Petra is haunting in its wild beauty. In contrast to Amman, Jordan with its uniformly white, geometric houses and tall buildings, Petra is a dreamscape of swirling colorful sandstone echoing with the sound of galloping horses hooves and the ghostly presence of a past civilization.
Two thousand years ago, the treasures of the ancient world poured through Petra’s narrow divide as the Nabataeans collected tribute from the caravans. We were on our way to see what splendors this civilization had left behind.
Driving from the prosperous city of Amman to the ruins of Petra, the landscape changed to colorful sandstone outcroppings reminding us of scenes from New Mexico or Colorado. When we reached the entrance to the ancient ruins of Petra, we looked down on a spacious corral where the horses and horse wranglers could have been a scene from the western U.S. Arabs are known for their love of horses and some galloped them through the narrow ravine with high walls known as the “siq.”
Horses or horse drawn carriages for tourists are available and soon we were on our way. A horse wrangler led my horse through the echoing canyon walls at a walk... the air grew chill in the shadow of the high walls. I was glad I had worn a wool tweed jacket. The passageway was a kalaidoscope of swirling layers of rose, muted ochre, and blue sandstone.
We passed niches carved into the sandstone for bygone gods and goddesses. One, the god of the rocks, looked Mayan with square eyes. There is no mouth. Why? I’m told that the god can’t answer you. There are 800 monuments showing the splendor of a wealthy people in Petra. I see where water was diverted down channels carved into the rock by clever Nabataen engineers.
Arab people called the Nabataeans, had a flourishing city here around the time of Christ. They controlled trade routes from China, India, South Arabia, Greece, Rome. Egypt and Syria by exacting tribute from all who needed to pass the narrow divide. The riches of the ancient world poured through Petra. Excavations in Petra are ongoing: much has been uncovered, but there is still much that is hidden.
We got off our horses and walked, then suddenly, through the narrow passageway, we gasped as we saw a graceful temple carved into the rose colored stone face of a cliff. Its beauty still shines although it has been vandalized over the years. Carved in the center over the entrance is the Nabataen death goddess Zoos, much defaced but the work very fine. Corinthian columns carved by Greek slaves in the 3rd century B.C. flank the opening of the temple, also called the Treasury because of a legend of buried treasure.
I walk around inside this mysterious building calling out to hear my voice echo. Unlike the outside, the inside is very plain and not very spacious. From the front door I can see the colorful twisting one kilometer passageway I had just walked.
From the front of the temple I view an open space and rock walls studded with tombs. Perhaps the place where I stood was a temple and also a tomb. This is a mystery. It feels mysterious to me. I knew I was in the temple of the death goddess.
After walking farther we reached a giant ampitheater that could seat 3,000 people and again I test the acoustics with my voice. The rocks answer back. These rocks have heard the babbel of many voices in many languages. What pageantry and cruelties did the ancients behold in this place? Behind are more cave like tombs carved into the high walls of the canyon.
In more recent history, until Jordan set Petra aside as a national monument, nomadic Bedouins inhabited the place. Now they must be out at sundown, but they are everywhere to be seen during the day, selling camel bone necklaces, jars of colored sand scenes, and other trinkets. A winsome little Bedouin girl offers to sell me a pretty stone. An old man wearing a caftan sleeps in a cave with his feet outward. Did Elijah look like this?
Other Bedouins are selling tea in a cave not far from the ampitheater. We are given a taste of what life was like here thousands of years ago: a friend buys everyone in our group a cup of tea and we gaze out the wide opening of the cave at surrounding hills. Just on top of the next hill is the High Place of Sacrifice with troughs to catch the blood that ran from the summit. Further on are the ruins of the center of the city and the Royal Tombs.
A Bedouin and his camel outside of the cave rest in the late afternoon sun. I do not think life has changed much for the Bedouins.
Petra is a Greek word meaning city of rock. The site in south west Jordan was referred to as Sela in the Bible and was the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom until it was finally conquered by the Romans in 106 A.D.
What ghosts from the past haunt Petra? The rocks know but they are not telling.