Congratulations to Kadoo (Kadambari) for guessing correctly!
Continued from here:
Al-Khazneh, the Treasury, Petra. It was built (around the 1st century BC) as a tomb for a king; later, it may have served as a temple.
"It seems no work of Man's creative hand,
By labor wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
Eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
Where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
That crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
That first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
Which Man deemed old two thousand years ago.
Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
A rose-red city half as old as time."
by John William Burgon (1845)
When Burgon has said it so beautifully, how can I even dare to try and describe Petra? After his exquisite poetry, any words from me will sound limp and anemic. So, I will not even attempt it. Instead (brace yourselves), let me tell you a little bit about the people who built this wonder – who they were, where and when they lived, and something about their life and times – in short, a history lesson. Make yourselves comfortable, and fear not, this one will be short and sweet.
Petra is about 300 kms south of Amman, the capital of Jordan. It is in a region called the Wadi Musa, the Valley of Moses, so-named because here, according to a legend of yore, Moses is said to have struck a rock from which there gushed forth fresh water. And he is believed to have led the Israelites through this terrain on their way to the Promised Land. This is a wild and rugged area, hostile and impenetrable with its towering rocks, twisting ravines and mountainous landscape. In ancient times, people journeyed here along the King's Highway, which ran from Heliopolis in Egypt, made its way north along the Great Rift Valley past Petra, Madaba, Philadelphia (modern Amman), Jerash and Damascus, and ended at Resafa on the river Euphrates. Today, you can still take this highway, rich in history and legend, its ancient castles and fortresses echoing with the memories of a turbulent and action-filled past. If this highway could talk, it would hold you spellbound with stories of crusaders and pilgrims, Christians and Muslims traveling in war and in peace, caravans and bandits, precious silks, spices, incense and ivory, treachery and murder. Most modern travelers take the no-less-scenic, but much quicker, Desert Highway.
A bleak and austere beauty: on the Desert Highway to Petra
Petra was the capital city of the Nabateans, who lived and ruled in that area over 2,000 years ago. Which brings us to the question: who were the Nabateans?
The Nabateans were a nomadic tribe, whose origins in Arabia are lost in the haze and sands of the deserts they came from. Like any nomadic tribe, they wandered around, seeking water and grazing grounds, not an easy task in this arid and inhospitable land. Through centuries of roaming, they mastered the secrets of the desert, learned where hidden springs of water lay, the vagaries of the seasons, the best places to set up camp. Among their most remarkable achievements was the ability to mine arid areas for water, and cultivate lands dismissed by others as infertile. They were a tough and barbaric lot, ruthless and cruel. They had to be, to survive in this bleak and brutal land crisscrossed with rival tribes, all vying for the same scarce resources.
The Nabateans edged into the margins of history when, in the 6th century BC, the Kingdom of Judah (around present-day Jordan and Israel) was destroyed by the Babylonians. Sensing opportunity, the Nabateans moved in, past the Gulf of Aqaba, east of the Dead Sea, traveling almost as far north as Damascus in Syria.
The Greek historian, Diodorus of Sicily, gives us one of the earliest reliable accounts of the Nabateans. He, in turn, relied on accounts he had heard about them from 300 years before his time. In the 1st century BC, he described them (as they were in the 4th century BC) as barbarian, wild and solitary, and the lands they roamed in as bristling with rocks in a hostile, impassable desert, with hidden springs of water known only to them.
A Roman geographer, Strabo, writing at the same time as Diodurus, paints a different picture. From his account, set in the 1st century BC, we learn of a prosperous people ruled by a king, living in cities which boasted of wealth, riches and stability.
So, between the 4th century BC and the 1st century BC, the Nabateans gradually moved from a completely nomadic lifestyle to a semi-nomadic one, to a settled, urban-centered existence, one that was, by the standards of any day, prosperous and successful. Oh, life was by no means easy for them – these were times of perpetual warfare, bitter rivalries, unfettered plundering and looting and piracy. They had to guard against the jealousy of neighboring tribes and also the greedy eyes of distant nations.
Now we come to our next question: what was it that made the Nabateans thrive and flourish? The principles of economics have remained steadily and stubbornly unchanged through the ages. What works today worked then as well, even if pirates, lawlessness and vicious brutality were the order of the day. The answer: international trade. And this seemed to be something they had an affinity for, because even in their semi-nomadic days, they were active in controlling and routing trade between the east and west. Location is everything, as the saying goes, and it was no less for the Nabateans.
They built their capital city in Petra, a brilliantly-chosen spot, surrounded as it was by inaccessible mountains, rocks and precipices, but, within, amply supplied with springs that provided excellent water. The entrance was through a narrow, twisting ravine, invisible to those who did not know of its existence. The city was built around the 1st century BC, and for the next two hundred years, this vigorous and far-sighted culture enjoyed its peak.
