"A Rose-red City Half As Old As Time"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: The English poet and minister, the Reverend John W. Burgon, born in Smyrna, the son of a Turkish merchant, portrayed the ruins of Petra in a long descriptive poem in rhymed couplets, of which only one line is remembered today. There is very little left of a city that dates back at least to the fourth century B.C. Since then it has been captured and recaptured by Arab, Greek, Roman, and Frank. It lies in Jordan, in a valley near the Gulf of Aqaba, and once was the center of a great trade route. It was the capital of the ancient Natateans who inhabited Arabia from Syria to Arabia and from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. Their history can be carried back at least to 312 B.C., when Antigonus I vainly laid siege to Petra. Tombs nearby date all the way from pre-Hellenic times through the period of the Ptolomies. In 106, the region was absorbed into the Roman Empire as Arabia Petraea. Strabo (63? B.C.–A.D. 24) described it in his Geography (XVI, 779) as did Pliny (23–79) in his Natural History (VI, 32). It was also mentioned during the First Crusades, when the Franks held it briefly. Its appearance offers a fantastic and romantic sight, the work of some enchanter. Unlike the white ruins in Greece or the gray cathedrals (a "minster fane" is a large cathedral) on the hills or plains of Europe, the ruins of Petra have the pink hue of sunrise, reminding the onlooker that they date from the dawn of time. A realist trying to calculate the age imputed to it by the poet might ask: "How old is Time?" but the figure is at least striking and poetic. The poem won the Newdigate Prize at Oxford in 1845 and was printed there in that year; the section containing the one famous line has often been reprinted separately. Wrote Dr. Burgon:

It seems no work of man's creative hand
By labor wrought as wavering fancy plann'd,
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
Eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like the old Doric shrine
Where erst Athene held her rites divine;
Nor saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
That crowns the hill, and consecrates the plain;
But rosy-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That first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;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 men deemed old two thousand years ago.
Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
A rose-red city half as old as Time.