Sandip Hor travels through Jordan for a firsthand experience of the region's most exotic architecture that still dazzles human imagination.

“I want the rose-red city of Petra,” replied Cleopatra when Caesar asked the Egyptian Pharaoh what she wanted as her birthday gift.

Though the Roman Emperor never baulked at the idea, Petra's fame as the earth's most pompous and wealthy city of the time, continued to soar and over time earned it a place into the realms of the wonders, alongside Taj Mahal in India and the Great Wall in China. Presently located in southern Jordan, 220 km out of capital Amman, Petra was built in the 3rd century BC by the Nabataean Kings, who originally came from old Arabia and established a settlement in a deep valley between the harsh mountains, in the middle of the exotic trade route between the Persian Gulf and Damascus. They became immensely prosperous by trading frankincense and myrrh and by imposing tax from foreign merchants, wanting a safe passage through the terrain. The wealth generated was not wasted, but utilised to carve out of the soft sandstone mountain rocks, a plethora of mausoleums, temples and monasteries. The opulence of the stunning architecture dazzled human imagination and made contemporary cities like Alexandria and Rome envious.

However around 8th century AD, the site — just as Machu Pichu and Angkor Wat — was mysteriously abandoned and remained shielded from the outside world, until 1812, when Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt stumbled on it and unveiled to the world, the relics of the lost empire.

A world wonder

This incredible site, particularly after being voted in 2007 as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is swarmed everyday with visitors like me, who believe no matter how much you have read or seen images before, nothing beats the first hand experience. The thrill begins the moment you enter the valley through one of Petra's most awe inspiring natural feature, a km-long deep canyon, called the Siq, which was formed by the tectonic forces splitting the mountain.

You can get horses or horse driven carts to cover the distance, but I walk with my guide Akram through the narrow and winding stone-pathway, to make it truly walking in the footsteps of history; the sensuous colouring of the sandstone and extraordinary artwork on the edging walls coming as a bonus. When wondering where this gorge will end, a narrow bend appears and then unexpectedly a highly ornamental edifice, whose rose red colour is shimmering in bright daylight, becomes visible through a slim split in the gorge. The dramatic visual assault hypnotizes me for a while; later Akram confirms it as a usual reaction of first-time visitors.

Regaining senses, I step out with gusto into the open air and stand rapt in front of Petra's signature monument, the Treasury, which was built by the Nabataeans, a century before Christ, to impress every visitor who stepped into their land. Surely the appealing effect still remains undiminished. Two millennia of heat and dust, wind and rain have blemished some grandeur off the structure, but oddly enough the monument's fresh appearance surprises me, the same way, it startled 19{+t}{+h} century poet Dean John William Burgon who aptly characterised the ruins as the “rose-red city half as old as time”.

Like most structures in Petra, the 40m high and 30m wide Treasury building is not a freestanding edifice, but a classical façade, chiseled out of the sides of sheer sandstone cliffs. It derives its name from a popular belief that a Nabatean King hid all his treasures in the massive urn of the façade, far from the reach of humans. So for many years the locals spent countless hours firing ammunition at it, hoping jewels will shower from there; instead they received chunks of stones.

Petra is far more than a rock carving or two — it is an entire ghost town of many acres. A sandy pathway from the plaza in front of the Treasury, called Outer Siq leads on to the main colonnaded street of the ruined city that still boasts of several imposing Royal tombs, some as high as 50m, an ancient Roman style theatre that was meticulously cut into a hillside, magnificent temples, a mountain top monastery which can be only reached by a hour's strenuous climb, storage rooms and myriad stone cut constructions whose unknown purpose adds to the mystery that has always shrouded the capital of the Nabateans. Not finding any signs of domestic dwelling I interestingly learn from Akram that people then used to live in tents. “The structures discovered so far, mostly represent tombs and religious sites, so in one sense what you are exploring today is nothing but a decorative graveyard, like the Pyramids of Egypt,” he quotes.

Glowing colours

I clamber up to a raised plateau from where the vista of the surrounding landscape below appears breathtaking. The glowing colours of the different fascias, described by most as “rose red”, though novelist Agatha Christie saw it “blood red” and few even compared it with the colours of raw beef, pink salmon, ham or chocolates, are a feast for the eyes. This kaleidoscope of colours, which changes as the sun moves from east to west, is a fascinating feature of Petra, which scores more than the actual architectural marvels. As the sun dips behind the mountains, I enter the Siq once again, sadly leaving behind the lost city to snooze alone in silent darkness, until awakened by the light of newly risen sun.