Discovering Petra

Maxine Rose Schur discovers that at dusk, after the tourists have left, Jordan's ancient ruin comes to splendid life.

Published November 26, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

"Sudden around me rocks and cliffs arise; the earth their footstool, and their crown, the skies."
-- John William Burgon, "Petra" (1845)

Thirty centuries ago, a Bedouin tribe from Arabia arrived in the land that is now Jordan. Here, they pitched their tents, tended their fires and gathered their flocks. The nomads came merely to graze their animals -- but over time they did something extraordinary. They not only settled and tilled the land, they built an empire that rivaled Rome.

These extraordinary people were the Nabateans, and their prosperity came from the location of their capital, Petra, at the junction of trade routes linking Rome with China and India. By imposing taxes on the spices and silks that passed through Petra, and by offering protection from marauding tribes, the Nabateans grew fabulously rich. Their empire stretched from Syria to Egypt, and Petra was its crown jewel. A vast, elegant city, carved entirely out of colorful stone, Petra became one of the most important cities of the ancient world.

But then, in the third century, the Romans diverted the trade routes away from Petra, and the Nabatean civilization swiftly declined. By the fourth century Nabatea disappeared. For the next 15 centuries, the location of Petra was lost to the world.

Then, one autumn day in 1812, the fabled city was discovered hidden in a mountain cleft by an adventurous young Englishman.

Last year I discovered it.

The best way to discover Petra is to first see it as I did: at the wrong time of day. Instead of arriving in the tourist-traffic of morning, I came just before dusk. I came alone. I came on foot with neither guidebook nor guide. I began my walk when the air hangs still and all about, the mountains ring with the pitiable voices of sheep.

I had come to the village of Wadi Musa with my husband and two sons in a taxi from Amman. It was late afternoon when we arrived, and as we planned "to do Petra" the next day, the others chose to explore the cliff-edge village. But I wanted a preview, no matter how brief, so I took the hotel van to the entrance of the ancient site and arranged a pick-up time with the driver. And there, at the shabby ticket booth that marks the entrance to Petra, I unknowingly began a quest.

As I made my way down the broad dirt trail, departing horseback riders and carriages clattered past on my right. The trail sliced through the wadi, which was carpeted with a winter stubble of dry grass, scraggly oleander and gorse. On either side stood the ruins of outer Petra, notably hundreds of Nabatean tombs, a honeycomb of caves gouged into the craggy red cliffs.

Where the trail narrowed, I came upon splintery wooden tables lined up on the right. Along with postcards, here you could buy the ubiquitous Jordanian souvenir: a small bottle of pastel-colored sand with your own name written into it by fine black powder poured through bent wire. At this time of day, only a few vendors remained. I stopped to watch a returning tourist have his name poured into a bottle.

"See. See. See. See."

I barely heard these words, for they seemed distant and strangely, to my subconscious, sounded like Spanish. In a moment I realized they were English and a command directed at me. A few tables down, I saw an old Bedouin man beckoning, and the abrupt sight of him reminded me of the very definition of Bedouin: "those who become visible." He wore a long black robe. On his head he wore a white kafiya and on his bare feet, broken shoes. He looked a romantic figure. The black robe, the dagger at his side, and his skin, the soft-dun color of a sepia photograph, gave an effect that he was outside time.

"See, Lady. See antiquities."

Unlike the other vendors, who were young and exuded a "Welcome
Tourist!" camaraderie, the old man did not smile. He just nodded toward
his wares, a curious collection, one a child might display in his room: a
few fake Roman coins, broken pottery shards, perhaps old, more likely new,
crumbly decapitated little statues the size of Swiss army knives and,
surprisingly -- an amazing assortment of bones similar to what is left
after Thanksgiving dinner.

One by one, with his large, knobbly hand he selected an "antiquity" and
thrust it toward me with the admonition, "See."

As I wanted to get on to the heart of Petra yet didn't want to be
rude, I
took each one, looked at it quickly, then handed it back, smiling "Thank
you" and bowing slightly as if I were in Japan. Then, amid the jumble,
my eye caught a flat stone face, small and round as a demitasse saucer.
I thought it might make an interesting paperweight.

After some ritual bargaining, I bought it for about a dollar,
stuffed it
in my daypack and bid him good-bye.

"See!" he called after me.

"No, thank you!" I called back. "No more."


"What is it?"

