Beyond Stendhal: Emotional Worlds or Emotional Tourists?


  • Mike Robinson


Some years ago I visited the World Heritage Site of Petra in Jordan, the ancient Nabatean City built into encircling red sandstone cliffs. Without any detailed knowledge of the Nabateans and their place in the history of the region, it is clearly an impressive place by virtue of its scale, by virtue of the craft of its construction and, particularly, by virtue of its seeming seclusion. I was especially struck by the way the site seems to have its own physical narrative, which blends the natural features of the deeply gorged cliffs with the creativity of its sixth century BCE founders in striving to hide this city from the rest of the world, and, also, the creativity of those who have long recognised the allure of the place to visitors. For most visitors, to reach this ancient site you have to walk, and the walk takes you from a relatively commonplace and bustling entrance of open, rough and stony land which promises little, through a high-sided and, at times, claustrophobic narrow gorge – known as the ‘siq’ – to a position where your sight is drawn from bare wall and dusty ground to a powerful vision; a true glimpse into another world. For as one moves out of the siq, one is faced with the sheer power of a monument; the magnificent façade of what is known as the Treasury, carved out of, and into, the solid wall of the high cliffs. This impressive monumentalism is repeated a number of times as the valley opens up to the skies, and one is able to wander through what feels like a hidden kingdom. But it is the drama of the first encounter with the Treasury as it is perceived as one emerges through the narrowness of the gorge which impresses the most and which causes the tourist cameras to click. My visit was technically not as a leisure tourist but as an academic engaged with the place as a heritage site and, though I remember feeling impressed, it was, in truth, hardly more than a fleeting affect.