Of course, it was hardly enough that all Petra had going for it was that it was well-sheltered. It stood at the intersection of two of the most important trade routes of the time: the Hejaz trade route, parallel to the Red Sea, and the King's Highway, from Aqaba to Damascus and beyond. The Incense Route – which carried precious cargoes of frankincense, myrrh, spices, ebony, silks and other fine textiles from the Near and Far East, through Arabia, Egypt and beyond to lands in the west, ran through Petra. (Incense was in great demand by the Greeks and Romans, who used it extensively in their religious rituals). It was a crucial transfer point on the overland trade route in the Arabian plateau: from Petra, the route crossed the Rift Valley and headed northwest, towards the Mediterranean ports from where the goods were shipped on to the Greek and Roman worlds. Petra offered hospitality, protection from marauding thieves, and a plentiful supply of water. In return, a tax was levied on all goods that passed through, and it prospered rapidly. The Nabateans amassed great wealth in gold and silver.
They were smart people, the Nabateans. They did not content themselves with sitting pretty at the crossroads of trade. Once again, economic principles were applied: in this case, the concept of “value-added”. The Nabateans enhanced the worth of the end-products (and pocketed the profits) by packaging them. And they dealt with local products as well. They had a brisk trade in bitumen, which they mined from the Dead Sea, with the Egyptians, who used it for embalming. They bought and sold balsam wood from Jericho. They were skilled potters, and their finely glazed and fired pottery was a sought-after commodity. They bred horses (perhaps the ancestors of the famous Arabian steeds of today) and kept vast hordes of sheep.
We have fairly sketchy information about how the Nabateans lived. Outward-looking and endlessly adaptive, they used the Aramaic language, which was the lingua franca of the traders of the region. They worshipped a pantheon of gods, which they assimilated into their religion without any hand-wringing or strain, from the Romans and Egyptians, among others. They were ruled by kings, but, unusually for the times, there were no slaves, and there was a strong spirit of democracy.
And of course – their sole remaining legacy – their architecture, beautifully and stunningly adapted to the local geography, climate and ethnology. And Petra, their capital city, erected to showcase their wealth and skills, built from the richly colored sandstone, shows us what heights they must have attained in their heyday. The city was built on a scale meant to inspire awe. There are columns, capitals, pediments, statues, figures, caves, graves, temples, altars, shrines, a theatre, all hewed from that rose-flushed sandstone.
A votive niche carved into the rock face: in the Siq (canyon) leading into the main city of Petra
Looking back: this is the end of the Siq (canyon) from which we emerged into Petra; all the people are gazing at the Treasury, Al-Khazneh
The Street of Facades, which contains tombs of famous Nabateans
"Roman" Theatre, built by the Nabateans in the 1st century AD, when Petra was under Roman rule.
The amazing sandstone of Petra
The Nabateans were under constant threat, and were frequently attacked. In 106 AD, they finally succumbed to the Romans, and Petra became part of the Roman Arabia Petraea province. The city continued to prosper for a while longer, but, with history’s relentless march, the trade routes shifted north, and Petra’s importance dimmed and faded away. It lay silent for many centuries, and only the local Bedouin tribes knew of its existence.
Then in 1812, a Swiss explorer named Johann Burckhardt, the sort of colorful, swashbuckling character that is the stuff of novels and movies, rediscovered Petra. Disguised as an Arab trader named Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abd Allah (he had spent a good deal of time perfecting and polishing this persona), he set off to cross the Sahara to seek the source of the River Niger. From Damascus he made his way towards Cairo, and decided to check out the Wadi Musa because he had heard rumors of a lost city. Spinning a web of lies to his suspicious guide, he made his way into the valley claiming that he had to fulfill a vow he had made to sacrifice a goat at the tomb of the prophet Aaron. And thus he became the first westerner in many centuries to behold the wonder of Petra.
A few modern-day sights in Petra
I can see you, dear reader, rubbing a weary hand over your furrowed brow, gazing blearily around the room, and I can hear the small voice which whispers into your ear: what does any of this have to do with South India? Isn’t this blog called Tales of South India? Has she lost her moorings, perhaps, drifted away and washed ashore in a faraway land and place?
I assure you, even if evidence may point to the contrary, that I am quite sane. So, now, with a flourish, I reveal to you, the South India connection.
Roman maritime trade routes with India according to the Periplus Maris Erythraei, 1st century CE. The Romans bypassed the land route in favour of the faster and safer searoute. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Look at the map, and you will see that the entire coastline of South India was part of the trading route with the Middle East and onward west to Greek and Roman domains. In this account, I wrote of Greek and Roman traders traveling two millennia ago to what is Madras today. Their journey must have taken them through Petra. What lives they must have led, what sights they must have seen!
Isn’t history glorious?
In writing this, I found the following sources invaluable:
Herod: by Peter Richardson; Sarcophagus on an Ancient Civilization: by George Livingston Robinson; The Encyclopedia Britannica; Jordan, History & Culture: Jordan Tourism Board; and the Globetrotter Travel Guide to Jordan