Petra lost city in Jordan desert


Petra is the original lost city in the desert. Once a mighty trading post, it was abandoned after the Crusades and lay ruined for 500 years. Hostile local tribes kept it secret, but Burckhardt travelled among them in disguise. Pic:Agencies

"Cousin, do you remember me from 2,600 years ago, when I sold you a shipload of ivory from Africa?"

Mahmoud the red-scarfed storyteller shines his torch along our path, lighting the pavement where Hadrian walked, the statues where ancients worshipped and the walls of rock that rise on either side of us to a crack of night sky 500ft above.

Not every entry into this hidden city, immortalised by emperors, explorers, painters and film-makers, is quite so dramatic. But in the bicentenary year of its rediscovery by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812, I have come to find out what Petra is all about. And Mahmoud is the perfect guide.

"I was born in a cave here, 60 years ago," he confides, as he leads me down the narrow gorge that is the entrance to Petra. "This was my home, like all the people of the village. There were very few tourists then."

And there are very few tourists now, thanks to the Arab Spring. If you ever want to see the ancient sites of Jordan without the crowds, this is your moment.

Tonight the Siq is lit by candles, flickering beside the path. We walk between rows of flames in the dark, turning under towering cliffs, mesmerised into silence. And then we see the sight I have come for. Nothing you have read prepares you for this. The path makes one last twist. A gap in the rock shows a pillar far off, then a giant statue broken at the waist.

An audience has gathered for a show called 'Petra By Night'. It starts with a musician sitting alone among the candles, scraping a lament from a rababah violin. His wailing song echoes off pillars and cliffs into the dark. Then Mahmoud appears, reciting the city's legends. King David ruled here, and Solomon, and a lost Egyptian princess. "Imagine," he barks, "the days when 5,000 camels arrived in caravan."

After the show I sit among the flames, gazing at the carvings, sifting sand between my fingers like an hourglass. Mahmoud wanders over and smiles. "The Nabateans who built this city also believed in magic," he murmurs, and disappears into the night.

Petra is the original lost city in the desert. Once a mighty trading post, it was abandoned after the Crusades and lay ruined for 500 years. Hostile local tribes kept it secret, but Burckhardt travelled among them in disguise.

A storyteller of another kind, he posed as an Islamic scholar for seven years, and bluffed his way into Petra. The report he sent back to London astonished the outside world.

Next morning I return for some exploration of my own. In daylight the place is a scorching bowl of pink and yellow rock, ringed by mountains. Its streets are lined with classical façades cut into the cliffs, housing the tombs of nobles.

The city was rich from camel trains bringing frankincense from Arabia, pepper from India and silks from China. Its coins have been dug up in ancient Rome.

To get a sense of all this grandeur, I make the mistake of climbing to the highest tomb at the hottest time of day. It's 854 burning steps up a mountain gorge to the monastery – and for once I'm glad there's a café at the top. I sink on to a bench and order lime juice.

There's only one place in Jordan comparable in scale to Petra, and that's where I'm heading next — because it too will be empty now. Wadi Rum is the Monument Valley of the Middle East, only bigger and with more legends. Here, Lawrence of Arabia swept across the desert with his camel cavalry, blowing up railways in the First World War. 

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