Heart of an empire, cultural crossroads and hidden for centuries... Matthew Teller looks back to the glories of Petra's heyday and reveals insider secrets
Petra is exceptional. Built by the nomadic Nabataeans, who settled here in the sixth century BC, it became the capital of their wealthy trade empire, a melting pot of influences and a unique example of part-Arab, part-Roman architecture.
Today, it panders to every childhood fantasy you ever had about ancient cities: spectacular location behind impenetrable mountains – check; lost for centuries – check; tales of hidden treasure – check; fascinating remnants of a long-forgotten culture – check. Petra delivers, with bells on.
"Fifty years!” We all nodded sagely. “I’ve been waiting for this for 50 years! It’s a dream, it really is.” The breeze blew a raptor over the jagged Shara Mountains and the sun dropped out of sight.
It’s not often in life that you quote your mother-in-law. But she was spot on. A dream it was.
Joanna – Yorkshire Dales birdwatcher, naturalist and my intrepid mother-in-law – had come to lay eyes on Petra, a place she first heard about at school. Back then, and for much of the intervening time, those rose-red canyons and Herculean feats of desert architecture she’d been taught about were as real as Shangri-La. She was expecting a dreamscape.
And that first evening, standing on the twilit hillside, looking towards the rugged cliffs that conceal Petra from view, she got it. Her sense of wonder was infectious.
That dream-like feeling intensified the next day as we began the long walk down into the ancient city.
The exposure to the elements here is thrilling: the natural drama of the location; the sensuous honey-toned colour and texture of the sandstone; the stillness, heat and clarity of sunlight all blend with a lingering quality of… something intangible.
Everywhere stands evidence of Nabataean civilisation. We walked past tall, squared-off outcrops of rock beside the path. They mean nothing to most tourists, who barely notice them, but once you learn that these 2,000-year-old blocks are a unique combination of idol (representing the Nabataean deity, Dushara), and altar (an interface between the material and the divine) – suddenly, the natural becomes supernatural.
“Look at that! This is fantastic – look over there!” Most visitors trot through the Siq (‘gorge’) in about 15 minutes. That morning, Joanna took the best part of two exclamatory hours. Spanish tour groups flowed past us, pale-skinned Brits and Germans strode on, Jordanian families and dawdling, giggling teenagers effortlessly overtook us, as Joanna slowed to admire the soaring cliffs, with their natural flows of eroded rock, or gazed up at swooping pairs of wings. This trip was a girlhood ambition, and she was determined to make the most of it.
“Taxi, lady?” Several kids with horse-drawn traps stopped to try to cajole us aboard, but Joanna was having none of it. “No, thank you!” rang in ripe Yorkshire tones down the ancient canyon, and the kids wheeled away, tongues clicking.
We progressed this way through the whole, huge ancient city, spending as much time admiring the majesty of the mountains and the accidental beauty of the reds, blues and greens that streak through their wind-eroded sandstone, as we did the skill of the Nabataeans in elegantly shaping this magnificent environment for their own purposes.
This epitomises Petra’s star quality – what a marketing executive would call its ‘unique selling point’ – the effortless blending of natural beauty and human aesthetics. The historian Jane Taylor has written: ‘We cannot know if the Nabataeans were moved by what we now deem beautiful in nature, whether they were influenced by [Petra’s] grandeur or whether strategic reasons alone made them opt for this well-watered basin within its barricade of mountains. But we can guess. It is the interplay between nature and art – each extraordinary in its own right – that gives Petra its special magic.’
That, perhaps, is also our most potent link with Petra’s past. A visitor to Petra in its heyday, around the first and second centuries AD, would also have been struck by that interplay between nature and art.
Back then, the Nabataeans were at the height of their power. Petra was a wealthy, cosmopolitan city of perhaps 30,000 people, full of fine buildings. We stood in front of the Qasr al-Bint temple, its walls bowing crazily, bare stonework rising impressively but blankly. When new, it would have been covered in gleaming white render, a massive portico leading through to walls dressed with colourful plaster, wafted with the scent of frankincense.
Looking back up the Colonnaded Street, we tried to imagine gardens and vineyards where now rise rubble-covered slopes. Hydrology is not the most gripping of subjects, but the Nabataeans were masters of the art, using their skill to make this desert city bloom. They built conduits to channel water from distant springs into Petra. Waterfalls gushed beside the Royal Tombs.
The Nymphaeum – now ruined – was once a multi-storey public fountain, its tumbling play of sweet water cooling, cleaning and humidifying the dry air.
We climbed the slope to the Petra Garden, a field of dust and rubble; two millennia ago, this was a lush, shady garden of flowers and palms. A broad pool of sweet water – almost Olympic-sized – once shimmered behind, with an island pavilion at its centre.
Throughout the ages, one common element in Petra is the people. In a day of roaming, we heard nine languages. Back then, the ancient Nabataean city was just as diverse. Romans and other foreigners thronged the streets. Xenophobia was unknown: Nabataean architecture embraced Roman, Assyrian, Greek and Egyptian influences in a joyous mishmash of styles. References to Petra have even been discovered in early Chinese texts.
Petra was something of a social utopia. Slaves were few; it appears that Nabataean citizens rolled up their sleeves to work on building projects themselves. At banquets, the Nabataean king was seen not only to serve himself but also to pile food onto the plates of his neighbours. Nabataean democracy was strong: the king had to appear before the popular assembly to give an account of his rule – which irritated the autocratic Romans
no end – and his queen appears beside him on coins, indicating an unusual emphasis given to the status of women.
The Roman emperor Hadrian, famed for his British wall, considered Petra important enough to pay it a visit in AD 130 – perhaps the only person (until the 19th century) to have laid eyes on both the red cliffs of Petra and the white cliffs of Dover.
Jane Taylor has calculated that the profit gained by trading luxury goods, such as spices and Arabian incense, was – in today’s prices – about £2,300 per camel-load. Each caravan comprised hundreds of camels, and Petra at its height was processing dozens of caravans at a time. You do the maths.
Most trading took place in suburbs such as what is now called ‘Little Petra’, 8km to the north. “A Nabataean market-place,” explained our guide, Abdur-Razzaq, from the local Ammareen tribe, as we walked on the soft sandy floor of this mini-Siq. “This, a kitchen” – a windowed cave at ground level, complete with two rooms and an obvious fireplace; “this, a dining room” – a rock-cut hall, lined on three sides with benches; “these, stairs to houses” – worn, fairy-like steps cut into the cliff, coiling up to heaven-knows-where.
Cool and quiet today, ‘Little Petra’ would once have been a babble of voices and smells, crowded with merchants and suppliers, goods being shifted from one caravan to the next – a prototype financial district, creating wealth.
After our lengthy first day, we returned with Joanna to walk the Siq again. We saw the mosaic floors of Petra’s church, built three centuries after the city’s heady golden age. We went birdwatching, Joanna gleefully spotting a rosefinch in the rose-red city. We stood again where the Petra Garden once stood, and imagined cold spring water flowing here, in the heat and dust.
And the mother-in-law’s verdict? “A dream. Petra’s amazing, but I could have spent hours in the Siq.”
You did, Joanna, you did.
Opening hours: Daily, 6am to sunset
Admission: Buy tickets from the Visitor Centre, by the gate.
Climate: Spring (Mar–May) and autumn (Sep & Oct) are pleasantly warm, with little chance of rain. In summer (late May to early Sep) it can be blisteringly hot during the day.
However, nights are chilly year round. In winter (Nov– Feb), Petra can be cold and windy, about 10–15°C during the day, dropping below freezing at night.