Just over two centuries ago, Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt made the discovery that would secure his legacy. While travelling through what was then Transjordan, on the often-perilous inland route from Damascus to Cairo, he began to hear rumours of an ancient, ruined Nabataean city nestled deep within a nearby gorge. Naturally, he decided to make a detour. Even with an experienced Bedouin guide, it took a while for him to figure out the right spot. But eventually, on 22nd August 1812, Burckhardt found himself face-to-face with Al-Khazneh (the Treasury), a magnificent temple carved directly into the pink sandstone rock face, becoming the first European to set eyes on the lost city of Petra for more than a millennium. Fast forward to 2019, and it’s fair to say that he is no longer alone. Hundreds of thousands of Europeans – as well as visitors from across the world – descend on Petra every single year, drawn in by the ancient city’s distinctive architecture, dramatic rock walls and ever-changing colours (which magically alter as sunlight touches the stone). And this year, I was one of them.
It’s early morning, and I am wending my way through the narrow gorges of the Siq, the same entrance route that once greeted Burckhardt. Now, as I follow the snaking path, flanked by sheer rock face on both sides, the sun sleepily starts to rise. Just in time, it turns out, as the curtains of rock gradually draw apart to reveal an extraordinary and unmistakeable sight. The Treasury. The first thing that hits you is the sheer scale of it; at 40 metres high, it towers over you. Then it is the colour; the early light pierces the façade to accentuate its rose-pink tint. Then come the smaller details. The building consists of two levels, each decorated with giant columns and intricate carvings, from urns to lions. You can also see the mix of cultural and religious influences, with depictions of Nabataean deity Dushara (in the form of an eagle), Egyptian goddess Isis and half-brothers Castor and Pollux from Greco-Roman mythology. A peek inside also reveals an ablution basin for ritualistic washing – another sign that this was a holy place.
THE NABATAEAN KINGDOM
By the time I’d finished taking in the Treasury, I found I was no longer alone – dozens of other tourists had caught me up and were gazing in slack-jawed wonder at the sight before them. I decided it was time to see what else Petra had to offer. After all, the ancient city covers more than 2,500 acres, so I know there’s a world of rock-cut tombs and temples for me to discover. Petra’s architectural variety comes from its open society. The Nabataean Kingdom covered modern Jordan Syria and Saudi Arabia, and when Petra was built 1,500 years ago, it was one of the most advanced cities on earth, not only for its stunning architecture and infrastructure but for its role as a trade hub for incense, silk and spices. The varying cultures passing through all left their mark, as seen by architectural influences from Assyria, Egypt, Rome and Greece.
THE ROYAL TOMBS AND AD DEIR
Even after such a difficult-to-beat opening act, the rest of Petra still doesn’t disappoint. As it transpires, there are amazing sights everywhere you turn, from the Roman-style amphitheatre (mostly carved from solid rock and able to accommodate an 8,500-strong crowd at its peak) to the Royal Tombs (a series of four gigantic structures that overlook the one-time city centre). Perhaps the biggest attraction of all is Ad Deir (the Monastery), a stunning 1st century structure that, at 50 metres wide and 45 metres high, has an even bigger footprint than the Treasury. You may need to tackle 800 stone-cut steps to get there, but boy is it worth the climb. Ultimately, though, I found that the best of Petra isn’t necessarily the headline attractions, but the chance to get lost in and around the city. It’s such a vast area that merely a short stroll off trodden paths can mean finding yourself alone on mountains, in canyons or even at the foot of a seemingly undiscovered Nabataean building. And it’s this that makes Petra truly special.