"Antiquity. Nabatean bone."


"Nabatean bone."

"Bedouin bone, more likely!"

"Same," he said, not insulted at all.
Bedouin. Same."

He handed me the thumb-size bone. "Baksheesh," he
said. "For you, baksheesh."

I thanked him and hurried on.

The trail turned right and I came to a narrow winding
passage wedged between sandstone walls that curved inward and soared
skyward a thousand feet. This was the Siq: the secret entrance to Petra.
In places, the walls almost touched, shutting out the sky; at other points,
they parted just enough to aim crisscrossed sunbeams to the ground with
spotlight precision. Dwarfed by these eerie rocks, I went, twisting and
turning more than a mile through the Siq, as it narrowed more and more.
Light turned to shade. Sound amplified. From the opposite direction came
returning tourists, Jordanian police on horseback, guides leading back
ponies or vendors carrying out boxes of sand bottles. In this shadowy
passage, we hugged the towering walls to make way for each other while the
dense air held the dust stirred by hooves and the mingled smell of horse
manure and oleander.

Then in the next moment -- sudden splendor. No one could have
me for confronting such majesty as I emerged from a darkened cleft: El Khazneh
loomed above me.

El Khazneh is a towering peach-red palace. Six enormous Corinthian
support a Roman pediment; above that, a ledge balances six more pillars as
well as six immense niches with statues of Nabatean goddesses and, in the
middle, a round kiosk topped by a bull-sized urn!

As if in a trance, I stood gazing at the palace. Then at last I
walked on and saw I was in a valley rimmed by red cliffs. All about me
rose the ancient city. Elaborate tombs, baths, stairways, streets, houses,
banqueting halls -- hundreds of rock-hewn structures as far as I could see
in an architecture fusing Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman styles --
affirming that above all, Petra had indeed been a cosmopolitan city.

knew the metropolis spanned over 250 acres, but I had no time to explore
it. Tomorrow I'd return to bounce echoes against the marble interior of
the Palace Tomb, take sage tea with the Bedouin, hike to the High Place of
Sacrifice, whisper in the amphitheater. Tomorrow Petra would be my

But now it was a poem and I couldn't have come at a more
poetic time. With the tourists gone, the 2,000-year-old capital withdrew
into the twilight, hallowed by silence and the cool air which hung over it,
still as protective glass. Walking toward the city center, I passed the
Roman Colonnade. To my right, along the eastern cliffs were carved the
decorative facades of the Royal Tombs. I sat on a boulder to look at these
immense tomb-palaces of great kings, long forgotten. Tombs embedded with
granite and limestone in horizontal bands of color -- blue, yellow, rust,
cream, pink, lavender. In the last shimmers of light, the bands appeared to
ripple like ribbons. I felt the poignancy of these ruins: Petra begins a
story forever stopped -- a story not of great buildings, but of a great
people broken by time.


Black goats herded by a little Bedouin girl crossed in front of me. I
looked around. Goat herders were everywhere! Where had they come from? A
woman in a long dress gathered goats along the Roman paving stones of the
Colonnade; a teenage boy shepherded a flock right across the steps of the
Palace Tomb! When I stood up, I saw wisps of smoke ghosting upward near
the museum and, walking toward it, saw a woman in a clearing cooking on an
open fire.

I had read that in the mid-'80s, when making Petra a tourist
site, the
government evicted the Bedouins who had lived in Petra's caves for thousands
of years. However, I now saw that the Bedouins not only sold Pepsi, made sand
bottles, rented horses and acted as guides, they lived here. The Bedouins
had prevailed, and as evening arrives, they reclaim Petra, not as dealers,
but as dwellers.

A breeze blew up. The sky was growing dark. Not wanting to miss
the van,
I rushed to re-enter the Siq, now a murky tunnel. Like Lot's wife, I
turned to look back. I no longer could see El Khazneh. I no longer could
see. Everything was shrouded in shadow.

The way back seemed longer than I remembered. I shivered. The
cool air
had turned blade sharp. In the starry sky an Islamic moon emerged.
Following the flashlight circle, I hurried up the trail, "Nabatean.
Bedouin. Nabatean. Bedouin." The words of the old man uncurled their
meaning into my mind and I began to understand. Behind me, in the
blackness, remained those who become visible. Those who unbrokenly,
magically, pitch their tents, tend their fires and gather their flocks.

By Maxine Rose Schur

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