Ancient Jordan transports Putri Zanina back in time, leaving her more mystified than ever
THE quiet of the dark night is broken by the hauntingly melodic sounds of a flute. Walking on a dirt road flanked by nothing but rocky walls, we search for the source of the sound.
Then a ray of light picks out a sole figure standing on a giant boulder the height of a two-storey building. Wearing flowy white robe that flaps in the wind, the turbaned musician plays his flute effortlessly. The unmistakably traditional
Arabic tune of the Bedouin echoes in a small enclosure surrounded by towering walls of sandstone hills. The air is chilly and hundreds of twinkling stars dance in the dark sky. Enchanted, we sit and listen.
Then, a second musical sound — more upbeat, more infectious — comes from the entrance to the dirt road. A band of turbaned men led by a sword-wielding boy, marches in to bagpipe music with hornpipes bellowing and drums and cymbals reverberating. The flutist seems to disappear into thin air and the atmosphere turns lively and hypnotic with dance and music by the marching group, followed by the splashes of psychedelic colour rays on the rock walls that contrast with the soft candle light illuminating the tables scattered within the rocky site.
A voice suddenly booms: “Welcome to Little Petra!”
The spectacular dinner show is the prelude to an unforgettable experience in one of the wonders of the ancient world, Petra, a unique ancient city in the arid desert of Jordan.
Al Beidha, or better known as Little Petra, lies just outside the main city of Petra. Its pale coloured rocks give the name Al Beida, which means the “white one”. You enter the site through Siq al-Barid, a narrow gorge that’s also called the Cold Siq. Its high walls block sunlight from entering the canyon. The long Siq leads to a wide area inside that can be turned into outdoor dining space. A few hundred metres from Siq al-Barid is a Neolithic village dating back to 7000 BC. Like in Petra, buildings here had been carved into the sandstone. These rock-hewn structures were used for storage, as temples, tombs and residences complete with water channels and cisterns for storing water.
Little Petra is sort of a suburb of Petra, the ancient entry and exit point for trade routes to the north and north-west of Jordan. In the old days, traders travelling on goods-laden caravans from Negev, Gaza, Jerusalem, Egypt and the Mediterranean coast stopped to rest here before engaging in the trading of goods such as silk, Arabian incense, spices, animal hides and ivory.
We trudge the sandy floor of Petra early next morning, joining scores of other tourists also heading the same way. Some ride on horse-drawn buggy, some on Arab steed, and some on droopy-eyed and salivating camels.
We move in a gaggle through As-Siq, a long, deep and narrow gorge flanked by sandstone walls of dizzying heights. Passing through it, you see all the outstanding Petraean features — rocks with colourful veins from yellow and deep brown to pink and lilac, water channels cut into cliffs, dams, votive-niches carved into the rocks and bizarre-looking geological formations.
Entering Petra strikes an awesome feeling. Not only is it along the route of the ancient traders but it’s also the site where Prophet Musa (Moses) and his brother Prophet Harun (Aaron) as well as several ancient kings and conquerors from the Greeks to the Romans have all made their mark.
One of the spots in Petra was where Prophet Musa struck a rock with his rod and water oozed out to bring relief to his people in the rugged, parched land. The narrow valley where Petra lies is called Wadi Musa (Valley of Musa) that has today become a bustling little town with long narrow roads flanked by hillside settlements. It looks much like Brinchang in Cameron Highlands. But if Brinchang is busy, Wadi Musa is perhaps five times busier with traffic-choked roads and where small hotels share space with quaint sundry shops.
Prophet Harun was buried at a spot on Jabal Haroun (Mount Aaron, also known as Mount Hor). Petra lies on the slope of Mount Hor in a basin surrounded by rolling mountains on the eastern part of Wadi Araba, a large valley that stretches from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba.
Wind erosion is slowly but surely gnawing away at Petra’s grand sandstone structures but it fails to erase their greatness. Petra has often been described in the words of Newdigate prize-winning poet John William Burgon, who said: “Match me such a marvel save in Eastern clime, a rose-red city half as old as time... “ These words reflect only some truth of Petra, which indeed has a reddish pink facade. Yet mere words do not do justice to all of Petra’s true magnificence. You have to see it to believe it.
No one, really, can leave this Unesco World Heritage site without having a sense of wonder and an even greater curiosity to probe its half-explained mysteries. The deeper you probe, the more you’ll be mystified. How did ancient men even build this city of colossal architecture in arid, mountainous desert land? And to equip it with an intriguing water conduit system?
Palaces, tombs, temples, theatres and more were hewn from massive sandstone hills formed more than 200,000 years ago.
Petra, meaning stone, with its unique rock-cut architecture is so outstanding that it’s chosen by Washington-based Smithsonian magazine as “one of 28 places in the world you must see before you die”.
THE OLD DAYS
The capital of the ancient Nabataean Kingdom flourished due to its location at the junction of caravan trails crisscrossing the Middle East. The Nabataeans were an ancient Arab tribe who came to southern Jordan from the Arabian Peninsula more than 2,200 years ago. Its caravan business exposed it to the cultures of many foreign countries from the Mediterranean region to as far as China and India via the Silk Route.
