One of the most breathtaking aspects of Petra – for many people surpassing even the architecture – is its colourful sandstone, famously celebrated in a particular tourist’s memoirs almost 150 years ago. As the artist Edward Lear strolled up the Colonnaded Street on a visit in 1858, coolly noting “the tint of the stone… brilliant and gay beyond my anticipation”, his manservant and cook, Giorgio Kokali, burst out in delight, “Oh master, we have come into a world of chocolate, ham, curry powder and salmon!”
Agatha Christie, who visited in the 1930s, preferred to see the rocks as “blood-red”. A character in her Appointment with Death, set in Petra, comes out with a line describing the place as “very much the colour of raw beef”.
Unfortunately for posterity, however, the most famous lines on Petra’s colours are less engaging. In 1845, John William Burgon, later to become Dean of Chichester, wrote in his poem Petra:
It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,
By labour 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 minister 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That first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;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 a marvel save in Eastern clime,
A rose-red city half as old as Time.
No advertising copywriter could have dreamt up a better final line, and Burgon’s words have hung over Petra ever since: you’ll be sick of reading “rose-red city” on every map, poster and booklet by the time you leave. Tellingly, Burgon had never been to Petra when he wrote it; he finally went sixteen years later, and at least then had the humility to write, if only in a letter to his sister, “there is nothing rosy about Petra”.
Over the centuries, wind has rubbed away at the soft sandstone of Petra’s cliffs to reveal an extraordinary array of colours streaking through the stone. The most colourful facades are the Silk Tomb and the Carmine Tomb, both on the East Cliff and bedecked in bands of rainbow colours, while the cafés on the path below are set in caves no less breathtaking. Elsewhere, the lower walls of the Wadi Farasa are streaked with colour, and the Siq cliffs are striped with everything from scarlet to yellow to purple to brown, to complement the green foliage on the trees, the pink of the oleander flowers, and the deep-blue sky. The one place in Petra that’s truly “rose-red” is the Treasury, lit in the afternoons by low reflected sunlight off the pinkish walls.