Rediscovered, a lost city

Petra

Rediscovered, a lost city
No matter how much one has heard — read or seen — about Petra, the magnificence of the ‘rose-red city, half as old as time’ (as described by the poet Dean Burgon) when one actually sees it, is overwhelming. Petra, with its rockscapes, takes you through a glorious, enthralling journey back in time.

All the descriptions — Jordan’s most precious treasure; the eighth wonder of the world; an unparallelled tourist attraction; an unforgettable experience — did not prepare me for the unbelievable beauty of Petra. Predominantly rose-red, Petra also has shades of grey, white, mauve and yellow depending on the time of day and the amount of sunlight.

My imagination ran riot as I took in the images cut out of solid rose-red rocks — cave houses, tombs, market place, amphitheatre are remarkable in structure. The vast desert, the deep gorges, the massive structures speak volumes about a civilisation that existed as early as the 7th century BC. No wonder UNESCO has described it as ‘one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage.’

The path to Petra starts from the village of Wadi Musa and goes through a wide valley with sandstone hills rising on either side. It’s called Bas-as-Siq (meaning gateway to the gorge) because it goes through the natural opening in the rock. As the road turns left, three monuments catch the eye. These are the Djinn Blocks, named after djinns or spirits. Remember Aladdin and the Magic Lamp?

Pathway to a wonder
The long, narrow and winding gorge leading into Petra is the Siq. As a nature-carved entrance, its splendour is unsurpassed. It’s no exaggeration to say that it was at that moment Petra cast its magic spell on our small group of three. And the feeling grew more intense as we advanced into the ancient city carved into solid rock. We were transported to a world of incredible beauty, a civilisation so advanced that we, living in the technology-driven world of the 21st century, marvelled at the skills of the ancient architects and paid them a silent tribute.

Long, narrow and steep, the Siq has high-rising cliffs on either side. As I let my fingers trail over the patterned rocks, I wondered how those people managed to work such wonders when sophisticated machinery was unknown. The water channels, the terraced farms, the niches for gods carved into the rocks are typical of Petra.

The first monument we saw was the Obelisk Tomb. The obelisk is an Egyptian concept. The niche between the obelisks is a combination of Greek and Roman architectures. The triclinium (a formal dining room with benches on three sides) is an inner chamber, carved in rock. Situated near the tombs, they were used for rites connected with funerals. Though Egyptian, Roman and Greek influences are evident in Petra, most of the remains bear the unique Nabataean stamp.

Meeting place
As we sauntered on, we saw more breathtaking sights. Emerging out of the Siq, we saw the Al-Khazneh, the treasury, right in front of us. High and wide, it’s a mix of Hellenistic, Alexandrian and Nabataean styles.

A not-so-easy climb on rock-cut steps took us to the High Place, which offers a superb view of Petra below. It was here that the Nabataeans held their important religious ceremonies. Walking past the Al-Khazneh, we came to the Street of Facades where there were rows of Nabataean tombs with complicated carvings. The theatre, though Roman-looking, was constructed by Nabataeans in the 1st century AD. Carved into solid rock, it had a seating capacity of 7,000.

The Royal Tombs were the burial place of high-ranking Nabataeans. Sadly, most of them have suffered erosion, though there remain traces of past glory and grandeur. The biggest of them is the Urn Tomb, carved in the late 1st century AD. It has an impressive courtyard and main chamber. It was redesigned as a Byzantine church in the middle of the 5th century AD. Above the doorway, we can see three chambers, of which the central one is blocked by a huge stone. Possibly, it indicates that a man is buried within. The Palace Tomb (so called because it resembles a palace) is built on three levels with richly adorned pillars and columns. Nature, in its sway, has badly eroded these structures. But they still hold the viewer captive with their magnificence. The Sextius Florentinus Tomb was built in the early 2nd century AD for the Roman governor of an Arabian province. According to the Latin inscription over the doorway, it was his desire to be buried in Petra. Who cannot understand his wish for eternal rest in such gorgeous, indescribably beautiful surroundings?

The Colonnaded Street — even after feasting our eyes on the incredibly beauteous remains of a bygone era — took us by surprise. It led through the city centre, and had temples, public buildings and shops on either side. At one time, a nymphaeum graced the street. The marble pavement can be seen to this day.

The long walk through Petra took its toll on my energy, but it was so edifying that given the chance, I would do it all over again, savouring the beauty all the more. My two friends, otherwise individualistic, agreed with me wholeheartedly.

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