique waterholes and baths providing water in the middle of the desert – a system that surprises even today.

El Khazneh, one of the most important and recognizable landmarks of Petra

El Khazneh – one of the most important and recognizable sights of the city of Petra

One of the latest discoveries is the tomb of an ancient ruler hiding on the upper floors, which was only discovered by scanning. Merging into single ensembles, connected by striking terraces and levels, the houses create an amazing labyrinth that you want to wander through endlessly. From the ancient amphitheater to the ruins of the legendary monastery Ad Deir, the hills and valleys of Petra hold a lot of interesting things. One of the unique “highlights” of Petra is rightly called a crematorium and tombs.

Ad Deir, a temple built in the 1st century BC

Ad Deir – a temple built in the 1st century BC

It is no accident that Petra is on the list of iconic places to visit. But while many of the classic spots on tourist maps can be seen and “explored” in a day, Petra must be visited at least for a weekend. To understand, understand and marvel at this amazing wonder in a few hours is simply impossible. The minimum time, sufficient to start discovering the treasures of Petra, is not accidentally considered to be 2-3 days. And in the daytime Petra only slightly hints at its charm. You can fully appreciate the rocks and carvings only at dusk and in the soft night light of candles, which in a new way to light up the colors of the unique rocks.

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Night view of Petra

The night view of Petra

Shimmering with all the shades of ochre and pink, as if revealing all the richness of the red sandstone color palette, Petra appears as an unsolvable mystery. Everyone who visits this amazing place leaves a piece of his heart in it and forever becomes one of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who strive to unravel the miracle of Petra.

A Jordanian Tale. Petra

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Petra is the legendary pink and red capital of the mysterious Nabataean kingdom, lost among the rugged gorges of southern Jordan. Located on lands belonging to Bedouin tribes, who jealously guarded them from uninvited guests for many centuries, this once greatest city of the Middle East has been forgotten by Europeans – it was rediscovered only in the early 19th century.

Nowadays Petra is one of the honorable seven New Wonders of the World, as well as one of the 28 places you should see before you die (according to the Smithsonian). And today I invite you to take a walk through it.

A Jordanian fairy tale. Spring in Petra

This is my second visit to Petra. The last time I was here was in the cold winter of 2013. In general, there was something unimaginable about the weather then: first we were caught in a snowstorm in one of the local passes, and a couple of days later we were surprised to see the snow-covered Judean Desert.

This time the weather was truly Middle Eastern. From the terrace of our hotel, nestled on the outskirts of Wadi Musa, we had an amazing view of the multicolored mountains warmed by the hot sun. Somewhere in their thickness, where the colors are brightest and the gorges are most impregnable, is the legendary Petra.

The city was originally the capital of Idumea (or Edom). At the end of the III century BC the Nabataean Kingdom was formed. Petra, however, retained its capital status.

Nabatean engineers created a complex system of dams, waterways and cisterns around Petra, turning it into an artificial oasis in the middle of a lifeless desert. Water was collected within a radius of 25 kilometers and delivered to the city through terracotta pipes.

Petra quickly became the center of caravan trade. Caravans set out from here to all parts of the world: to the east, to the shores of the Persian Gulf; to the south, to Aqaba, Hegra, Medina and Mecca; to the west, to Gaza and the Mediterranean coast; and finally, to the north, to Damascus, Palmyra and Bosra. This was also where one of the segments of the Great Silk Road passed.

Petra, whose treasury received money from every caravan that passed through it, soon became the richest city in the Middle East.

A Jordanian fairy tale. Spring in Petra

2. At the beginning of the II century AD, the Nabatean kingdom became part of the Roman Empire. The Romans could not take Petra until the third time – for this they had to destroy its water supply system.

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In the following centuries the importance of Petra as a commercial center began to decline, on the one hand because of trade competition with Palmyra, on the other hand because of the reorientation of the transportation of goods on the sea routes. Nevertheless, Petra remained inhabited during the Roman and Byzantine eras, after the Arab conquest, and even during the Crusader period.

