In The Wind-Sculpted City Of The Nabateans

A journey of discovery through the stunning rock-cut caves and elaborate mausoleums of Petra

The temple-mausoleum of Al Khazneh in the ancient city of Petra in Jordan

Jordan is a wondrous little land steeped in history. It could also have an Indian connection, as we discovered, unexpectedly. We had come to an arid little town, backed by bare mountains, to visit what an inspired writer had called “Rose-red Petra, half as old a Time.” After reading about it, dreaming about it, and now, chasing after our dream, we perched ourselves, precariously, on a rickety, aromatic horse cart, and galloped away. For 1,200 metres, we swung, stumbled, creaked and jingled through a deep gash in the bare mountains. Often, the sides of the ravine rose 80 metres high, cutting off the sun, amplifying the thuds of our horse’s hooves.

Our muscles ached while balancing on our jogging buggy. Our eyes dazzled at the flicker-swift passage of grotesquely windsculpted rocks. It was a bizarre ride.

Then, wonder swept like a balm over us. There, ahead, through a cleft in the ravine, constricted like the eye of a needle, was Petra. And yes, it was rose-red. We drew up in a piazza, micro-dotted with ‘time-pilgrims’ like us, gazing around in disbelief. A whole winding canyon, a siq, had been carved into tombs, palaces, churches, theatres, dwellings, and even a high place of sacrifice atop a great flight of stone stairs.

The most striking structure in this sculptured city is the so-called Treasury, the Al-Khazneh, 30 metres wide and 40 metres high. It really is the tomb of an ancient ruler. The people who designed all this, from the 4th century BC to the 2nd century AD, could afford to entomb their dead in structures ranging from rock-cut caves to elaborate mausoleums. We walked through this monumental town, mingling with ogling, clicking tourists strolling, or riding on camels and horses.

The Royal Tombs included the Urn Tomb, the largest of the royal tombs; the Street of Facades which looked very Roman but had really been built by the citizens of Petra in the first century AD; and the Theatre which could once have held 7,000 spectators. We had to knit together information from many sources to discover more about these highly talented people. The Nabateans were Arabs – quick-witted nomads with an intimate knowledge of the desert. They had discovered that bitumen floated up from the bottom of the Dead Sea in sticky rafts. Bitumen is a tarlike substance found naturally, occurring as residues when organic substances are heated. This was in great demand, especially in the case of the Pharaonic people of Egypt who used it for embalming their mummies, and by the sea-faring Mesopotamians to caulk their ships. Then, the Nabateans discovered that they were needed as guides for the silk, spice and incense caravans from China, India and the Mediterranean. They knew where to camp and where the hidden sources of water lay. As their reputation grew, their power burgeoned.

Sadly, their growing strength worried the Romans and they launched repeated attacks against the Nabateans, weakening them. A great earthquake finally made them abandon their city. Petra was, virtually, lost to history – a vague legend circulating among the Bedouin. Then, early in the 19th century, a Swiss traveller named John Burckhardt, disguising himself as an Indian fakir, rediscovered Petra.

Just as we were climbing onto our boneshaking horse cart again, a bearded guide strolled up to us. “Excuse me,” he said. “You are from India?”

“That’s right.”

He held out his hand and shook ours warmly. “We must thank you. If Burckhardt had not disguised himself as an Indian, our ancestors would never have allowed him into Petra. You see, after the tar-trade stopped, Petra was sustained by the spice caravans from India. Thank you again… ”

His comment got us thinking. Contacts between civilizations are always two-way streets. What were the cultural bridges between our two civilisations? We got no answers in Petra.

Then, quite unexpectedly, we visited a museum in the old citadel high above Jordan’s capital, Amman. There, among the excellently displayed antiquities, we discovered some very curious figurines. The Nabateans worshipped a Mother Goddess. She was multi-armed and looked very familiar to us. Was the term Nabatean derived from a more familiar Indic term? Did the spice-trading Nabateans originally call themselves “Ma Bhaktians”, mispronounced through a sand-excluding scarf?