At midday, Petra’s landscape is stunning. Even if there were not a lost ancient city built into its mountains, you would still go to see it. You would go simply to experience the geology of it. You would go to climb its red hills, gaze out over Jordan from its rocky cliffs and run your hands along its smooth, rounded rocks, worn away by wind over thousands of years. You would go to watch the shape and color and shadow of the rocks morph with the changing light at different times of day.
But Petra is more than just geology. Its intricate façades of temples that combine elements of Roman, Greek and Egyptian architecture are carved into the crimson mountain. They make what would otherwise be merely one of the most breathtaking experiences of one’s life one of the most curious as well: how exactly did the Nabateans carve these buildings into the rock? The facades nearly put more well-known classical structures to shame. The Parthenon once impressed me. But it’s just a freestanding structure built from stone. Petra’s temples are somehow carved right into the sides of mountains. I may never be awed by a Corinthian column in Europe again now that I’ve seen one that is just as ornate, symmetrical and delicate scraped out of the side of a cliff.
Yet once you step inside the temples you find yourself in a simple, hollowed-out cave: O Potemkin temple. The Nabateans built these impressive structures at Petra as places to worship their gods. The contrast between the exteriors and interiors of the temples and tombs is puzzling. Did the Nabateans think that their gods only cared about the facades of the buildings? Was the central tenet of their religion that it’s what’s outside, not what’s inside, that counts? Or is the startling contrast between an elaborately carved façade and the cave it fronts simply an acknowledgement of the limits of engineering? My understanding of the Nabateans is so embarrassingly small that I cannot begin to answer these questions.
If Petra by day amazes, Petra by night enchants. Candles in simple luminarias light the path through the siq, the gorge that is the primary entrance to the city. My young son clings to my hand as we walk through the night. We imagine that we are a mother and son walking the same moonlit path thousands of years ago. The moon reflects off of the sides of the gorge, illuminating the siq to transform it once again. Its beauty makes the elaborate Nabatean temples seem unnecessary. Surely if divinity is present anywhere, it must be here in the reflection of moonlight on mountains.