The traders would converge on Petra, which some historians believe was the only access through the mountain ranges that blocked their routes onwards to Egypt and Palestine. The Nabataeans absorbed outside cultural influences, and their city became a melting pot of many cultures. These can be discerned from their carved monuments with a mix of Graeco-Roman, Mediterranean, Egyptian and local styles, all blended to become one interesting masterpiece of art.
The Nabataeans eventually earned their living from protecting the trade routes and taxing other caravans. The money allowed them to establish a powerful kingdom encompassing Damascus, and the Sinai and Negev deserts, making them the rulers of the greater part of Arabia. But not much of their lives were put in writing.
The decline of the kingdom began from the Roman annexation of Petra in 106AD. A devastating earthquake in 551, one of a series of earthquakes in the area, finally forced the city’s inhabitants to move out. The city later lay derelict for hundreds of years, becoming the stronghold of hostile Bedouin tribesmen, who came to be the only people on Earth to know the secrets of Petra.
It was “rediscovered” in 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt. Clad in Arabic attire and going by the name of Ibrahim Ibn Abdullah, Burckhardt penetrated the “lost kingdom” and exposed its beauty and mystery to the modern world. Yet, historians believe that only 20 per cent of Petra have been rediscovered. The rest remain buried in the rubble. Even so, what can be seen today is mind-boggling enough. The Petra Archaeological Park lacks definite dates of construction and purpose of some of the monuments. Many questions are thus left unanswered, like why is the park’s iconic structure, the Treasury or Al-Khazneh, called a treasury when it’s not even a place where the old kings stashed their riches? In fact, no treasure was ever found here. Historians say it’s a tomb of one of the more eminent Nabatean kings. Some say it’s a temple. Whatever it was, the first sight of the Treasury would take your breath away.
The Treasury slowly comes into view as the narrow As-Siq spreads into the wider reaches. Framed by giant rock walls, the Treasury soars with its temple-like edifice. Tall pillars frame the lower level door and intricate stone carvings adorn the walls. Corinthian columns and statues are hewn right into the sheer face of the rock.
Historians believe that it was built during the reign of the Nabataean King Aretas III Philhellen, who ruled from 84 to 56BC. The architecture has Hellenistic, Alexandrian and Nabataean artistic touches. You’ll feel dwarfed by its size (30m wide and 43m high, about the height of a 18-storey building).
The sight of this ancient building evokes images of the king and his entourage galloping past in a swirl of dust and of actor Harrison Ford galloping through here in the 1989 Hollywood movie, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Ford in the title role, several scenes of the film were shot at the Treasury. The movie’s fictional Canyon of the Crescent Moon was created on the eastern entrance to Petra.
MORE TO SEE
You’ll feel that your visit to Petra is complete when you cast your eyes on the Treasury. Yet, it’s also the start to more discoveries. In the Outer Siq, a stairway leads to the sacrificial altar of the High Place, which was the spot for religious ceremonies carried out by the Nabataeans to honour their gods. Nearby are the soaring structures of the Royal Tombs that stretch in baffling succession from the mammoth Urn Tomb to the Tomb of Sextus Florentinus, the then Roman governor of the province of Arabia.
On a hill in the distance are the ramparts of the Christian Quarter and in a valley is the Roman Colonnaded Street. Then there are the arduous 800 steps that lead up to Ad-Deir or the Monastery that resembles the Treasury.
Below the Monastery is a cave where a man sells food, drinks and trinkets. In fact, your long, sweaty walk in Petra will be interspersed with rest stops at such stalls which not only offer food and refreshments but also what the sellers claim as old Bedouin silver and gold jewellery. There are, of course, the usual key chains, fridge magnets and Petra T-shirts sold alongside stuffed camel toys and keffiyeh, the Arabic head covering.
There is more to see — from a Roman theatre carved into solid rock to the treacherous route that leads to Umm al Biyara, the imposing rampart atop a hill that dominates much of Petra. You’ll also see camels and sheep roaming outside block homes and wild flowering plants growing on rock face, breaking the monotonous look of the parched grounds.
You can’t miss seeing how the fortress hills of Petra have blended well with nature in amazing symbiosis. It’s not a place for you to cover hurriedly. In a day, you’ll just begin to absorb its grandeur. Its mystery is like a magnet that’ll entice you to stay longer and perhaps lose yourself in this old kingdom forever.
HOW TO GET THERE
Royal Jordanian Airlines (www.rj.com) flies thrice weekly (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays) from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Amman, the capital of Jordan. Petra is three to four hours’ drive from Amman on the Desert Highway or five hours on the more scenic Kings Highway.
BEST TIMES TO VISIT
Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to visit Petra. Midday temperatures can soar above 38°C in summer. Wear a brimmed hat or cover your head with shawl/head cloth, use sunscreen and carry bottled water. In the winter high season, temperatures are pleasant at about 16°C.
WHERE TO STAY
There are plenty of hotels in Wadi Musa, from small to international-chain hotels. Rates vary from RM30 in basic backpacker lodging to above RM300 in hotels.
Details on Petra and Jordan at www.VisitJordan.com