During the Golden Age of Greece, the Nabataeans came into power running caravans throughout the middle east. They established their “capital city,” Petra, around 300 BC.
I came here expecting to see a couple of ruins, but mostly to answer the siren call of “The Treasury,” the structure featured at the end of the third Indiana Jones movie. I wasn’t expecting much except winding wind-carved canyons and a temple and some caves.
What I didn’t realize was that this city overlapped in time with Pompeii and Ephesus and shares several aspects in common with them. First, each was an historically significant site and was left behind, somewhat buried or forgotten. Second, each was a fully functioning, highly populated city. Third, they share some common architectural elements: amphitheaters, colonnades, waterworks, multi-story tombs. Indeed, the Romans conquered Petra in 106 AD, and then Rome-ified the city with its traditional main street with shops on either side and a temple with many columns. Later, before it fell into disuse, the Byzantines built churches here as well.
Differences: the south entrance to Petra is punctuated over and over with Nabatean tombs… rectangular openings in the sandstone, sometimes simply decorated, sometimes sumptuously decorated. Ostensibly, these were tombs for families. They go on and on at the south entrance, so much so that you begin to feel as though this is a city of the dead or merely the world’s most massive cemetery (outside of Egypt).
The scale of many of these tombs is massive… some are four or more stories high. Whereas throughout most of Rome, the Romans assembled their columns with manpower and cranes, here the Nabateans were carving straight out of the sandstone cliffs, which gave them plenty of height with which to work. It is hard to appreciate the size without standing right next to them.
Sound travels remarkably clearly throughout the city because it seems to echo off the walls.
Catastrophic earthquakes have demolished many of the smaller structures, residences and temples, and archways. Uncontrolled water and wind have eroded the facades; we even had a brief wind-and-sand storm from which we sought shelter in a tomb. A donkey joined us.
In fact, one wonders whether the deterioration was not just wind; perhaps, various face-carvings were intentionally vandalized as religion-after-religion rolled through. Some 70-80% of the city is still underground and for the time being will remain unexcavated.
Aili had some food poisoning in Africa… little enough that we thought she might have Norovirus. Poor Anna, though, has been laid to waste. We were all thankfully able to enjoy the walk down into the city, and Aili and I rode camels back out. It was an amazing way to see the city, to imagine it as it once was, cisterns full, the crowds traveling up and down the main thoroughfare, the pack animals carrying goods, merchants hawking their wares, the approval of the crowd in the arena.