“A rose-red city half as old as time.” John Burgon penned in reference to an ancient civilization and ancient city. The words conjure images of a civilization that carved their history into the soft sandstone rocks reaching toward the gentle blue Jordanian skies.
Domes and eroded mountains dot the horizon as you approached the southern region of Jordan. The beauty is overwhelming. Surrounded by their city, a wave of curiosity sweeps over this ancient civilization.
How did they do it?… Why did they carve beautiful structures into the side of the towering rocks?… and why is the evidence still here a full two thousand years later, even though it is carved into delicate sandstone?… you may ask.
Ask a historian and he’ll point you to ancient religious texts and the scarce written accounts that still exist from philosophers of the time. The archaeologists point to their excavations and aerial imaging mapping out the remnants of city still buried under the sand. And the mythologist? Well, they’ll instead gathers stories, legends, the tales passed down through time and shaped throughout history.
Inside the Ancient City of Petra & The Treasury building
The views over the Petra valley spread wide from a thin ledge at a small park in Wadi Musa, Jordan. The deep shadows of early evening accentuated the towering height of the rocks.
Looking down into the clefts of rock, It is easily imagined why the Crusaders wrote Moses into Petra’s history. They allege that somewhere in that tangled maze below me, Moses struck a rock to bring forth water to the Israelites. The tale holds many possible truths, but no matter the verity, it forever linked Moses to this imposing sight. Which was a job well done for the Crusaders, who had no idea this city would last for so long.
Taking in the aerial views is just the beginning. Think of the epic descent of Indiana Jones into the ancient city, as you step inside. You can enjoy walking the streets or take the horse-drawn carriages laden down with the tourists unable to navigate the miles of rocky roads winding through the city.
Within minutes of entering Petra, the first examples of rock-carved architecture dance to life from the sandstone. The precise, sharp lines rising from the pale rocks appear sliced from the rock a mere hundred years ago, instead of two thousand.
The size of this entire site is intimidating. Once you entered a small open courtyard, you’ll notice a carved channel gently sloping down, descending deeper into the city. The shallow channel was a clever way for the Nabateans to carry fresh water throughout the city and combat the dry, arid temperatures. The desert climate is inhospitable to a city-dweller. And yet, like the Romans, the Nabatean created a rain-collection, storage, and transportation system that made this huge city an oasis in the middle of a seemingly stark, dry desert. Unlike the Romans though, the Nabatean left few clues about the whys and the hows.
After about an hours walk into Petra, you’ll penetrated the city deep enough to pass through the Siq. This is the final narrow pathway guarding the Al Khazneh, better known as Petra’s Treasury. The keyhole-like cleft in the rock teases as you approach. The delicate carvings flutter in and out of view as you make the approach.
The Treasury building has fine detailing on the pillars and columns. Likely carved around 100 B.C.E., the elements etched into the soft sandstone rock speak to why so many myths and stories circulate today. Is there a bounty of treasure hidden under the pink carved rock? Throughout the decades, many have believed this story. The pockmarked surface from gun shots aimed at the upper urn speak to a shared yearning. Each gunshot represented someone’s dream for undiscovered treasures.
Archaeologists discount claims that the Nabatea built the Treasury’s elaborate façade to house the booty of an Egyptian Pharaoh. While a great dream, the urn is solid sandstone—no hidden treasures. The historians counter that the Treasury is—like many of the other huge sandstone façades—a colossal burial tomb.
Little is actually known about the Nabataean Kingdom. You can look at the smooth columns and eroded statues and imagine the mythological gods and goddess that once adorned the surface. These imagined symbols of Nabataean faith would have arose life-like out of the sandstone, and then journeyed through the day as a riot of colors matching the sun’s movement across the sky. Rose-red in the soft morning light would give way to yellows and browns in the harsh light of midday before a burnt, deep orange would settle over the sandstone gods as the sun took a final bow to the creative imagination and skill of the Nabatean.