I’m trying to figure out how to write about Petra without resorting to overused, and thus meaningless superlatives and adjectives of wonder. The English language really needs some fresh words to describe truly impactful places and experiences. I considered making up some words of my own but made-up words are mostly just annoying.
How about we use Italian adjectives. Say them out loud with feeling; remember to pronounce all of the vowels and include exuberant hand gestures: MAGNIFICENTE! FORMIDABILE! MAGICO! STUPEFACENTE!! Now you get the picture.
I was stupefied by Petra. For me, the only other site that matches the stupefying effect of Petra is the Giza pyramids. I’m sure there are many other places that would strum a similar chord (Machu Picchu for one) but I haven’t been there yet.
I don’t mean to rank Giza and Petra the best places I’ve seen. I never know how to answer the question, “What’s your favorite place?” Every place has its own power. The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Athens Acropolis, the Fez Medina, the Sahara Dunes…each strikes at a different angle and evokes a unique response. It’s a vibrational thing. I can attempt to categorize them but I can’t rank them.The Category of Stupefaction (TCS) encompasses stunning feats of design and engineering, with an element of mystery.
Within TCS I would make subdivisions. Petra’s being was commercial; so, coming from a highly commercial place and time myself, culturally it’s somewhat more relatable than Giza. The ancient Egyptian culture of Giza, despite all we know about it, is still quite alien (and I don’t mean ET alien, necessarily). Part of Petra’s effect is its spectacular physical setting. Giza is many things, but naturally beautiful is not one of them.
Thinking about the specific ways I’m moved by different places and why sent me on a bit of a tangent. Thank you for your patience. You got the abbreviated version, believe me.
Back to Petra, where I was stupefied by sprawling monumental remains of an elegant city carved into the red sandstone walls of a desert canyon.
Petra is entered through a long narrow split in the mountains called the siq. It’s about a mile long with 500 foot striated, undulating walls on either side, barely 10 feet across in some places. The whole way through, around every bend I was anticipating my first glimpse of Al Khazneh (the Treasury), Petra’s most famous monument, which is positioned to fill the hairline view through the end of the siq into the city. I had butterflies in my stomach, my heart raced a little. The walk through the siq is thrilling because of where it leads but it’s also incredibly beautiful in and of itself. Besides the natural loveliness, I noticed channels carved into the rock walls, which captured rain water to protect the city from flash floods and to create a man-made oasis. Petra’s sophisticated water works also included miles of ceramic piping from area springs and over 200 cisterns.
At my first sight of Al Khazneh, the rest of the world dropped away. I was conscious only of moving toward it. Then I was there, standing in the shadow, climbing the steps, feeling the cool stone. It’s real and more impressive than any photograph or breathless blog reminiscing can convey. And there’s so much more. Al Khazneh is just the beginning.
Petra was a city of 50,000 at its peak 2,000 years ago, built by the Nabateans, a nomadic Arab tribe that controlled the trade routes in the area. The city was established in the 6th century BCE as a hub for traders traveling from the east and south to the Mediterranean port at Gaza. Imagine the camel caravans carrying exotic products from China, India, Arabia and Africa en route to points across the Roman Empire.They all passed through this crack in the mountains and they paid to do so. Petra was fabulously wealthy.
The freestanding buildings are mostly gone. What remains are hundreds of rock-cut tombs, temples, theaters and dwellings. You need a full day in Petra, at the very least. If you want to really explore, take three days or more.
Petra is in southern Jordan, about 165 miles south of Amman and 85 miles north of Aqaba. You can do a day trip from Eilat in Israel or Aqaba, but it makes for a very long day (it’s about a 2.5 hour drive each way).I highly recommend spending at least one night at Petra. The town of Wadi Musa sits just outside the ancient site, serving Petra visitors much as Petra served itinerant traders back in the day.