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The International Writers Magazine: Petra

Petrified ………………
Piotr Wesolowski
The way wound down ... through a labyrinth of red cliffs. They towered now on either side. Sarah felt stifled – menaced by the ever narrowing gorge. ... It grew dark –the vivid red of the walls faded. - Agatha Christie, Appointment with Death


The gorge leads  to a stunning view of  the Treasury,  Al-Khazneh  which towers over a circular crevice tucked in between the skyhigh jebels. Petra, begins here; sandy pathways  stretch on through the ruined city whose secrets may still  be buried.   Endless stairs sculptured in rock and smoothed by centuries of erosion wind their way in and out of narrow canyons, cool and airless  and often crowned with cavernous tombs hewn  entirely in glaringly pink rock.

It is likely here in Petra that Christie met Max Mallowan. It is likely  here that she fell in love with him and with the antiquity.  They married and for  nearly thirty years shared time  on various archeological digs in the Middle East.

The beauty of the desert  "that wide sea of sand with its lovely pale colours of apricot, rose, blue and mauve changing every minute.” captivated her imagination. And she set several stories  amidst this  landscape -  its desolate dunes,  its busy streets teeming with noisy merchants, the  cities' minarets.  The Middle East provides the backdrop for Death on the Nile and Murder in Mesopotamia  But as I trudge my tired feet up the steep stairs leading to ad-Dair, a monumental structure that sits atop the highest elevation in Petra, I think of  Appointment with Death   Christie referred to Petra as “a dead city” or “The Valley of Death”. What is in fact left of the great Nabataean culture is tombs, and more tombs. But Christie  was likely  far from giving in to the first impression; hers is a deep reflection on time, on the transient nature of things.  Still, perhaps because of the scorching heat of the sun, the exhaustion, thirst - Petra appears to me unreal, ephemeral  - carved in rock, and chiselled in time.

Soon I am able enjoy a moment of respite. I drink hot tea – sugared and served with mint in a glass tumbler that burns my fingers.  I chat with accidental friends united here by a shared sense of marvel. I stretch my blistered feet and indulge in the comfort of a thick carpet that covers the sand floor in a Bedouin tent. From here I see the mountains' ridge still bathed in the crepuscular mist. Soon though the first stars begin to dot the sky. I think I have witnessed a moment of eternity. “The lure of the past came up to grab me”  as Christie said in her autobiography.  These rocks, these mountains take me back to the beginnings of time.

An hour or so later I begin my descent and it  is dark when I reach al-Siq, the gorge that makes for an entrance to the ancient city. Rows of candles placed in paper bags light my way out. It is almost time for the night tour of Petra. I am likely the last person to leave the place. A caravan of tourists will appear here shortly. They will carry torches. The sight will be spectacular, or ridiculous.

I shall return here tomorrow, I promise to myself.  I shall  take one last glimpse of the awe inspiring Al-Khazneh.  There is a trail, I was told,  that will take me all the way to view it from above – from the top of the highest jebel.  I will pass by the amphitheatre. Perhaps an ideal setting for Appointment with Death, the play.  Petra is one of the world’s greatest gems. For centuries it fed the imagination of poets and writers  - John William Burgon and of course  Agatha Christie   I will try to be here at dawn. I will try to avoid the crowd that crams  the little plaza at the end of the sinuous gorge.  I may  then  see  the “rose-red city half as old as time”as it really  is   “...eternal, silent, beautiful, alone! Piotr Wesolowski

© Piotr Wesolowski March 2011

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