Petra, a desert dream

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The Treasury building at Petra dating from the 1st Century is the most famous image of the site. It sits at the end of a long slot canyon called the Siq.
The Treasury building at Petra dating from the 1st Century is the most famous image of the site. It sits at the end of a long slot canyon called the Siq. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

PETRA, Jordan -- Glimpsing the Treasury building at the end of mile-long hike down a narrow slot canyon -- bright in the sun against the shadow of the cliff walls -- has something of the quality of a mirage.

It's hard to make out what you're seeing, and hard to believe what your eyes are telling you when you see it.

And it is certainly one of those moments that travelers live for. As the canyon opens up and takes a turn to the right, there before you stands a 120-foot-tall monument from the 1st century carved into the face of a solid rock cliff and preserved in such amazing detail that it seems to have been crafted just yesterday.

I came to Jordan as part of a group attending the Travel Leaders Network International Summit. It's an annual event that affords 80 or 90 agents affiliated with Travel Leaders a look at someplace far off but with potential for increased tourism.

Petra fits the bill. It wasn't built by Greeks or Romans, but by the Nabataeans, an ancient Arab people that migrated to southern Jordan in the 4th century B.C. and began sponsoring trading caravans.

Camels are one of several ways to avoid hiking the entire length of Petra.
Camels are one of several ways to avoid hiking the entire length of Petra. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

They chose a mountain redoubt for their capital and made clever use of the water resources in the parched Middle East to pipe water many miles from a spring said to have been created when Moses struck a rock with his staff.

Visiting today requires good shoes, as Petra is arrayed along the long progress of a canyon. The first sign of something unusual are three monolithic cubes, 20 to 30 feet tall, that guard the approach and are home to Djinn spirits, according to Bedouin legend.

After passing through a collapsed archway gate, visitors wend their way down the Siq toward the surprise of the Treasury. It is the finest building in Petra -- featured prominently in the movie "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" -- and if you turn around and see nothing more you'll have seen a lot.

But there's much more further along the pathway.

Petra is a city of temples and tombs. Most of them have entrances carved from rock in an amalgam of styles that draw from Greek, Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian architecture. There is also a ruined colonnaded street dating from the assimilation in 106 A.D. of Petra into the Roman Empire.

Walking down this avenue today, visitors are regularly offered rides by the local Jordanians on donkeys and small horses and in horse-drawn buggies, as well as on camels. There is also an ample supply of souvenirs hawked along the way.

Much of where people resided in Nabataean times is in shambles or unexcavated. Brown University archaeologists have been working since the 1990s to reconstruct one of the most significant temples.

You'll pass a Greek-style amphitheater -- like much of Petra carved from a sheer rock face -- on your way to the bottom of the canyon, where there's a good restaurant that serves as a turning point. Walking the route takes about 4 hours out and back.

The Monastery is the second best preserved monumental building at Petra.
The Monastery is the second best preserved monumental building at Petra. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

From the basin, there is one further attraction, The Monastery, a larger but less refined version of the Treasury that requires an uphill climb of nearly 1,000 stair steps that will test your quadriceps. Once there, a nearby lookout offers a view into the Great Rift Valley where on a clear day you can see the River Jordan.

Petra was a contest between human engineering and natural forces, and you know who won. In 363 A.D., an earthquake destroyed much of the city. By the seventh century it was abandoned, "lost" to all but the local Bedouins until a European scholar returned from it in 1812.

But what nature left unspoiled is magnificent. A Unesco World Heritage Site since 1985, Petra is beyond doubt a bucket-list destination. I feel lucky to have had a chance to spend a day there exploring.

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