Robert Fulford's column about Petra, Jordan

(Globe and Mail, June 18, 1997)

In Steven Spielberg's 1989 movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Sean Connery and Harrison Ford ride on horseback toward what looks like a Greco-Roman temple built into the side of a rose-coloured mountain. This is the film's great visual moment, so wondrous and other-worldly that at first it looked to me like a computer-generated melding of live action with an artist's idealized painting. Could anywhere on earth be as romantic and powerful as that? But the setting turned out to be altogether real, the ancient mountain city of Petra in southern Jordan, a site that has begun attracting more tourists since Jordan and Israel made peace.

Last week I discovered for myself that Petra is both lovelier and more dramatic than any painting, photograph, or film of it. As Rose Macaulay wrote in 1953 in Pleasure of Ruins: "If ever a dead city held romance it is Petra....hewn out of ruddy rock in the midst of a mountain wilderness, sumptuous in ornament and savage in environs, poised in wildness like a great carved opal glowing in a desert, this lost caravan city staggers the most experienced traveller." It certainly staggered me.

Among its charms is an element of difficulty--it's harder to reach than many great monuments. You must walk to it, down the Siq, a mountain pass 1.2-kilometres long. A journey through nature toward culture, the walk itself unfolds as a surprising pleasure: we can admire the gorgeous variety of rock on the natural walls of the Siq as we anticipate the city up ahead. We know roughly what's at the end of the journey, because we've seen the photos, but the slow approach heightens the drama.

Does any other work of ancient architecture come with a more stirring overture? Finally we catch our first glimpse, between two gigantic protruding rock formations, of enormous Corinthian columns on the Treasury, the most famous of Petra's buildings and the one Spielberg used to symbolize arcane mysteries.

It's 45 metres tall, a work of 2,000-year-old architecture elaborately carved into the pink sandstone by men who hung on ropes from the top of the mountain. The mountain that faces the Treasury has protected much of it from sandstorms and driving rain, but over the centuries the facade has gradually changed. Sculptures on either side of the main door once depicted horses and men; time has worn away the men's heads, making the results look startlingly like the work of Henry Moore. The building is called the Treasury because people used to imagine it contained a cache of coins and jewels. It's scarred by hundreds of bullet holes, the bullets having been fired at the facade by Bedouin tribesmen hoping to dislodge hidden riches.

The Treasury was in fact merely a tomb, and for just one man, a ruler of the Nabatean Arabs, who built Petra and used it as their capital for four centuries before the birth of Christ. The Nabateans grew rich by taxing the caravans that passed nearby, and Petra became richer still after the Nabatean kingdom was annexed as a province of Rome. In its ruins, archeologists have identified 800 tombs, along with a market, a forum, shops, baths, and a huge Roman amphitheatre, built into the mountain.

Petra began a long decline in the third century CE, when caravan routes shifted elsewhere. Later the Crusaders controlled it, and built a mountaintop castle. But after Saladin drove them back to Europe in the 12th century, Petra vanished from the world's maps. Its location was known only to certain Bedouins, perhaps descendants of the Nabateans, who used it as their home base.

Early in the 19th century, J. L. Burkhardt, a Swiss explorer, thought that the stories he heard about a secret mountain enclave sounded a lot like the Petra that writers on ancient history were then calling "a lost city." He went there in 1812, disguised as an Arab, and became the first westerner at Petra in seven centuries. Like most modern tourists, he spent less than a day, but left a vivid description in his book, Travels in Arabia. The Bedouins were not famous for hospitality, but many explorers and authors followed Burkhardt to the site and eventually made it famous.

Bedouins were still living there a few decades ago, when the Jordanian government began developing Petra as a tourist site. The Bedouins were moved to a village that was built for them nearby, but some still return by day to do business. Last week one of the tombs, while it had no storefront sign to mar the ancient design, turned out to be a place for selling Bedouin jewelry, run by a young Englishwoman who seemed to have attached herself to a Bedouin tribe, much like earlier women from England whose desert adventures have inspired a vast literature.

Ruin-worship has a strain of the-glory-that-was-Rome sentimentality, and it's hard to avoid cliches along the lines of look-on-my-works-and-despair. Henry James thought there was something perverse and maybe heartless in the delight we take in ruins, though that didn't stop him from enjoying them. Perhaps there's something creepy about tourism based on the belief that all the best civilizations have been dead for a thousand years or so. But Petra is beyond category. Seeing it involves hours of driving, some annoying border delays, and a lot of bad food; but when someone asked me whether it was worth the trouble I said, "Good heavens, yes!" More than most remnants of antiquity, the buildings at Petra have the power to evoke the cultural texture of ancient civilization. For a period that lovingly preserves every sign of antiquity, Petra has established itself as the world's perfect ruin.

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