I walked for 45 minutes before I saw The Treasury. It’s a weaving journey through the ceremonial Siq passage, over 1km in length. The huge walls of red rock rise up either side of me. Built into the walls is a clever water conduit system that once carried precious water from the desert source (Moses’ Spring) to the hidden city. Then, after wondering if The Treasury was around each and every corner I turned, it suddenly appears.
It’s an awe-inspiring sight. That’s not hyperbole. It’s stunning. Really. No photograph or traveller’s story does it justice. You weave your way through the narrow rock passages waiting for The Treasury to appear, to reveal itself, until ta-dah! A massive facade, 30 metres wide and 43 meters high stands in front of you, as if its grown from out of the sand. The former tomb of a Nabataean King.
The Treasury however is merely the first of many wonders in Petra. The city is filled with carved facades, open tombs, high pillars and sandstone cliffs. Indeed, it was news to me that a few miles onwards, by way of a donkey up the well-worn steps of a cliff edge, there was another clear, flat opening, and another huge facade carved into the rock, something just as large and just as impressive as The Treasury.
The Monastery is the forgotten sibling of The Treasury. Another manmade construction carved into the rock face. It’s a more perilous journey to see it up close, hence the adoption of a muscular donkey to carry me up a steep incline in the heat, up a gazillion steps and through the scatterings of chiselled former Petra dwellings, once inhabited by troglodytes. It’s these hidden and difficult to reach cave cubbyholes that helped keep Petra safe and secretive for so long.
The city remained under Nabataean control despite attempts by the Seleucid king Antigonus, the Roman emperor Pompey and Herod the Great to capture it. It wasn’t until the Romans took over in around 100AD, that Nabataean rule fell. During the Byzantine period the city was still being used by Romans for its discreet location, still astonishing travellers who’d stumble upon its grandeur.
The ciy remained largely hidden until finally, in 1812, Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered the ruins and brought Petra to the attention of the world – he also went on to find the source of the Niger, stumbled on the Ramses II temple at Abu Simbel in Egypt, and, under disguise, explored Mecca and Medina.
Burckhardt, the authentic, non-fiction Indiana Jones, and surely one of the greatest explorers you’ve never heard of, caught word of fantastic ruins hidden in the mountains of Wadi Musa when he was travelling between Damascus and Cairo. Determined to see for himself, he had to think of a ploy to allay the suspicions of his guide and porters:
“I, therefore, pretended to have made a vow to have slaughtered a goat in honour of Haroun (Aaron), whose tomb I knew was situated at the extremity of the valley, and by this stratagem I thought that I should have the means of seeing the valley on the way to the tomb.” (Burckhardt, ‘Travels in Syria and the Holy Land’).
As Jenny Walker documents in the Lonely Planet guide to Jordan, Burckhardt succeeded. He found himself riding down the Siq, trying to hide his astonishment. She writes: “To avoid occasioning more suspicion, Burckhardt had to confine his curiosity to the briefest examination of the ancient monuments – enough, however, that this was Petra, a place which he understood ‘no European traveller has ever visited'”.
Despite being a man not given to literary flourishes, Burckhardt’s journals reveal something of the excitement of his discovery: “The situation and beauty of [The Treasury] are calculated to make an extraordinary impression upon the traveller, after having traversed… such a gloomy and almost subterranean passage [the Siq]… it is one of the most elegant remains of antiquity existing.”
You’d be hard-pressed to disagree, even now. Thankfully, I had more time than him to study The Treasury, The Monastery and the surrounding wonders of Petra; and, by the time I’d returned from The Monastery and the cliff-edge on the northern side of the city, the tourists had emptied and the local knick-knack sellers had all vanished. The doors to the Visitor Centre were about to close. The Treasury was empty. Petra was deserted. I was alone. Little me in big Petra.
I stood in front of the giant entrance to The Treasury, my Indie moment. It was peaceful. You can’t even hear the wind. You try to take it all in, but it’s staggering. The Treasury, The Monastry, Petra and the great expanse of the desert; all of the precious wonders of Jordan, gradually seep in. Lawrence wrote of the desert that, “No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry…the imprint of the desert…and he will have within him the yearning to return…For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.”
Back home, that urge soon takes hold. Writing and re-living both the beauty and the extremities of the harsh desert, the desire to return sets-in. I feel that I need to return, to Petra too. To see it all again; to find new routes and new passages. So, I pick-up my fedora hat and my whip…
David travelled as a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board. He stayed at the Sheraton Hotel in Amman (+962-6-593-4111; www.sheratonammanalnabil.com), Captain’s Desert Camp in Wadi Rum (+962-3-206-0710; www.captains-jo.com) and the Marriott Hotel in Petra (+962-3-2156407; www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/mpqmc-petra-marriott-hotel). There is a foreigners fee of £4.50 to enter Wadi Rum and a one-day admission fee of £45.00 to enter Petra.
This year, Jordan became the first Arab country to launch a tourist pass, the “Jordan Pass”. The price of the ticket is JOD 70 (£65.00) and allows the holder access to 40 touristic and historic sites. Visit www.jordanpass.jo to find out more.
Flights from London Heathrow to Amman are direct (4 hrs 40 mins) with Royal Jordanian and start from £440 return.