The sandstones and solitude of Petra
By Justin Ong
Quietude – this is the resounding feeling that presents itself as I head down to the opening of the gorge that hides away the ancient Nabataean city. A self-awareness is aroused while observing the endlessly stretching landscape. My new surreal reality is this; today I find myself in a desert, armed with a camera and it’s rather silent. Even the desert wind goes by subtly. The harsh desert encounters that great adventurers have had fail to be – this was not quite my Indiana Jones moment, but at the very present, the landscape is serene and unmoving.
Sandstone gorges and the desert sun
The road between the wide valley, also known as the Bab as-Siq that leads to the gorge opening flows downhill. Littered along the way are multiple sandstone structures and residences cutting right through the landscape. Easily picked out from an observable distance are the “unnatural” shapes and angles, juxtaposed against the naturally curved and textured stone formations. In this sense, Petra lives up to its name, the word in Greek meaning ‘a solid or native rock, rising up through the earth’. Unfinished stairways are found completed at the highest points, as if before the base was carved in, giving us a clue as to how the more ambitious structures began to take shape as the Nabataeans formed it when Petra was its capital in 312 BC.
Descending an unassuming slope, the sandstone along our sides gently rises with each step. As the path evens out, the walls of the gorge hides away the orange sun completely. Looking up, the vast expanse of the sky is reduced to a meandering river of blue and white, splitting the sandstone along the undulating path. The light that makes it through paints a different picture at every turn, making every perspective heavily layered and textured with tones of red, orange and brown. At certain angles, the narrow gorge that leads into Petra, also known as the Siq or ‘The Shaft’, illustrates the movements of the oceans’ surface frozen in time.
All roads lead to Petra
The pathway starts to narrow and darken, the waves of the walls swaying just above. As the layers unfold into view, a streak of intense sun tears through just ahead. Every so often, the silence that envelops the Siq passageway is shattered by the distinct clattering of an impeding horse carriage making its way down the still-functioning Roman roads, though many of these carriages lack passengers as they trot on by. Making my way towards the Treasury, corner after corner the vast expanse of the Siq reveals variations of the beautiful stone formations and the evidence of an ancient civilisation, devoid of its observers. But every corner takes you to Petra. A profound sense of surrealism consumed me as I stepped through the void into the clearing with an intense sensation from the unhindered desert sun, and there it was – the majestic unveiling of the Treasury.
Face to face with Al Khazneh
The sun was right above and illuminated the clearing with an obsessive intensity. The bright dusty floor lit the carved rose-red building in beautiful soft tones, which contrasted heavily next to the harsh sand-and-rock formations that surrounded it. Known also as Al Khazneh, it was once thought to hold the King’s treasure, which is how it got its name. Its intricate architectural carvings, influenced greatly by the Hellenistic culture of their neighbours, is testament to the prosperity of the Nabataean people, who were exceptionally skilled traders. Petra at its zenith was a wealthy trade city, a commercial crossroad between the Arabian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures.
Building an empire in the desert means that the Nabataeans were highly-skilled water engineers. A complex irrigation system was developed, transporting water all along the sides of the gorge. Channels were carved directly into the rose-red sandstone, which housed porcelain pipes that disseminated the collected water throughout the city. Some evidence of this still exists in certain sections that have been protected from weathering through the years because of the gorge. This same principle vindicates the pristine condition of the Treasury, which was cut into the rock face protecting the front from direct weathering.
A quiet discomfort
As I wandered the ancient city, I was not looking for images to make, but searching for its soul in the desert landscape which I was now fully immersed in. The peace and quiet of this famed tourist location puzzled me, though I understood that the fact was attributed to the lack of tourists. Jordan’s tourism has suffered heavily in recent years and much of this stems from deeply complicated disputes in countries within the region. Unfortunately, other than directly effecting travellers’ ambitions of coming to Jordan itself, a large portion of travellers that habitually spend a few weeks sampling the different intricacies and personalities of the Middle East, traveling between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan, have since cancelled these long sabbaticals. The situation is especially severe, since tourism is the main source of income for the Jordanian kingdom. With the media advertising the dangers of travelling to the Middle East and marking Jordan as one of the countries that are unsafe, Petra now stands unwitnessed.
I have always been a firm believer that the land has a soul, and many things inanimate or animate contribute to the character of this soul. Many mountains I have traversed give off a strong presence, not just from its sheer size and majesty but from the aura which exudes from the very ground, but Petra proved to be quite different. I remained as quiet as possible as I made my way up towards the Monastery in an attempt to connect with the landscape. The vast stone ridges that laid peaceful before me remained as it is, and despite my best efforts, Petra did not respond to me. She remained quiet, hidden and unwavering. Refusing to submit, I headed back down the path that led to the Monastery towards the Royal Tombs.
The sun was just beginning to let go as I trotted up the steps towards the tombs, built high on the mountain side and believed to be the tomb of King Malchus II of Nabataea. These tombs stood just after I emerged from the other end of the gorge. By the time I arrived at the foot of the Urn Tomb, the area around it was devoid of people. Even the shopkeepers along the street I had came from were gone. A greater silence took over as I began to explore the depths of the tombs.
I wandered around the rooms of the different structures freely, for I was alone and in search, spending more time in the larger complexes studying the way the light came through the doors and windows. When I arrived at the top of the Urn Tomb, I noticed a man seated near the foyer of the entrance preparing his daily prayer routine. We sat down, facing the majestic landscape as the sun set before us. I heard his prayer chants echoing through the tombs and out into the desert.
For more stories and photos, check out Asian Geographic Issue 115.