THE scale, beauty and history of Jordan’s extraordinary ‘lost city’ of Petra does not disappoint.
OK, so I don’t have the hat or the whip or, quite frankly, the looks to be the new Indiana Jones. But it is still a great thrill to be following in his footsteps.
In a climactic scene from the 1989 blockbuster, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy (Harrison Ford) and his dad (Sean Connery) ride out of a spectacular natural gorge to be confronted by an extraordinary temple chiselled out of an imposing sandstone cliff more than two and a half millennia ago. They look suitably awestruck.
I am equally stunned as I wander around the “lost city” of Petra in southern Jordan. Described as “a red-rose city half as old as time” by the poet John William Burgon, this breathtaking city was carved out of the desert by the Nabataean people in 600BC.
But, quite remarkably, it remained a secret to the outside world until just over two centuries ago. It was fiercely protected by Bedouin tribesmen who wanted to keep the site’s treasures concealed from acquisitive outsiders.
Then, in 1812, a Swiss adventurer named Johann Burckhardt, who was journeying across the Middle East in the guise of a Bedouin, heard rumours of this magnificent city. He managed to blag his way into Petra by claiming that he was an Arab from India who wanted to make a sacrifice at Aaron’s tomb. Once he beheld the majesty of the lost city, Burckhardt started broadcasting its splendours to an astonished wider world.
Petra, which is graced with incredible natural rock formations, some shaped like camels or elephants, soon acquired global renown. People flocked from all over to witness its architectural glories for themselves. For instance, in 1839, the era before photography, the celebrated Scottish painter David Roberts travelled to the ancient city in an attempt to capture its unique beauty.
On 7 March, 1839, he confided to his diary: “I am more and more astonished and bewildered with this extraordinary city, which must be five or six miles each way in extent … and I have often thrown my pencil away in despair of ever being able to convey any idea of this extraordinary place.”
Petra’s fame around the world has grown ever since. Almost 30 years ago, it was designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco, and in 2007 it was named as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The city, which lies three hours’ drive south of the Jordanian capital Amman, has also been selected by Smithsonian magazine as one of the 28 places in the world to see before you die. The half a million tourists it entices each year can’t be wrong.
The lost city is steeped in legend. According to local tradition, Moses struck his staff on the ground at Petra and water flowed forth. His brother Aaron is also said to be buried here at, er, Mount Aaron.
But what is most intriguing is that thus far Petra has only given up a tiny proportion of its secrets. At this point, a mere 15 per cent of the site has been excavated. It is fascinating to speculate about what undiscovered treasures may still be buried under the lost city.
As it was built by the Nabataeans as a trading centre at the crossroads of the silk, spice and other trade routes, Petra was the repository of all sorts of treasures. Stories abound that great riches still lie underneath this remote desert location.
It is said that the famous lost treasures of the pharaoh are buried at Petra. There is even a tale – which is pursued in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – that the Holy Grail is interred somewhere in the lost city. Looking for it is akin to searching for a needle in a whole barn full of haystacks, however. The site of Petra Archaeological Park, which is a car-free zone encompassing hundreds of astounding buildings and more than 500 tombs, spans some 264,000 square metres.
I don’t stumble across any hidden valuables on my trip to Petra, but I am lucky enough to see some of the most wondrous sights the ancient world has to offer.
The most famous building in Petra is Al Khazneh (the Treasury), the aforementioned temple that Indiana Jones and his father rush to in The Last Crusade. You reach it via a narrow gorge known locally as the Siq.
Walking down this kilometre-long phenomenon of nature is an amazing experience in itself. It is like wandering the streets of Manhattan, except here you are dwarfed by natural 80-metre-high cliffs rather than man-made skyscrapers. One word of warning: as you look up to marvel at the sheer scale of the walls, beware of the horses and carts that come speeding down the gorge.
You emerge from the Siq to be faced by the astounding sight of the Treasury, originally built as a mausoleum for a Nabataean king. Because it is sheltered, the wind and the sand haven’t worn it down and the 43-metre-high red-rose facade is perfectly preserved.
The craftsmanship is phenomenal – it is hard to conceive of the extraordinary effort it must have taken to carve the Treasury out of the sandstone cliff. Given that the Nabataeans had no modern measuring technology, the fact that it is perfectly symmetrical is particularly striking.
I had looked at pictures of the Treasury many times before, but when you see it up close for the first time, it’s much more impressive.
Perhaps due to its name or the fact that it looks so majestic, many people down the centuries have thought that the Treasury is brimful of hidden riches. Imagining the grand urn that tops the facade to be replete with valuables, adventurers down the years have repeatedly fired at it, leaving it pockmarked with bullet holes. The bounty-hunters have failed to notice that the urn is in fact made of solid stone.
Bedouins lived in the caves that riddle Petra until 1987. In 1979, Marguerite van Geldermalsen came to the lost city from New Zealand as a tourist. She met a Bedouin called Mohammed Abdullah on the steps of the Treasury and they fell in love. They got married and lived together in his cave. When the Queen and Prince Philip visited Petra in 1984, they went for tea in Marguerite and Mohammed’s cave. I wonder if they got their stone walls repainted before the royal visit.
In 2013, President Obama took a break from a Middle East peace conference to stroll on his own around the ruins of Petra. His conclusion? “This is pretty spectacular.”
As I turn back one last time to take in the awe-inspiring beauty of the red-rose city, I catch sight of a “bumper sticker” on the back of a horse and trap. It reads: “Don’t worry. Be happy.”
That’s very easy when you’re in Petra.
•Air France (www.airfrance.co.uk) flies from Edinburgh to Amman via Paris from £483 return. In November, rooms at the Petra Guest House start at £92 per night for a double room. For more information visit www.guesthouse-petra.com
•A new series of Forbidden History, presented by Jamie Theakston, begins with the episode on the Lost City of Petra on Yesterday at 9pm on Wednesday.