When I was asked about my impression after returning from the ancient rose-red city in Jordan this is what I had to say: Petra-fied! Okay, you can’t find it in the dictionary. Nor could my boss.
But that’s the only word that kept springing to mind to describe my awesome experience – and never mind if it will take Oxford some more time to wake up to it.
Located in Wadi Musa, Petra is one of the Middle East’s greatest historical and architectural treasures and Jordan’s biggest tourist attraction.
Of course, thanks to Harrison Ford and his Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade much of the world can recognise it almost instantly today. (A large chunk of the movie was shot around the ancient city that the Nabataeans carved from solid red sandstone.)
Still, viewing it on screen is one thing, seeing it from close quarters is quite another.
So, along the way to Petra, as the guide prepares you for the rose-coloured city and reminds you that it would have been the eighth wonder of the world had it not been lost to the world at that time, don’t dismiss it as another sales pitch.
Quite simply because it’s not.
As for me, I was ready for my tryst with history. Move over, Indiana Jones.
After a three-hour drive from Amman on the modern Desert Highway that winds its way through some of the most beautiful desert landscape, with rail lines intertwining the area, one enters the rocky, steep hills of Wadi Musa strewn with sandstone apartments – all in pink.
I believe that the five-hour drive along the King’s Highway is even more scenic but, short on time; we decided to leave that for another day.
The winding one-mile descent into the entrance of Petra, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, works up the adrenaline but nothing, absolutely nothing prepares you for the real thing.
Following an elaborate dinner and leisurely overnight stay at Movenpick Resort Petra, I was ready with my walking shoes the first thing next morning. Those who prefer not to walk can ride a horse or camel towards the opening of the Siq – a 1.2-km-long gorge that’s the main entrance to Petra – an option which I jumped at, literally, when the sun got at me on my way back from the city.
The 15-minute brisk walk through the narrow river-cut valley winding between sandstone walls that curved inward and soared skyward a thousand feet was just the beginning of a magical experience.
With the clear blue skies peeping from the top of the gigantic rocks, we occasionally looked up when we were not looking around. It was a quiet walk as we stopped to marvel at the man-made canals dug into the mountains to carry spring water or gazed at remnants of what appeared to be rock drawings of men, women and camels.
I worked my way to the end of the Siq to be greeted by the historic El Khanzeh or the Great Treasury of Petra. (Remember the last sequence in Indiana Jones in which the Treasury was filmed as the final resting place of the Holy Grail?)
It looked awesome then; it was overwhelming now. At 120 feet, this 2,500-year-old Nabataean building carved out of the rock face at the beginning of the Petra Valley stood testimony to the sheer brilliance of the people at that time.
Along the way there were many such marvels – there are more than 800 elaborate tombs and other impressive structures including the temple, monastery, baths, stairways, banqueting halls and a huge amphitheatre in an architecture fusing Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman styles – but nothing could really match up to the magnificence of El Khanzeh, a towering peach-red palace with six enormous Corinthian pillars.
The more adventurous decided to trek it to the High Place of Sacrifice, an ancient sacrificial altar, while I explored and marvelled at all kinds of other structures from obelisks to tombs to altars that dotted the pathway. Another worthwhile walk was a loop that passes the Lion Fountain, Tomb of the Roman Soldier and Triclinium and the Garden Tomb.
In between, we stopped to rest and buy souvenirs from Bedouins who live at the ruin site.
On the last leg – talking of legs, mine had taken a severe beating: hadn’t walked so long in ages! – we sauntered across to the Roman street which was apparently used for traders to sell their wares.
Here, some of the columns had fallen, some had been recently restored, some were being put together again. It was indeed a sight to behold.
But both hungry and thirsty, I can’t remember much else as I headed straight for the restaurant built into the rocks.
After a sumptuous lunch buffet and a quick look at the adjacent museum which showcased excavated artefacts, we decided to take the 75-minute return hike, past the treasury, up the Siq and back to the park entrance.
With that we concluded our awe-inspiring journey that took us back in time.
We arrived back to the hotel and celebrated our return to civilisation with a drink – me with a cola and others with something more bubbly. But, deep inside, we all realised it was not easy to gulp down over 2,000 years of history.
As we drove back that evening to the modern-day capital of Jordan and the comfort of Four Seasons Hotel, Amman, it kept coming back to haunt us all.
Clearly, a little of Petra will follow us forever – wherever we go!