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Jordan: Petra, Robber-King City in the Desert

December 8, 2009

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Rumors of a stone-cut city, lost in Jordan’s southern desert, had been circulating for centuries before the Swiss explorer Johann Burkhardt brought it to the attention of the Western world in 1812.  Still called “The Rose-Red City”, its buildings and fortifications were contained within a valley only accessible via a narrow defile,  and therefore the place was completely protected from surprise attack.  The Nabateans, who built Petra, were a tribe who made a lucrative living by robbing the many caravans that passed their way.  I like to think of them as a Robin Hood culture of ancient times, although recently evidence of child sacrifice has been discovered in the mountains high above the actual city.

When I hitchhiked there from Amman in 1977, the site was completely deserted, except for the Bedouin who kept their flocks of goats in the valley.  So we had no admission fees to pay, no guards to contend with, and certainly no tourists to fight our way through to see the sights.

An American friend and I brought enough food to camp in the ruins for a week.  As a sleeping place, we chose a cave high above the Roman-era amphitheater  (The Romans finally put a stop to the pillaging ways of the Nabateans).  In our choice of campsite we discovered we had been lucky.  The ruins have a reputation as a home for heat- seeking vipers, who like nothing better than to find warm bodies to crawl in bed with at night.  Our cave was only accessible via a difficult climb above the amphitheater, and so probably discouraged even the reptiles from molesting us.

Petra is still famous for the beautiful shape of the stone carved buildings.  The architecture was not produced in a vacuum.  Similarly styled ruins have been found as far afield as Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia.  But here the architecture reached its zenith in both beauty and form.

I have heard that in years past young Israelis, as a demonstration of manhood or whatever, would sneak across the border from Israel and spend a night there.  I rather doubt, with all the attention the site now produces, that this adventurous game continues.

NOTE: These photos were all shot when I returned to show the city to my parents in 1980.

1) The road that leads to the city entrance

2) Narrow track into the city

3) Some of the first ruins

4) Cisterns for water to the right? Photo by Jack McGory

Who lived where and exactly how they passed their time is still open to debate. Some structures are obviously palatial; the many caves around Petra gives rise to the thought that these were the dwellings of the common folk.

5) Less grand area

The principle structure is known as the Treasury. Over the years, many a self-styled adventurer has taken pot shots at the building, carved into a solid cliff,  in hopes of extracting showers of gold coins or jewelry from the resulting damage.  Nobody to my knowledge has ever found any worthwhile quantities of gold or other precious items. Regrettably I have lost my photos of the Treasury.  To tell the truth, the carved Romanesque facade looked out-of-place in this wild desert wadi. Meanwhile, here is one shot by my father, KG Herring

6) The Treasury

7) The top portion of the Treasury: Photo by Jack McGory

8) Me, taking my own leisure: The cave I where camped is the second one from the upper right.

9) One of the grander carved structures carved from the living rock

10) A Roman-era road.  They loved to get around on their equivalent of our interstate highways.

11) More grandiosity: Photo by Jack McGory

12) Dramatic natural formations

13) One can see how easy the city was defensible from outside intrusions.

14) The geology is spectacular in its own right

15) More structures

Nowadays, of course, there are hotels, group tours, entrance fees, and guards who make sure that visitors don’t touch anything.  Ah, that magic word “progress” again.  But on the positive side, the touristic development of the ruins has probably resulted in a great many jobs for poor Jordanians, who have always had a difficult time making ends meet in their hardscrabble land.


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