The carved rock city of Petra is widely acclaimed as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and a wonder it is. Participants in the Campbell University Divinity School “Bible Lands Study Tour” visited the site May 24, most with wonder in their eyes.
Petra is located in the southern part of Jordan on the northern edge of the old Edomite kingdom and just south of land claimed by the Moabites. Petra was home to the Nabateans, a little-known group who populated the land for about 800 years, with their real floresence coming between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D., before they were finally conquered by the Romans.
The Nabateans survived as long as they did because their city was located in a hidden valley, a deep cleft near the top of a rocky mountain range. The only entrance into the city is through a narrow crack in the mountain caused by an earthquake, and that lone entrance, called the Bab el Siq, guarded by steep walls on both sides, made it very defensible.
Petra requires a lot of walking, but before the day was over most of us had ridden a horse cart, a donkey, a camel, or a horse. Everyone was able to tour the main area of the city, best known to many people as the site where the climactic scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed.
The remaining city consists mainly of a series of impressive monuments and facades carved from the soft sandstone mountain, its striated shades ranging from yellow to orange, to red and brown. Although the apparent buildings look like temples, palaces, or government buildings, they were actually tombs carved for use by royal or wealthy families.
Two smaller groups trekked either to the so-called “Monastery,” an even larger tomb that requires more than 900 steps to reach, or to the “High Place of Sacrifice,” which calls for a similarly steep climb involving slightly fewer steps.Three intrepid young men (Michael Tyndall, Wallace Johnson, and Al Whitehouse) were determined to make both climbs, and they finished on time and in good fashion.
Having visited both sites on a previous trip, I chose to go with the group climbing to the high place of sacrifice, and was happy that I remembered the way, since signs are scarce and bedouin are keen on volunteering as guides, for a fee. The high place consists of a three sided seating area carved into the mountain top, with a table in the middle, facing two structures that served several functions of an altar. The one on the right may have been used for ceremonial washing, though some think it was used for burning or cooking the animal (it’s not known for sure whether humans were sacrificed there). The altar to the left has a circular hollow in the top with a channel cut through which blood could be collected in a cup or jar.
All of the structures were carved from mountain rock, with surrounding rock whittled away to leave what remains. Just being in such a place, with majestic views of the mountains and valleys all around, knowing that this was a place where sacrifices to other gods were held, brought powerful feelings.
At the end of a tiring but rewarding visit we walked to a nearby restaurant for lunch, then boarded our bus for a three-plus hour drive to Amman. The day’s only glitch came when the bus had a flat tire, requiring us to stop at a roadside fix-it shop to change the tire. Our 7:30 p.m. arrival at the Crowne Plaza was welcome to all.
Tomorrow we sleep a little later before visiting Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan (the most likely place of Jesus’ baptism), then crossing the border back into Israel and heading south to Masada. At the end of the day we will happily settle in to the same hotel for four days at a kibbutz called Ramat Rachel (pronounced “Ra-quel”). Significantly, the hotel is located on the southern outskirts of the city so many have come to see, Jerusalem.