Cast in Sandstone: A Passage Through Petra

Tombs and canals carved in red sandstone offer a peek into the life of the Nabateans, who built this ancient city that is now among the New Seven Wonders of the World.

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For those too old or unfit to complete the trail on foot, there’s the option of horse carts that come draped in bright fabrics typical of Bedouin tenements. Photo by Abhishek Hajela.

Two reasons make me break into goosebumps the minute I enter Petra. One, this architectural marvel, discovered in 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt, was the Nabatean Empire’s capital around fourth century B.C. and it is amongst the New Seven Wonders of the World. Two, I’m also freezing. The wind smacks my face with such intensity that I can barely speak or keep pace with my guide Isam’s swift strides or the golden nuggets of history that roll off his tongue, well-rehearsed and animated.

Past the Visitors’ Centre, we’re sprinting down a pathway flanked by structures of importance to reach the Siq before a French clan behind us does. The Siq encompasses a 1.2-kilometre-long trail, snaking through a narrow sandstone gorge, at the end of which is stands Petra’s showstopper, Al Khazneh or the Treasury.

But even before we hit the Siq, remnants of Nabatean life can be seen cast in pinkish-brown sandstone. Private family tombs lay nestled within rocks, etched on their facades are steps that supposedly symbolise one’s descent to heaven. “Private cemeteries were prided even then aah,” Isam says, breaking into a smile, “and nothing changed a couple of thousand years later.”

Another landmark here are the djinn blocks. Stone towers with a crater on top “to pour down ashes”—this is how Isam explains the three funerary monuments whose purpose remains contentious. But the belief is that they were constructed in the hope that djinns, or genies, will bring the dead to life. Legends apart, the Nabateans were proficient hydraulic engineers, and their mastery reflects in the way the water courses are charted along the canyon: a dam, recreational pools, irrigation channels.

Petra 1

The Siq (left) encompasses a 1.2-kilometre trail, snaking through a narrow sandstone gorge, at the end of which lies Petra’s showstopper, the Treasury (right). Photos by Abhishek Hajela.

The passage is lined with numerous life-sized sculptures. One of them looks like a catfish. “Is it a male or female? I’ll give souvenir if you guess right,” Isam quizzes me. Female, I say disinterestedly. “Wrong. That’s a male,” he supplies the answer, laughing. “You know why? Because its mouth is shut.” I let the sexism slide because he still has to show me the Treasury. But Isam is on a roll. Standing next to another sculpture of an old bearded man leading a camel caravan, touching the man’s staff he utters, “Made in China.” Two young Chinese women standing beside us walk away, giggling.

My first glimpse of the Treasury is framed by the gorges. It is 131 feet high. Because entry is restricted, Isam unravels the mystery behind the Treasury over Turkish coffee at a humble café opposite the monument. “This sure is a treasure for Jordan but this was not a treasury for the Nabateans,” he reveals. Holding a laminated photo of the Treasury, he points to an urn above the entrance. It is riddled with holes. “Ancient tribes thought a pharaoh hid some gold here. That’s why the name Treasury. They shot it with arrows but nothing came out.” Inside the Treasury, says Isam, actually rested a king. “It was a tomb. But religious ceremonies also took place.” The carvings, interestingly, sum up an entire calendar year: 12 leaves for 12 months, 30 flowers for 30 days, 7 cups for a week.

Fourth wonder of the world checked off my bucket list, I start my ascent back to the Visitors’ Centre. By the time I reach, the blazing afternoon sun leaves me parched and panting and it is here that I bump into a fellow Indian, a middle-aged sardar. “You come up the same way you go down, sister?” he asks, visibly affected by the enormity of his environs. I nod. “This treasury better be worth it,” I hear him mumble as he walks away. “It is,” I shout back.



  • Humaira Ansari is a certified nihari-lover who travels with an open mind and lots of earbuds. She invests a lot of time and Wi-Fi in planning her itineraries. She loves neighbourhood walks, meals at a local’s home, and discovering a city's nightlife. She is former Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.


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