Petra, that fabled land immortalised in Burgon’s poem, was not included in the plan when I first got to Egypt, but given the chance for a daytrip there to see that ancient wonder, I felt like I couldn’t pass it up. So at the devillish hour of 4am, we piled into a mini bus that threaded its way across the mountains from Dahab to Taba, the port that overlooks the joining of three lands – Jordan, Israel and Egypt. It is an old land that we pass, touched by ancient civilisations, modern wars. It is in these desert plains that Moses wandered with the Chosen exiles for forty years, here in this sun-touched sands that dreams and dust comingled, here where lives have been tangled and mangled for more conflicted years than we like to remember.
We board a tiny boat that tosses and turns with the waves, sailing across the Gulf of Aqaba on a blue sunny day. On arrival at Aqaba, we are met by our tour guide and drive off north towards the fabled rose red city, through the precarious town of Wadi Musa, perched on the cliffside. It is Friday and noon prayers are just over as we arrive. The streets are thronged with men heading to the mosque.
Petra feels alive still, thrumming with the energy of the people who visit to ooh and aah over its carvings, over the mysterious buildings hewn into rose red rock. The colours are soft and dramatic, ranging in shades from creamy gold to clear silver to ochre, scarlet, carmine, rose, dusky pink and back again. We spot some donkeys, decked out in bells and whistles. The camels glance at us with lofty expressions, their great splayed feet kicking up dust as they trot along at a breakneck pace. Petra is a surreal city, a place that time forgot.
It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,
By labor wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
Eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
Where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
That crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
That first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
Which Man deemed old two thousand years ago.
Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
A rose-red city half as old as time.