Sunday, November 05, 2006
By MICHAEL JANOFSKY September 10, 2006 [Reprinted without permission]
No matter what you know of Petra — the Jordanian historical site famous for its deep pink rock facades and (to some movie fans) as the setting for the final scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” — nothing quite prepares you for the experience of seeing it in person.
There is no other way to say it: Petra is dazzling!
“This makes Machu Picchu look like a pile of stones,” my wife, Joan, said to me as we spent nearly seven hours this past March walking among vast rock formations and the facades, carved exquisitely into canyon walls, that have survived centuries of earthquakes and neglect.
What was more amazing, perhaps, is that we practically had the place to ourselves.
Even before the recent conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and fears of more violence in the Middle East, Jordan wasn’t exactly attracting tourists in record numbers — despite an aggressive marketing campaign its government has aimed at Canada and the United States in recent years.
While airports in Amman (three hours away by car) and Aqaba (one hour) make Petra reasonably accessible to visitors, the persistent unrest in the Middle East has discouraged more travelers from visiting, although there have been few disturbances in Jordan. During out visit in March, we stayed at a thoroughly modern Movenpick Hotel in the town of Wadi Musa, just steps from the entry gate to Petra, but the hotel appeared half empty, and another new Movenpick several miles away remained closed.
“We have been a victim of misperceptions,” said Malia Asfour, director of the Jordanian Tourism Board North America. “People think the Middle East is all bad news, and the violence, Islamic fundamentalism, Osama bin Laden don’t help. But a shift is happening.”
Certainly, Petra alone is worth a visit.
Hidden away in the mountains of southern Jordan, between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, Petra is a former trading city sitting among vast rock formations.
Its builders were the Nabataeans, a Semitic tribe who recognized Petra’s strategic location along early trade routes between the Middle East and northern Africa. As architects, artisans and tradesmen, they lived in the valley from about the seventh century B.C. through the early years of the second century A.D. and prospered until trade routes changed, the Romans took over and the city’s importance slowly faded along with its vitality.
Over the centuries, Petra was known only to occasional plunderers and the Bedouins who remained in the area. It was altogether unknown to Westerners until 1812, when a Swiss explorer, masquerading as an Arab in Egypt, heard tales of an ancient city in the mountains 250 miles to the east and coaxed a guide to take him there.
Petra is now a United Nations World Heritage Site, a status that helps preserve its main attractions and protect areas that have suffered erosion. The daily entry fee is 21 dinars, about $30 at 1.43 dinars to $1, and the basic tour is a 7.5-mile round trip on foot that takes the better part of a day. But à la carte options abound, starting the moment you pass through the entry gates.
We arrived just after 8 a.m., and Ali, our guide, suggested that we rent horses to carry us along the rough stone path leading toward a narrow, half-mile passageway known as the Siq. The stones, laid by the Nabataeans, are manageable with comfortable shoes, but who could resist the friendly Bedouins swarming to rent us their steeds? We paid the equivalent of about $8 each.
Horses are prohibited from entering the Siq, so we walked the next half-mile, marveling at the towering canyon walls that finally give way to a plaza and the most famous of Petra’s remarkable facades, The Treasury, known locally as Al Khazneh.
Carved into the canyon wall in the first century B.C., the Treasury stands 130 feet high and suggests Hellenistic and Middle Eastern influences. Its sharp details have been preserved from wind and rain by the facade’s indentation in the rock wall. Especially impressive are the intricate figures and patterns carved between columns and inside pediments.
The Treasury has no real interior space, just a large room with recessed areas on the side. Experts are divided on what it was actually used for. Some say it was a place of worship, while others say a tomb. Its name derives from an apparently apocryphal story about a pharoah’s need to hide his riches in an urn at its top. But no treasure was ever found.
We spent an hour in the plaza, staring at it from all angles while Ali waited in nearby shade, sipping tea. Whatever the view, we found it hard to imagine how its makers achieved such exacting detail.
From the Treasury, we walked through what was once the center of Petra, past ancient temples, a marketplace and a spacious Greek-style amphitheater.
Interspersed through the rock formations that rise in the distance are remnants of tombs, which look like open-mouthed caves. The ancients used them for burial. Ali told us that archaeologists have identified more than 800 tombs.
Resuming our walk toward Petra’s other famous facade, Ad Deir, known as the Monastery, we confronted a major decision: The Monastery sits atop a plateau, accessible only by climbing a winding trail of narrow steps. Guidebooks number them at 800; Ali said there were 1,200. In either case, we could walk or hire mules. [recommended, jim] I looked at Joan and instantly knew the answer. “Best $20 we ever spent,” she said after we reached the top.
The Monastery is less ornate than the Treasury but much larger, looming over a smaller plaza than the Treasury’s to give it a more imposing look. Experts are uncertain of its original use.
Within 90 minutes or so, we were back at the Treasury, which now appeared softer in the late afternoon light. Again, we were transfixed, and pulled ourselves away only after Ali reminded us that someone was waiting at the gate to take us to our crossing point back to Israel. Sadly, we left, with no expectation that anything else on our trip could match the magic of the last eight hours.
Royal Jordanian Airlines offers daily service to Amman from New York, Chicago and Detroit. Most European carriers have daily connections. Petra can also be reached from Israel, by crossing into Jordan by car or foot on the Allenby Bridge east of Jerusalem and driving south or by crossing from Eilat to the port city of Aqaba and driving north.