From behind us came the clip clop of horse hooves, echoing in the sandstone chasm that leads to Petra. As the carriage rolled past, the narrow passageway, known as the siq, was once again silent except for our own footsteps.
We continued our walk, past turn after turn. Occasionally we caught sight of reminders of previous guests who, like us, had been greeted by stone statues were carved into the cliff walls. These decorations had once marked the way for the caravanseri that, laden with treasures from Asia and Africa, wound through this ancient highway.
For almost half an hour, we strolled along the shady passage until we glimpsed a sight that made us stop — a view that was undoubtedly just a mesmerizing to the caravans over 2000 years ago. Like the allure of a slit skirt or a plunging neckline, the final stretch of the sheer rose-colored walls of the siq tantalizes travelers by offering them a peek at Petra’s most precious monument: the Treasury.
Familiar to moviegoers because of Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade, the Treasury was carved from a sandstone cliff over two millennia ago using nothing more than chisel and hammer. Like other monuments at Petra, its style–a combination of Greek, Roman and Egyptian–showed the worldliness of Petra’s early residents, the Nabateans. Made wealthy by their trading and the selling of frankincense and myrrh, the Nabateans had sought to bring to the desert the luxuries they had seen in their travels.
The Treasury is reason enough to visit Petra but is by no means the only one. Once, the ancient trading city spanned over 100 square kilometers and was filled with everything from royal tombs to a Roman theater to mosaics. It is all set in a remote terrain filled with rugged mountains and sheer valleys, sites where an echo can seem like the only other resident.
We had ventured to Petra, just as travelers had done for centuries, on a branch of the King’s Highway. Considered the oldest continually used road in the world, the scenic route wound south of the capital city of Amman, its view becoming more and more rugged as we continued south. This road had once carried traders bringing silks from China and India, spices from Arabia, and dyes and bitumen from the Dead Sea on its way to Egypt to be used in the process of mummification. Like a giant stone toll booth, Petra greeted caravans heading both directions, and its residents quickly prospered. They displayed their wealth with an elaborate water system, gardens, and tombs fit for a king.
Petra’s allure has long tantalized travelers–but for years the site was little more than a legend. After the Nabateans moved from their protected staging post, perhaps to become farmers in other parts of the region, Petra was ruled by the Romans, whose handiwork is seen in a 3,000-seat amphitheater as well as paving stones that still line the floor of much of the siq.
But eventually, the location of Petra became lost to the Western world, and the city was guarded by the Bedouin. Rumors abounded but no Westerners knew the location of the stone city–or if it truly existed. From 1276 to 1812, no record of Petra exists.
But in 1812, a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt set out to rediscover the fabled city. Before arriving in Jordan, he learned Arabic as well as the mannerisms, clothing styles, and local dialect. Arriving in the region disguised as an Arab tradesman, Burckhardt knew death would be his penalty for seeking to find Petra if he were caught. Explaining that he wanted to make the sacrifice of a goat to Mohammed at the site, he hired a local guide and wound past the many monuments, daring only to glance at the sites. After just a one-day visit, Burckhardt left and his journals on the discovery were later published. The lost city was found.
And found it certainly was during our visit, once the multitude of day-trippers from Israel and the Red Sea cruise ships began to fill the canyon in front of the Treasury. It seemed a good time to head deeper into Petra, to try to recapture the feeling of discovering an ancient site.
“Taxi, taxi,” a young boy called to us from atop a donkey. We took him up on his offer and went to see one of Petra’s more remote but most spectacular monuments: the Monastery.
The sure-footed donkeys scrambled up the steep hillside, making their way along a switchback trail that climbed higher and higher out of the chasm. Along the way, we received shy smiles from Bedouin women who sold small pieces of jewelry at overhangs along the route. It was a reminder that modern day Petra had many cave dwelling residents until 1985.
The white knuckle ride ended near the Monastery, a massive structure carved into the cliffside. Dwarfing visitors who tried to climb into its open doorway for a peek at its cool, stone rooms, the site was catching the late rays of the day when we reached it. Bathed in a rosy light, the sandstone took on a myriad of shades.
We had an hour’s journey ahead of us both on foot and atop a camel to return to the siq so we wouldn’t be staying on the mountaintop for the sunset. On our way down the hillside, though, we stopped at a small stand set up on a blanket. A dozen containers held sand in the colors we had seen on the chasm walls: rose, mauve, ochre, white, emerald green. Using only a homemade funnel and a long piece of wire, the craftsman poured the sand into bottles in careful layers, using the wire to create images of camels, Bedouin designs and desert flowers in the sand.
We bought a sand painting bottle and slowly headed out of Petra. Unlike Indiana Jones, we weren’t at full gallop but at a slow stroll. We wanted to savor every moment.
If You Go:
Transportation: Most international flights to Jordan are aboard Royal Jordanian. Service is also available through Air France, Alitalia, British Airways, KLM, and others. Service is to the capital city of Amman.
Petra is a three-hour drive south of Amman on the Desert Highway. Taxis can be hired in Amman for 50 JD.
Accommodations: Although Petra can be seen as a day trip from Amman, the Red Sea port city of Aquaba, or from Jerusalem, travelers should consider a two- or three-day visit to Petra. Modern accommodations are available in the community of Wadi Musa, located adjacent to Petra. Both the Petra Forum and the more upscale Movenpick Hotel (http://www.movenpick-hotels.com) are within walking distance of Petra.
Currency: The local currency is the Jordanian dinar (JD). Currently one dinar is equivalent to 1.42 US, 2.06 CAN, and .90 GBP
Language: Arabic is the official language of Jordan although English is widely spoken.
Climate: Temperatures can soar at Petra during the summer months. Spring and fall are ideal times to visit.
Clothing: Jordan is an Islamic country so modest dress is encouraged but is not required. Good walking shoes are a must at Petra.
For more information: North American travelers can call 877-SEEJORDAN. You can also obtain travel information from the Jordan Tourist Board website, http://www.seejordan.org.
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