After the departure of the latter, the land fell under the control of the Bedouin tribes. They did not like the Europeans, so they were not allowed on their land. Stories of the great Nabatean capital, lost among the rocks and sands, have become legendary, and by the beginning of the XIX century in Europe no one knew for sure whether Petra ever really existed, or it – just a beautiful myth.

The year was 1812. The Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burhardt traveled incognito through the Middle East, posing as a Muslim, Ibrahim ibn Abdallah. He managed to persuade a Bedouin to take him to the tomb of the Prophet Aaron, who is said to have been buried atop one of the local mountains. The Bedouin led Burkhardt through a narrow ravine at the end of which the stunned traveler saw the immense ruins of a dead city.

Today Petra is a major tourist center and the most popular attraction in Jordan. Every year more than half a million people come here.

A Jordanian Tale. Petra

3. The road to Petra begins on the outskirts of Wadi Musa. The first section of the road goes through a gentle valley.

A Jordanian Tale. Petra

4. You can travel it on foot or on horseback, offered competitively by enterprising Bedouins.

A Jordanian Tale. Petra

5. 5. The Bedouins will tell you how long the ride will be. You should not believe these tales: it takes no more than fifteen minutes to get to the beginning of the gorge and you can’t go further on horseback anyway.

A Jordanian Tale. Petra

6. For especially lazy people there are carts. Of course, you can get to the Treasury on them, but why? It is much more interesting to walk!

A Jordanian Tale. Petra

7. The merchants will start pestering you from the very first minutes.

A Jordanian Tale. Petra

8. There will be a lot of children among them.

A Jordanian Tale. Petra

9. In the valley you will find dwellings and tombs carved in the rocks. Pay attention to the color of the rocks – it is yellow-brown here. In Petra itself the color scheme will be completely different.

A Jordanian Tale. Petra

10. From the valley the road suddenly dives into a narrow gorge – Siq. Once at its beginning there was a gate that blocked the way to the city.

At the bottom of the gorge you can discern the preserved sections of the ancient bridge, created by the Nabateans.

A Jordanian Tale. Petra

11. According to legend, the gorge appeared after Moses struck a staff on a rock not far from this place to save his people from thirst. The spring that appeared as a result of this action exists to this day.

The gorge is 1.2 kilometers long and less than three meters wide at its narrowest points. The height of the rocks framing it is about 60 meters.

A Jordanian Tale. Petra

On the walls are many inscriptions, most of them in Aramaic.

A Jordanian Tale. Petra

13. In one of the places there are the remains of carved sculptures. Look closely: the outlines of human legs are clearly visible on the right, on the left – the paws of a camel.

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A Jordanian Tale. Petra

14. Along the walls of the gorge run two conduits that once delivered water to the city. According to one theory, the water in them was different: one was potable, the other technical. It is believed that during the Nabataean Kingdom the conduits were closed – terracotta pipes were laid in the gutters so that random travelers would not decide to spit in them or wash their feet.

A Jordanian Tale. Petra

15. At the end of the gorge is the Treasury, Petra’s most famous structure . Its façade suddenly appears from behind another bend. It is considered to be the most emotionally powerful moment of visiting the ancient city.

The treasury stands in a former riverbed. To build it, a series of dams and a tunnel in the rock were built, diverting the flow of water to another channel.

The name “kazna” comes from the Arabic “El Khazneh”; the Arabs considered this building the treasury of the Egyptian pharaohs. According to legend, untold riches were hidden in the vase at the top of the facade, which still holds many chips left by adventurers dreaming of untold treasures.

Of course, the Treasury was never a treasure house. The true function of this building has been lost in the centuries; most likely it was the mausoleum of one of the Nabataean kings.

The Treasury is the most famous structure of Petra

16. The treasury was carved out of the rock. The height of its facade is 40 meters, the width is 25. The entrance is decorated with columns of Corinthian order. At the top of the colonnade is a statue of the Egyptian goddess Isis. On the right and left of her are the statues of militant Amazons. There are many legends about the Amazons, one of which says that they cut off their breasts to make it easier to shoot a bow. They were fierce women!

