Inspiring Architecture: Ancient Petra

So often when I think about what to write for this blog, I turn to the latest innovations in architecture and design. But on my recent trip to Jordan I was reminded about how inspiring the ancient world can be.

Al Khazneh (“The Treasury”); Photo: Tracey Eckersley

The highlight of my journey was a visit to Petra, which allowed me to cross off yet another site on the 1000 Places to Visit Before You Die list (it’s going a little slower than I had hoped). Even if you haven’t heard of Petra, I’m sure you have at least seen a picture of Al Khazneh (The Treasury), made famous in India Jones and the Last Crusade:

But there is a lot more to see; I was there for nine hours and only scratched the surface of this magnificent site. Petra was home to the ancient Nabateans and the center of their caravan trade network. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most-visted tourist attraction in Jordan.

The Siq (“Shaft”); Photo: Tracey Eckersley

The middle of summer is low season and with the temperature soaring to 45° C, I’m not surprised that people are hesitant to visit. The payoff? I felt like I had the whole place to myself. This was especially great for the walk through the mile-long gorge, known as the Siq (“Shaft” in Arabic). The narrow path winds gently downward, providing several opportunities to admire the slowly eroding sandstone that soars hundreds of feet above and provides welcome shade.

Photo: Tracey Eckersley

You can choose to take a horse and carriage down to The Treasury but they careen through the Siq like Indiana Jones did on his horse and you risk missing the several statues and shrines carved into the rock.

Photo: Tracey Eckersley

After about half an hour of ooh-ing and awe-ing, I turned the corner and caught my first glimpse of The Treasury. And yes, I stopped to hum the Indiana Jones theme song before I went any further.

Al Khazneh (“The Treasury”); Photo: Tracey Eckersley

The Treasury is a misnomer; the structure was actually an elaborate tomb with motifs adapted from the contemporary Hellenistic Greek style. Pictures cannot do it justice; it is overwhelming beautiful in person.

The Royal Tombs; Photo: Tracey Eckersley

But there are hundreds more tombs carved into the rocks. Some, referred to as the Royal Tombs, are almost as elaborate as The Treasury, while many are decidedly less ornate. A Tomb Raider enthusiast could spend hours climbing and exploring.

Tombs at Petra; Photo: Tracey Eckersley

I kept my feet planted firmly on the ground, by way of the Roman road that leads through the site. Built in the first century C.E., it is a lasting example of the Empire’s impressive infrastructure.

Roman Colonnaded Road; Photo: Off Exploring

Other Roman remains have fared less well. The theatre is badly eroded, with the worn seats mimicking the striations in the natural rock from which they were carved.

Roman Theatre; Photo: Tracey Eckersley

Photo: Tracey Eckersley

The site is so large that many tourists decide to enhance their desert experience with a camel ride. I held out until halfway up to The Monastery, when I gave up and hired a donkey. This in itself was an adventure- those stairs are steep and the pack animals often get very close to the edge (not surprisingly, I chose to walk down on my own two feet).

Photo: Adventure Without End

Cave Housing; Photo: Tracey Eckersley

The hour-long climb is arduous but it affords some excellent views of the carved spaces used as houses by both ancient inhabitants and modern Bedouins in the area.

Cave Café; Photo: Tracey Eckersley

At the end of my (well, my donkey’s) trek I got to experience one for myself, in the form of a delightful cave café which was a wonderful sanctuary from the sun. And the view?

Ad Deir (“The Monastery”); Photo: Tracey Eckersley

Another magnificent tomb, high above Petra; the views of this and the surrounding area were certainly worth the long climb. Intrepid souls can explore even farther from here but it was time for me to retrace my steps. Trust me; the four-mile walk seems much longer on the way back!

Photo: The Telegraph

I hope that you will one day get the opportunity to cross this off your list of places to visit. I’m being greedy and am already planning another trip, perhaps a night-time adventure to see the monuments of Petra in a whole new light.

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