Starting at the visitor’s centre, having paid your fee, you walk down the dusty wide road past men offering to be your guide, to take you by horse, camel or donkey, whatever.
Once you have done with these offers what you deem right, you come to the first indications that something is afoot. The landscape opens itself slowly and takes on bulbous shapes, sandy rocks, blobs and blocks, occasionally showing the black hole of a cave. The entrances of these caves are signs, shaped by the deliberate action of man with its fetish for geometry, his unquestioned love of the orthogonal and the symmetrical. Turning a slow curve, you arrive at a dam, from here you enter a narrow gully between two irregular walls of sandstone coloured red, white, blue and ochre. It waves and bellows, moulded and painted by the wind, the water and human passage.
At the level of your hips there is a gutter running the full length of the gully, through which water once ran from the dam to supply the Nabataean town further below. After a while, you get your first glimpse of the icon of Petra: the treasury, or so called. It has been photographed innumerable times, it is an image as well known as the pyramids and the Eiffel tower and yet the real confrontation with it, its tangible presence is a shock. It opens up to reveal itself, an epiphany of heavy light and human order.
It is damaged and has been restored, and looks quite different from the lithographs done by David Roberts in 1836, which were made just a few years after Petra's discovery by the Swiss traveller Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. The treasury is set in a small narrow clearing within the dense material of rock, in a deep trough of rock, with towering cliffs surrounding it and stands just off axis opposite the crevice through which you approach it. The light which was witheld from the weathered and wind-carved rock in the gullyt falls copiously onto the hand-carved and weathered architecture giving razor sharp shadows playing its distinct melody of classical harmonies and rhythms: round and square, projection and cove.
The temple front is not itself the greatest work of architecture; its setting makes it so. The thing, with which I mean the carved facade, consists of a somewhat squat classical front with two tiers of columns, the bottom one a colonnade with a centrally projecting pediment in the centre and the top one consisting of three vertical sections. The outer two presenting coupled columns supporting the fragment of a broken tympanum framing a cylindical turret in the centre which is topped by a crown, completing the pediment. Almost baroque.
The broken pediments on either side are themselves topped by the shape of a roughly hewn square of rock which might have been the bases of two solid obelisks penetrating and pinning the upper edge of the natural rock framing the whole. Perhaps inevitablly with such a work of art one cannot help conjuring up the image of working men busily carving away the stone and knowing when to stop and when to go deeper. There was skill, planning and tradition at work here, this was not the first work they did.
The composition as a whole represents a theme that will recur again in one of the great royal tombs further along the route, and again, right at the end of the journey, in a simplified and austere version at the so-called monastery set high up in its own little world at the other end of the journey. But before we get there we have a long way to go.
Beyond the treasury, the gully continues and soon widens into a street of tombs. Hundreds of tombs, with simple facades of stepped projections at the outer corners have been cut into the sandstone cliffs lining the way where the city proper must have begun to take shapewith houses and public buildings and life. Now there is only the life of tourists and toursits like each other gone. There is not much life in tourism.
The only building left that is not a tomb is the theatre, which, like the tombs, was directly cut into the sandstone cliffs requiring the sacrifice of a number of tombs that simply had part of their substance cut away leaving only a lateral section in the form of a small square cave representing the end of the original burial chamber. All the freestanding structures, with the exception of one later Roman temple further on, massive enough to have withstood the repeated earthquakes, have now disappeared.
The sandstone cliff-face with its continuous paaterns of stratification and weathering into which the tombs have been carved and themselves become subject to weathering both denies and complements the curious geometry of the tomb facades, the way that man and nature have constantly tried to lay claim to each other. Nature gave way to men carving their patterns in the rock, then the wind and the rain took two thousand years in its partially successful attempt to reclaim what man had made But to complete the proces, a succession of theories of about good archaeology and restoration, not forgetting the juggernaut of tourism are themselves transfomring what is there, making it an ever weirder place, a place where death is the evidence of life, where nature is the product of man and the effort of man mererly the raw material of nature.
When we follow the turn in the valley punctuated by the theatre, we see the royal tombs in all their pealed, worn and crumbling splendour. Set high on the cliff face and distant from the hubble and bubble of streetlife, they form a world suitably set apart. Kings, Queens and Roman Governors, require space. But again, it is not so much the tombs as their brilliant setting that does the trick, the way they have weathered and the way they use their monumentality to make the most of the dramtic axis and elevation created by the dry riverbed flanking the once colonnaded roman street that runs away at right angles to the tombs. It is breathless spectacle at its best.
The roman road forms a terrace between the deeply cut river bed and the raised plateau on the other side of the road upon which you find an impressive array of temples arranged into a complicated complex and displaying all the fragments of human effort gone to waste when nature had its revenge in the earthquake of 363.
After the Roman street comes to an end, the going gets tougher. The valley narrows to a gully and the gully narrows to a crevice and what had been a gentle descent to the baseline of the Roman street now becomes a steepish climb along a seemingly endless set of steps to reach the so-called monastery which is set in a small basin, high up on the mountain. Climbing to the edge of it you get a fantastic view of emptiness: the desert. Then starts the walk back...
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