Raiders of the lost art

Raiders of the lost art

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Raiders of the lost art

Petra, the historical and archaeological site, which served as the backdrop of one of Indiana Jones’ conquests, drove SARIKA PANDIT towards an expedition of the ‘lost city’ wherein she encountered enthralling sculptures and sceneries My fascination with Petra began as a child, through its dazzling glimpse in the movie Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, where it served as the backdrop to several of its climactic scenes. Its brilliantly coloured rock-cut facades evoked a sense of mystery and splendour that left an indelible impression on my young mind. Nearly two decades later, I stood against that very backdrop, grinning euphorically into a camera, experiencing a sense of awe and discovery that I am convinced was ten times what Jones felt as he charged into the chamber of the elusive Holy Grail. A few weeks earlier, in the run up to the trip, as with most of my travels, I found myself morphing into a sleuth, eager to learn every little trivia I could about it. In particular, I was curious about its moniker: The ‘lost city’. Story has it that a couple of centuries ago, a young Swiss explorer named Johann Burkhardt decided to travel to the heart of the Arabian Desert with the ambition of discovering an ancient city that he had gotten wind of, a city secreted among the rocky cliffs of Arabia and which he believed to be the lost capital of the ancient Nabataeans, an Arab nomadic tribe. Armed with nothing but an Arab robe for a guise and a Bedouin for a guide, Burkhardt intrepidly navigated the rough, jagged terrain, his efforts eventually leading him to the Al Khazneh (or the Treasury), a 45 metre high, breathtaking, columned structure carved on the face of a pink sandstone cliff, a structure which has come to embody the cultural fibre of Jordan. I was thrilled to be informed by our guide that the path we traversed to get to the Treasury was the same one that Burkhardt had navigated all those years ago — a deep and narrow ravine called the Siq Gorge, chiselled by the forces of nature into mysterious forms of dramatically tinted sandstone. There was something surreal and otherworldly about these towering formations — gazing at them, I almost felt like I had been beamed down on another planet. We slowly inched forward along the 1.5 kilometre-long canyon-like pathway of the gorge. As the minutes ticked by, the suspense heightened and yet, the Al Khazneh continued to elude us. The sun was scorching and in between glugging gallons of water and cursing myself for not having run a couple of marathons before the trip, I found myself marvelling at how the Arabs had managed to survive the harshness of this terrain then and how they continue to do so even today. Our guide briefly narrated the history of Petra as we continued to navigate the bends of the Siq. “The city was founded in the 1st century BC by the Nabataeans and was a strategic site along the spice route.” He then informed us that it had continued to prosper briefly even after the Romans captured it a couple of centuries later, however once alternate trade routes were explored, Petra began to slip into obscurity, eventually becoming a lost ghost town. It occurred to me as I surveyed the sheer number of tourists trailing ahead and behind us, that Petra might still carry its moniker, but ‘lost’, it no longer was. Finally, when we were least expecting it, we turned a corner — and suddenly there it was — the Al Khazneh in the flesh, still hidden by the cliffs of the gorge, but offering a tantalising view nonetheless. My fatigue instantly vanished, and I found myself bounding forth like a gazelle, eager to see it in all its glory. The sheer height of the structure was staggering. It was clear that not only were the Nabataeans excellent sculptors, but also excellent rock climbers. “It was built as a tomb for a Nabataean king,” our guide told us, once we gathered at its feet. The name ‘Treasury,’ he elaborated, had its origin in the belief that it held a cache of riches within its carvings. He then pointed at a scattering of holes on its surface. “See those,” he prompted, “They are bullet holes, fired centuries ago in the hopes of capturing the hidden treasure.” As I peered at those holes, I felt grateful that this sandstone beauty had managed to stay intact, resolutely unfazed by its many wounds of battle. Later, as we walked past the Treasury, I realised that it wasn’t the only well preserved architectural structure on site. Around me, several majestic, multi-layered tombs rose in different hues of red, and a little further ahead, a semi-open terraced amphitheatre stretched across the landscape while still a little further ahead, stood a monastery with ornate Corinthian pillars and more than a thousand steps, all as old as time and yet miraculously untouched. Their air of historic authenticity was so palpable, that I felt like an intruder, as if any minute the Nabataeans would peep out of those walls to carry on with the business of their day to day lives. Four hours and a lengthy hike through the dry, hot terrain later, I was convinced that we had scaled the entire length and breadth of Petra. Turned out we had seen a mere fraction of its treasures. “Even a week might not be enough to see all of it,” the guide proudly declared. “There are in all 800 tombs and temples in Petra. And archaeologists are still excavating new sites.” My mind boggled. The sheer immensity of Petra had finally struck home. That evening, as the sun cast a burst of orange above its luminous landscape, we slowly began to tread our way back to our hotel in the nearby Wadi Musa. I felt weary and utterly exhausted, but even as I dragged myself behind the rest of the group, it occurred to me that perhaps this is how it was meant to be. Petra had been built such that we mortals earn the right to glimpse its secrets, its hidden treasures. Perhaps the Nabataeans knew that would make their discovery all the more sweet.Source

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