Petra: The Prophetic Story Behind the Rose Tinted Rock
The name Petra usually evokes one very specific image: a giant, imposing structure, carved into the sandstone rock of the Jabal al-Madbah in the Arabah valley. The ‘Treasury’ (al-Khazneh), named by local bedouins who believed it contained treasures, looted and then hidden inside by bandits, was built as a mausoleum for the Nabatean King Aretas IV at the beginning of the first century AD. Though always the prime focus of tourist photos, it plays a part in a bigger story, one that is particularly significant for Muslims.
Hidden in a basin between mountains and built for an estimated 20,000 inhabitants, Petra sits quietly, as an open city, visited by thousands of curious souls. Archaeologists believe the area was inhabited as far back as 9000 BC. It was once the capital city of the Northern Arabian tribe of the Nabateans, a nomadic tribe that roamed the Arabian desert and settled in Petra in modern day Jordan. They became important players in trade with the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and their kingdom stretched between Jordan, Syria, Palestine, the Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia. Nabatean structures still stand in Palestine and Syria, but the most significant (for reasons I will come to) is Mada’in Saleh in Saudi Arabia, the largest Nabatean settlement outside of Petra. The wealth of the Nabateans, apparent in the magnificent structures they built, was gained through incense trade, with Petra lying at a convergence of several important trade routes.
Yet within this archeological haven, lies another side of the story, one with which Muslims are familiar also. The experience of visiting Petra, and other Nabatean ruins, is not only a trip to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but one back into Prophetic history, predating Islam, to the time of the Prophet Salih.
The Nabateans are believed to be the people of Thamud (God knows best), mentioned in the Qur’an; they fell into idol worship and the Prophet Salih’s mission was to call them to the Oneness of God. He called on them to repent, and in response, they insisted he summon a she-camel from the mountain. In the Qur’an, God says, “And We gave Thamud the she-camel as a visible sign, but they wronged her. And We send not the signs except as a warning” (17:59). After seeing the divine sign, only a few became believers, accepting the Prophet Salih’s message; the others still disbelieved, and so God sent an earthquake, destroying the people of Thamud. It is thought that the site at which this took place, is Mada’in Saleh in modern day Saudi Arabia. (NOTE: this most likely took place before the building of the Khazneh, which has been dated to the first century AD, given that the Prophet Salih appeared before the Prophet Isa (peace be upon them both)).
Standing at the foot of the great Khazneh, imposing and impressive as it is, this story is a sobering reminder that all great civilisations fall eventually, and none can match the might of God.
I was studying Arabic in Egypt, and along with three other students, decided to make a quick trip to Jordan, during the holidays. Our time was limited, and so we hired a driver to take us to visit Petra.
Once you get on the path leading to the Khazneh, you are offered camels, horses and donkeys to ride by local bedouins, but I opted to walk, wanting to take my time along the route, flanked by rose-colored rock. Though it is a site over-photographed (and over-Instagrammed), catching your first glimpse of the Khazneh through the Bab al-Siq (the narrow gorge, a natural geological fault believed by scientists to have been split apart by tectonic forces), is pretty spectacular- and savour it, before it becomes crowded by tourists just like you 🙂
There are bedouin guides available, but we decided to explore with the aid of the free maps you are given when you buy your entrance tickets. There are also language guides, but that was not an option on our student budget.
We walked beyond the Khazneh on a path inwards towards other buildings and reliefs. What once were homes and buildings, built within the mountains, are a sign mentioned in the Quran, “and they used to carve from the mountains, houses, feeling secure” (15:81). Now with fewer tourists around us, it became understandable why the people of Thamud had believed their concealed abodes (just like these) and clever engineering would protect them, but in the end, the sheer weight and immensity of the rock they so relied on, became their very downfall. It was a sobering thought.
The vastness of the carved out spaces within the mountain, meant that the echo was spectacular. The hafiz (one who has memorised the Qur’an) in our group, tested out the acoustics, and the beauty of God’s words as they bounced off the walls of sedimentary rock. The layers of various shades of pink, burnt orange, and golden beiges were beautiful.
Along the way, we had the honour of sitting down and drinking tea with bedouin women, totally unplanned and unexpected. We had simply walked past tents and stalls, free of any tourists, and with a few words of greeting and smiles, they had invited us in. Language is not necessarily a barrier here, with hospitality being a key part of bedouin culture. That being said, a nice gesture would be to bring something to offer them in return (unfortunately we hadn’t thought of this, and so could only offer a bag of Cheetos).
The eldest woman of the group, explained that she had spent her whole life living within the confines of old Petra and Wadi Musa, the town beside it. Not all her children had chosen the life of Petra, but she felt her heart was here, connecting with the curious souls that came to visit her home. What to us was a simply a destination to visit and tick off the list, was for her, home, the place in which she had spent her entire life.
She gave us a glimpse into her life within the confines of her tent. The red and black motif of the woven tent material, synonymous with bedouin culture, insulates during cold nights and cools on hot days. The small lead hob, which had probably cooked hundreds of meals and fed countless mouths, boiled our tea. Through our conversation, she revealed that the Jordanian authorities were trying to relocate bedouins like her into modern homes with electricity and running water. Her life in Petra then, was not only a personal choice, but an act of survival, to keep past traditions alive and to protect bedouin culture for the next generation.
After our unexpected break, we continued on our walk, and began to trek upward into higher land. As we set off, there were signposts along the route, but they became more and more sparse. We passed more bedouin than tourists, who became few and far between after what was probably around two hours. The path wasn’t clear, and we had to pay careful attention walking along the uneven rocks. Appropriate footwear is key- and long dresses and wide-leg trousers don’t cut it here.
When we finally reached the top, there was a couple already there, talking in their surroundings, and we were gifted with a stunning view of the Khazneh from above. There was barbed wire on the edge of the rock probably to protect tourists from the possibility of falling. It was only when we found a way to get closer that we realised just how high up we were.
Our trek downwards began with Maghrib adhan, and I felt a little anxious at the thought of going back with no guide and fading light. Solo travellers (i.e. travellers with no guide) are recommended to leave before sunset, but as we had only arrived in the afternoon, we hadn’t finished in time. Thankfully, the night was clear and the moon lit the path, at least a few steps ahead. We put our trust in God and slowly made our way down.
When we finally got back to our driver, he joked that he thought we had fallen asleep. Later that evening, back with WIFI, we found out that our little adventure wandering off-track had been more careless than we thought; there was a story of a traveller, who had come for his 10th visit no less, had gotten lost and eventually died. The path we had taken had been graded ‘hard’ on the Petra site and a guide was recommended due to the heights involved and the possible danger of rock avalanches. Furthermore, there were stories online of solo female travellers being targeted and drugged. We thanked God for keeping us safe, and I mention all of this now simply to advise would-be Petra travellers to tie your camels; take a guide and all the relevant precautions.
Petra was a reminder of historical civilisations rising and falling; of people placing their trust in other than God and paying the ultimate price. It was an example of ancient people still preserving ancient ways, though now faced with the uncontrollable tide of modernity. There is more to Petra than the Instagrammable photo; just don’t wander off near sunset to find it 😉
It is a good idea to stay in a hotel in Wadi Musa or in Petra and buy a 2 or 3 day entrance ticket. The price difference is minimal: 1 day: 50JD, 2 days: 55JD and 3 days: 60JD and it gives your more time to explore your surroundings.
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