The Treasury is the most famous structure of Petra

17. Opposite the Treasury is a small five meter high rock ledge on which I decided to climb, as I thought it would give me a good shot. It was not worth it – I went straight down from the ledge into the hands of the guards. The photo taken as a result of this little adventure turned out quite normal.

The Treasury is the most famous structure of Petra

18. In the mid-twentieth century, when relations between Israel and Jordan were tense to say the least, the Israeli military had a dangerous tradition of making illegal forays deep into Jordan to visit Petra. Such a trip took several days and was considered by the Israelis to be the ultimate display of heroism. Some managed to return alive. Those less fortunate were shot by the Jordanian police. These expeditions continued until the 1980s, and a song was even written in Israel in their honor, “A-sela-a-hom” (“Red Rock”).

The Treasury is the most famous structure of Petra

19. All of this is history today. So is the presence of the Nabataeans in these lands.

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20. Nowadays, the only permanent inhabitants of the ancient city are the so-called Bedouins of Petra.

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21. Most of them are gypsies who came here from the deserts in the mid-twentieth century and took a fancy to the local caves. Indeed, it is still more comfortable to live in caves than in tents. And everything would be fine, but in 1985 Petra was included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In 1991 all the Bedouins were forcibly moved out of the caves outside the ancient city.

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23. Everyone lures tourists in any way he can. Some with a cute little goat.

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24. Some with the “rarest” pseudo-antiquities on display under the floor.

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25. By the way, the value of all these “relics” is no higher than the Chinese magnets offered next door.

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Among the “Bedouins of Petra,” there are many children who also sell all sorts of trinkets. It is recommended to bypass these young entrepreneurs, because to make money, they do not go to school.

In general, experienced travelers have an ethical rule – do not encourage the involvement of children in street trading: do not buy anything from them and in no case give them money, no matter how sorry they are.

26. Petra, in Greek, means “stone” . Much of the city is indeed literally carved out of stone. Petra had no analogues in the ancient world.

Here, for example, is the first and only amphitheater carved directly into the rock. In general, there are many questions – how could the ancient builders process stone with such precision? That is why some researchers call the Nabataeans the most developed people of their time.

Remember at the beginning of the photo report I asked you to pay attention to the color of the rocks? Compare now with the color of the amphitheater. All the structures of Petra have a characteristic red hue.

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27. Beyond the amphitheater the city stretches on for a few more kilometers.

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28. However, by this time archaeologists have excavated only one-sixth of the territory once occupied by Petra. How many mysteries of the past are still in this land can only be guessed.

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29. The royal tombs.

Royal Tombs.

30. The following photo illustrates what it is like to travel in the company of journalists and bloggers. All of them are constantly climbing into the frame.

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31. You have to be really fast to take pictures like this.

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32. If you suddenly get tired of running ahead of everyone – you can lie down and rest. Beautiful panorama of Petra is attached.

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33. The far part of the city was built in Roman times in the traditional way – from stone.

The main street of the city ran from west to east and was decorated on both sides with a colonnade. At its end was a triumphal three-span arch.

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34. The great temple. Of great interest is the courtyard paved with hexagonal slabs.

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35. And the old columns that collapsed as a result of earthquakes, looking more like sliced servalat in this form.

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36. In ancient times the capitals of the columns were decorated with images of elephants. Their trunks have been lost in the centuries, so now you can see them only by turning on your imagination.

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37. And all around is grace.

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38. And all around is beauty.

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39. In fact, there is much more to Petra than meets the eye. For example, high up in the mountains is the rock temple of Ed Deir, which strikes the imagination as much as the Treasury. This time we had a very tight schedule, so a walk in the mountains was not planned.

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Today there is only one entrance to Petra – through the Sik Gorge. Therefore, after seeing the ancient city to go back the same way you came. For our group was an exception – the bus took us to the far end of the archaeological area. We were very lucky, because usually such an opportunity is offered only to presidents and kings.

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