Petra by night.—Photo by writer
Petra by night.—Photo by writer

“CLOSE your eyes, close your eyes,” exhorts a voice in the darkness punctuated by candlelight glowing through scores of paper lanterns and the silver glow of a nearly full moon. “Now, open them,” commands the voice. The audience gasps in wonder, as the towering façade of Petra’s iconic temple, the al-Khazneh (the Treasury), lights up in hues of red, green, purple and blue. The applause rises to a crescendo, amplified by the limestone cliffs that surround the area in front of the monument.

Petra by night. ─ Photo by writer
Petra by night. ─ Photo by writer

Petra by night, theatrical and brooding, holding close the secrets of its 2,000-year-old history. The site is arguably the jewel in the crown of Jordan’s many archaeological treasures.

Carved into the pink limestone in present-day Jordan’s southwestern corner, Petra was the capital of the Nabataean empire that existed between 400 BC and 106 AD, and showcased all the wealth and artistry of this ancient civilisation. Even now, only 15 per cent of the city has been unearthed; the rest remains entombed beneath the sands of time. Originally nomads from the Arabian peninsula, the Nabataeans prospered by virtue of geography and their genius for innovation. Merchants themselves, what they called home was a confluence of the trade routes between Rome and the Far East, enabling them to gain control over the spice and incense trade.

Living at the heart of this civilisational crossroads not only made them wealthy, but it also led to a fusion of cultural influences that found exquisite expression in the temples and tombs of Petra, which hold the remains of Nabataean kings, queens and nobles.

In the light of day, one can see Roman and Greek gods alongside those of the Nabataeans. Medusa and Nike, as well as Amazon warriors with their axes held aloft, alongside symbols representing the supreme deity, Dushara, and his consort Isis, or al-Uzza. It was a concept that bore the seeds of a pluralistic democratic polity.

Except, much like the rest of the Middle East, as we know, that is hardly how history unfolded. Jordan’s friendly, welcoming people are well aware that criticism of their government can cost dearly. Questions about the Arab Spring in Jordan are swiftly deflected. Our driver Mohammed, who takes us from Amman to Petra, is decisively of the ‘don’t-rock-the-boat’ persuasion. “If you talk against the government, then one year later, you can’t be found,” he says matter-of-factly. “But why take that risk? It’s a good life, so better to say nothing.”

Rising prices of fuel and electricity have stirred some discontent of late. Religious extremism is also a reality, but the authorities keep a lid on anyone audacious enough to propagate an individualistic point of view.

In a corner of Wadi Musa — the town where Petra is located — we find an unexpected, though subtle, little pocket of resistance. At a restaurant close to the historic site, over plates of hummus, moutabel, falafel and sambusak — a Middle Eastern version of samosas oozing with a mixture of feta and mozzarella cheese — we contemplate the black-and-white portraits that line the walls inside. Karl Marx, Isabel Allende, Martin Luther King, Kahlil Jibran, Edward Said and various men and women from the Muslim world, mostly anti-establishment dissidents — poets, novelists, political activists, etc. The monarchy is represented in an old photograph of the late King Hussein, not his son the present ruler.

At Petra, this time under a scorching sun, we take a horse carriage from the entrance to the Treasury, a nearly two-kilometre distance, rattling over stretches of gravel and cobblestones. Those who have chosen to walk jump out of the way, with the carriage driver helpfully shouting “beep, beep” now and then.

The Siq (gorge) leading into Petra. ─ Photo by writer
The Siq (gorge) leading into Petra. ─ Photo by writer

We clippety-clop through the narrow, magnificent gorge, known as the Siq, its walls a glorious natural tapestry streaked with shades of tea pink, ochre and chocolate brown. At places, one can see evidence of the Nabataeans’ ingenious system of transporting water from various sources in the desert through conduits carved high into the sides of the cliffs.

Suddenly, the Siq opens into the courtyard of the Treasury. In the light of day, there is of course much more to see. Behind the main temple, a huge vista lies before our eyes. Here are tombs high up in the rocks, carved with various religious symbols and images of a staircase (signifying the ascent to heaven perhaps), and a stunning amphitheatre cut into the rock that could accommodate 4,000 spectators. Many of the carvings, because their location spared them a direct assault from the elements, are in pristine condition.

The Bedouins of Petra are believed to be descendants of the Nabataeans. ─ Photo by writer
The Bedouins of Petra are believed to be descendants of the Nabataeans. ─ Photo by writer

Little outdoor cafes cater to tourists wilting in the summer heat, selling glasses of cool, freshly squeezed pomegranate and orange juice, and mint lemonade. At frequent intervals, Bedouins — fine-featured, with kohl-rimmed eyes — ask if you’d like to ride a donkey instead of schlepping it all over Petra. Most of them look alike, and are quite possibly all related to each other. (Curiously enough, some are also dead ringers for Jack Sparrow.)

Sadly, Jordan’s glorious heritage is not protected as well as it deserves to be. Along the colonnaded street, which used to be the city’s main marketplace, Bedouin women wearing traditional embroidered attire sell souvenirs. Among them are pieces of eggshell thin Nabataean pottery, deep red, painted with black motifs. For five Jordanian dinars, a piece of ancient history is yours for the taking.

Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2018

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