Thursday, December 14, 2006


Jordan's premier tourist attraction, by a long way, is the ruins of Petra. The stunning remains of the Nabataean capital are known throughout the world, most notably (at least to people of my generation) due to their use in the finale of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which is shown nightly at many backpacker haunts. What I fail to understand about the film, however, is that Indiana Jones is supposed to be such a hot shot archaeologist and yet, upon arriving at the supposed resting place of the Holy Grail, he fails to comment on its striking similarity with Petra. Not much of an archaeologist if you ask me. Petra attracts tourists like moths to a flame, with not dissimilar results because of the outrageous prices charged for simple services and goods - not to mention the exorbitant entry fee of $30 for one day. (Sorry for harping on about money, especially as my mum is taking much of the financial strain here in Jordan, but I really get irked by excessive dual pricing and the blithe assumption that foreign visitors habitually wipe their asses with dollar bills.) Unfortunately none of this money filters down to the local bedouin population who are reduced to pestering tourists to take donkey and camel rides and selling cheap trinkets. But it cannot be missed, and for good reason too.

The monumental tombs are pretty much all that's left to remind us of the master merchants who controlled the spice trade coming from Arabia (mainly frankincense and myrrh) to the Mediterranean. The desert-dwelling Nabataeans weren't great builders themselves but must have seen many fine architectural gems among their more urbane neighbours and decided to try it out for themselves, carving gigantic facades, with Corinthian columns and Romanesque statues, in the sandstone cliffs of Petra. They didn't quite get the whole point as the insides were left hopelessly plain and unadorned compared to the exteriors; like classical Potemkin villages. Only a few of the hundreds of tombs, such as the famous Treasury (see below), have preserved the intricate details and majestic grandeur of their inception, most have succumbed to the smoothing effects of the wind that has softened the stone to rounded, organic shapes that hint at their original forms - instead of doorways and windows are mouths and eyes, and instead of carvings are coloured whorls showing the grain of the different layers of sandstone.

I, however, found Petra like the child who gets a fancy super-duper toy for Christmas and ends up playing with the box instead by ignoring the ancient tombs and concentrating on the surroundings. I was just enraptured by the surrounding landscape of sandstone mountains changing colour with the sinking sun and the improbably narrow defiles. My greatest pleasure was to strike off for some random peak, scrambling my way up, often finding ancient, hidden stairways cut into the rock, leading to half-forgotten sacrificial altars on the mountain top. Even my mum agreed. I was impressed that on the same day she celebrated her **th birthday she followed me along some pretty tricky terrain, not only managing adroitly, but saying that it was the best part of the whole site. I just hope that when I'm ** that I'll be able to do the same.

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