Visitor digs Jordan's archaeological wonders

Travel Weekly Middle East editor Grant Flowers visited Jordan in late May. His report follows:

he Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is one of the most pro-Western countries -- and one of the safest -- in the Middle East. From a tourism standpoint, this nation of 4.6 million people is far along, as many tour operators include Jordan in their regional offerings. The country's top attractions, Petra and Jerash, are both archaeological.

Although Jordan is pushing other tourism ventures, particularly ecotourism and Christian travel (there are more than 100 biblical locations in Jordan), the archaeological sites are its bread and butter.

Petra is well-known for its elaborate facades. Above, a tomb near the city center.Petra

Quite simply, Petra is one of the world's incredible archaeological wonders, right up there with the pyramids of Egypt and Cambodia's Angkor Wat. Because of its well-deserved fame, this ancient city of the Nabateans is the most popular attraction in Jordan, typically receiving about 500,000 visitors a year. However, this year will not be typical because of the adverse impact of the unrest in Israel and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.

Petra is one of the highlights of the Middle East and a must-stop on any tour company's itinerary. It was founded in about 400 B.C. by the Nabateans, an ancient civilization with a penchant for commerce and elaborate monuments. At its height, the city was home to about 30,000 people, and it prospered by serving as a trading center for caravans from Arabia to the east and the lands of Sinai and the Negev to the west.

In 106 A.D., the city was taken over by the Romans, who made a few additions of their own. Petra's decline began soon after, and apart from two Crusader outposts, the city was unknown to the Western world until a Swiss adventurer visited in 1812. Petra made an appearance in the movie "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," in which one of the major sites -- the Treasury -- was used as the hiding place of the Holy Grail.

The city is best known for its massive monuments carved out of sandstone cliffs. Typically, these were tombs for kings or very important citizens. The Treasury, despite the name, is such a tomb, as is the Monastery, an even bigger monument that is also misnamed. There are an assortment of these facades throughout the city.

Even Petra's entrance is stunning. A long-ago geologic upheaval split the earth, forming a narrow canyon known as the Siq. From the visitors center, it's a few hundred yards to the beginning of the Siq. Then the path dives down into the canyon, which is often 200 feet high on either side but never more than about 15 yards wide.

After a walk of three-quarters of a mile through the narrow, twisting canyon, visitors turn a corner and come face-to-face with the 165-foot-high facade of the Treasury. Even when you know it's coming, the effect is indescribable.

The city center is farther on, and there are tombs and caves (homes, really) all along the way. At the center is a colonnaded street, which the Romans added when they occupied Petra.

There guests can grab something to eat and stop for a rest. Those wanting to push on might try visiting the Monastery, which is a hike that takes a little less than an hour and ascends nearly 1,000 feet along the way.

The Monastery is even bigger than the Treasury, and there are outcroppings nearby that offer amazing views of the surrounding mountains and the basin of Wadi Araba, which separates Israel from Jordan. During the summer, the heat can be oppressive. Even in late May, temperatures were in the 90s.

No motor vehicles are allowed, so guests must hike it all the way, and it's about eight miles from the visitors center to the Monastery and back. There is, of course, no shortage of camels or donkeys to ride, for a price.

Guests can buy a ticket for multiple days, which is recommended if you have the time, because there is a lot more to Petra than the Treasury and the Monastery. Everyone will experience something from a visit to Petra. It is a jaw-dropping spectacle of how ingenious, ambitious and resolute mankind can be. It is a great travel experience.

Because of Petra's importance as a tourism destination, the nearby modern city of the same name -- separated from the ancient site -- offers a host of hotels, restaurants, and facilities. Among the hotels in the area are the Movenpick Petra and the Taybet Zaman, a Sofitel-affiliated property. Both hotels are considered among the best in the country.

Jerash

Jerash, about 30 miles north of the capital of Amman, is the second-most visited site in Jordan behind Petra. During Roman times, the city was known as Gerasa, but the town now goes by the Arabicized name Jerash. The city reached its peak in the second century, using its position on the trading routes to prosper. In fact, the Roman emperor Hadrian wintered in Jerash in the years 129 to 130, an occasion commemorated by a massive arch at the southern end of the city.

Today, Jerash offers an extensive complex of ruins and is one of the best-preserved Roman sites in the Middle East. Highlights of Jerash include the massive Temple of Artemis, the Temple of Zeus, an amphitheater and the ancient main road -- customary in Roman cities -- called the Cardo Maximus.

This stone road, still lined by standing columns, stretches for approximately a half-mile through the ancient ruins. The Temple of Artemis is a particular curiosity, as it was the most important building in the city. The columns surrounding the temple are constructed in drum-like sections designed to withstand earthquakes and high winds.

At the city's southern end, near Hadrian's Arch, are the amphitheater and the Temple of Zeus. The recently restored theater, which is still used during festivals, is a clever bit of acoustic design. By standing at the midpoint of the orchestra and facing the crowd -- real or imagined -- a speaker will hear his voice rebound to him from all directions, like a natural microphone. One step away from the midpoint, and the effect disappears.

Visiting Jerash usually will mean a day trip from Amman, as hotel accommodations are scarce in the adjacent modern town. Jerash is a stop on the lineup of nearly all tour operators.

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