Petra (البتراء)

It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,

by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;

But from the rock as if by magic grown,

eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!

Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,

where erst Athena held her rites divine;

Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,

that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;

But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,

that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;

The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,

which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,

Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,

a rose-red city half as old as time.
                                      (John William Burgon)

On May 4th, I boarded a plane and traveled to Amman, Jordan, to act as the PAO for Exercise Eager Lion. More on the exercise later. As Friday is a Holy day in the Arabic culture, about 50 members of our Joint Operation Cell team were allowed to go on a “culture day” to the beautiful ancient city of Petra: the City Made of Stone.

One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Petra (originally called Raqmu by the Nabataeans), lies on the Biblical slope of Mount Hor, in a basin among the mountains which form the eastern flank of Wadi Araba, the large valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. Carved directly into vibrant red, white, pink, and sandstone cliff faces, the prehistoric Jordanian city of Petra was “lost” to the Western world for hundreds of years; the Rose City (named for it’s red, white, and pink sandstone cliff faces) has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985.

Petra was once a thriving trading center and the capital of the Nabataean empire between 400 B.C. and A.D. 106. The Nabataeans, before they were conquered and absorbed into the Roman Empire, controlled a vast tract of the Middle East from modern-day Israel and Jordan into the northern Arabian peninsula. The remains of their innovative networks of water capture, storage, transport, and irrigation systems are found to this day throughout this area.

Once Rome formally took possession of Petra in A.D. 106, its importance in international trade began to wane. The decay of the city continued, aided by earthquakes and the rise in importance of sea trade routes, and Petra reached its peak near the close of the Byzantine Empire’s rule, around A.D. 700.

The city sat empty and in near ruin for centuries. Only in the early 1800s did a European traveler disguise himself in Bedouin costume and infiltrate the mysterious locale.

To get to Petra, we took a bus ride through the deserts of Jordan; through the dusty sand, past colorful fruit stands and past the stupefied glazed eyes of several camels; we drove looking for the Rose City. Finally, we arrived at Wadi Musa, the closest town to the historical site.

Lucky for me, I already had built-in friends for this trip: MC2 Christopher Lange who I served with at Joint Public Affairs Support Element (JPASE); “Dice” –a Navy pilot and New York firefighter; and my new friend I met during the exercise, CPT Ki–a US Army civilian affairs officer, rather intimidating at 5’4″.

To start our journey off right, we first stopped at one of Arabic matjars (shops) to get khimars (head scarves) to shield our faces from the beating sun.

After entering Petra, Arabic men chased us down the long path for 200  meters, offering their ponies to make the ride more favorable.

“It’s free!” they cried. “It’s free with your ticket!”

When they showed us that it was indeed free with our ticket, we hopped on ponies and embarked deeper into Petra. I chose a dapple grey who put her ears back at every donkey, horse, and camel who passed.

Once we got to the next hurdle, the men told us to get off the ponies. I gave my guide a tip and he asked for 20 dinari!
“But it’s free, you said!”

“No,” he said. “Twenty dinari.”

And so I showed him my ticket again and he shrugged and yelled, “Bad American!” as I walked away. An odd start to the day to say the least!

The ponies took us to the entrance of the dark, narrow gorge called the Siq (the shaft). The natural geological feature is formed from a deep split in the sandstone rocks and serves as a waterway flowing into Wadi Musa. At the end of the narrow gorge stands Petra’s most elaborate ruin, Al Khazneh, or “The Treasury”––you may remember it from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

From Al Khanzeh, we took the long—long—long walk through the matjars and the deep sandy bed of Wadi ad-Dayr, past tartar lilies, and through ancient Arabic ruins. The steps begin after a short distance, and soon after there’s a diversion pointed left to the Lion Triclinium, a small classical shrine in a peaceful, bushy wadi, named for the worn lions that flank its entrance. A small, round window above the door and the doorway itself have been eroded together to form a strange keyhole shape.

All the way up to Petra’s most awe-inspiring monument–ad-Dayr, or “The Monastery”. Past the little boys and girls offering a donkey ride–“Air-condition taxi, miss!” Eight hundred steps is worth the beautiful view from the top! Ad-Dayr boasts a massive facade almost fifty meters square, carved from a chunk of mountain nearly an hour’s climb northwest of the city center, 220m above sea level.

Ad-Dayr’s facade is so big it seems to be an optical illusion. The only route back into Petra from the Monastery is the way you came up. Like most descents, it’s too rocky and isolated even to think about attempting it after sunset.

Once we made it down the stairs, the camel guy was waiting with two camels ready to go! I looked at Ki. She looked at me.

“Forty dinari!” Camel Guy yelled.

“Too much!” Ki yelled back.

I smiled into the sand.

“Thirty dinari! All the way to Treasury!” Camel Guy yelled.

“Too much!” Ki yelled back.

I smiled into the sand.

“Twenty dinari! Your friend wants ride camel!” Camel Guy yelled.

“Fifteen!” Ki yelled back.

I looked up and smiled.

“Fifteen,” I said.

And fifteen it was. All the way to the Treasury.

There really aren’t words to describe riding a camel with my new friend through the ancient sandy streets of the lost City Made of Stone. But, I think the look on my face says it all.

Al-Muheisen, who has been excavating in Petra since 1979 says, “We have uncovered just 15 percent of the city,” he says. “The vast majority—85 percent—is still underground and untouched.”

And when it is, I’ll be there.

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