CASTLES OF THE DESERT
Along the royal road, from east to west, signs of prosperity and the impact trade had on the small civilisations dotted around the Persian Empire can still be seen today. The Nabataeans, a tribe of ancient settlers from southern Jordan, had been using a convoy of camels and donkeys to embark on the dangerous journey, to bring back highly priced goods. The wealth generated from trade was used to build the mysterious desert city of Petra, described as an engineering masterpiece, with superstructures carved out of solid rock. It’s most elaborate building ‘Al Khazneh’ is decorated with a columned portico, towering as high as a twelve-storey building and ornamented with delicate details and dramatic sculptures. It is the grand façade of a 2,000 year old city, with chambers reaching deep into the core of the cliff. Beyond the city gate, the narrow winding canyon leads to the ruins of a lost civilisation. The sophistication of the society which existed there, can be seen through the intact remains of its temples, amphitheatre, tombs and rock-cut homes. Recent archaeological discoveries, show the ingenuity of the building techniques found in Petra. Buildings were not constructed as we know from the ground up, but were carved out of the soft sandstone face from top to bottom. The genius of these ancient craftsmen lay in how they made use of the natural terraces, cut out on the plateau. By sculpturing the natural terrain into platforms, they wedged their way up to the top of their construction site Many of the staircases carved out into winding routes around the cliff side, can still be seen today. But the impressive scale of Petra and its building techniques, were not what symbolised the advancement of its society.
The entrance of Petra is situated on the path of the Siq. This is a dim, narrow gorge worn smooth by the erosion of flood water gushing along its fault. The region is known for erratic, unpredictable and sudden gushing floods. The rain is sometimes so heavy that the ground cannot soak the downpour. Instead, it triggers destructive flash floods with prominent levels of debris. To control the flood and guarantee a continuous source of fresh water, the Nabataeans thus built the same network of threaded channels, dams and underground reservoirs as the ancient Mesopotamians. It combines sophisticated water management techniques, with hydraulic engineering. The gate of Petra is adorned with sculptures of ancient mythical figurines and floral motifs as opposed to the simple geometric blocks the first Nabateans used to depict their gods. The sculptures found carved on the face of ‘Al Khazneh’ have been identified as Amazons; the female warriors in Greek mythology. Also, the crown of the Egyptian female goddess of Ises is displayed just below the head of the Greek monster Medusa. This is a sign of the influences the Nabataeans were exposed to during their travel. Their motivation behind the route across the desert grew from an ambition of great wealth, to a mission to collect ideas and develop an understanding of how other cultures coexisted and evolved. So impressed were they by what they saw, that they put their effort into carving out a façade, which mimicked the great civilisations they encountered along the way. These ancient merchants joined the lucrative business and become pioneers in the trade because of the Arabian Peninsula’s location at the crossroads between Europe, Africa and Asia. The Silk Road evolved to link the three continents commercially, culturally and scientifically.