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november 1, 2004 -> petra: rose-red city, jordan  

The path to Petra was lit by candles shrouded in simple paper bags.  Their muted, flickering lights danced on the canyon walls.  Above, the full moon glowed liked a searchlight, bathing the rippled mountaintops in yellow light.  As the canyon narrowed, the candlelight played on walls marbled in shades of brown, orange, pink and red.  The wind came in soft, regular drafts, like the earth's own breath.  The ambience was eerie, mysterious, and beautiful.  We felt as if we were taking part in an occult ritual. 

The walls of The Siq had closed around us.  Only a thin, snaking strip of the star-dappled sky was visible above.  In front, we could only see as far as the next curve in the canyon.  As we came around a bend, the walls ahead appeared to open like a grand portal.  There, beaming with the reflected light of a hundred candles, was the spectacular façade of the Treasury.  In its design, symmetry, and proportions, the “Treasury” is a masterpiece of classical architecture.  What makes the Treasury truly amazing, however, is that the entire structure was hewn from the canyon walls almost two millennia ago.  The ghostly sound of a woodwind emanated from the Treasury.  A Bedouin man emerged, playing a flute.  We were completely entranced by the scene. 

Petra occupies an arid valley in southern Jordan.  On all sides, the valley is surrounded by odd-shaped, bizarrely-eroded mountains.  There are so many natural grottoes in the rock that, from a distance, it is impossible to discern the natural from the carved.  The sandstone is easily weathered by rain.  Many rock faces appear to be ‘melting,' with tendrils of red stone hanging down like icicles.  When these cave-like formations extend to the next ledge of stone, they can be confused with the columns carved to decorate the tombs.  The colors are bewitching: layer upon layer of different hued stone – pulled, pressed, and twisted as easily as taffy.  Some colors leach and blend with others.  The effect is magic: a fellow tourist compared it to Moab, in southern Utah.  Petra would be worth visiting for its strange landforms, beautiful colors, and amazing hiking – even if the ancient city did not exist. 

Many who have never heard of Petra would recognize the Treasury.  In “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” Indiana (played by Harrison Ford) and his father (played by Sean Connery) discover the Holy Grail inside a grand edifice deep within “The Valley of the Crescent Moon.”  Today, tourists peer inside the rather cramped chambers of the Treasury, perhaps a little disappointed not to see an aged knight in chain mail.  While the Treasury is certainly the most beautiful surviving structure in Petra, it is but a small part of the entire complex, which stretches for miles and includes hundreds of tombs. 

Petra was ‘discovered' by Johan Ludwig Burkhardt, a Swiss explorer, in 1812.  (Burkhardt was a real-life Indian Jones.  Fluent in a staggering number of languages, and possessed of an indomitable constitution, he crisscrossed North Africa and the Middle-East, dressed as a camel trader, making numerous important discoveries – such as the Abu Simbel Temple in Upper Egypt.)  By the 1830's, Petra had become a prime destination for wealthy European tourists.  In 1840, the British poet John William Burgon described Petra as a “rose-red city, half as old as time.”  In fact, what remains of Petra is not a city at all, but a necropolis. 

Despite their romantic names, the Treasury and the “Monastery” are both elaborate tombs.  From the Treasury, an almost unbroken line of tombs is carved into the walls on both sides of the canyon.  Only the amazing amphitheatre (its tiers of seating, aisles, and vomitories carved into a natural curve in the wall), and the ruins of a stately colonnade suggests a living population of Petra.  Notwithstanding two centuries of vigorous (and ongoing) exploration and research, very little is known about the people who built Petra.  They were called the Nabataens, and their ‘empire' had grown wealthy on the caravan trade from southern Arabia to the Mediterranean Middle-East.  At the end of the 1st Century CE, the area was annexed by Rome, with Petra established as the capital of the Roman province of Arabia Petraea.  The Nabataen Empire (its economy suffocated by Roman merchants and mariners) crumbled soon after. 

Many tourists enter Petra each day, but it is quite easy to leave the crowds behind.  On our second day, we trekked through the “Little Siq,” a tiny, sinuous canyon that forks off to the right just before the entrance to The Siq.  Except for a hardy group of middle-aged Germans who followed behind us, the canyon was empty.  After emerging on the other side, we climbed a long, series of steps carved into the rock that took us to a viewpoint overlooking Petra's wide valley.  Relying on our judgment and a confusing map, we continued further, and managed to find a rocky ledge with a fantastic view of the Treasury from on high.  It seemed hard to imagine that there could be so many people down there, and so few people up here.  On the way back down, we blazed trail through a narrow defile that (after much uncertainty and remonstrations) took us exactly where we wanted to go.  We had spent six hours walking and scrambling - right in the heart of Petra - and had barely seen a soul.  Everyone was tired but very happy with our ‘explorations.' 


The standard tour of Petra lasts a day.  After walking through the Siq, viewing the Treasury, and tromping up the stairs of the amphitheatre, the hale will climb the 400-odd steps to see the Monastery (similar to the Treasury, but atop a high plateau) while the weak or lazy will ride a donkey.  A lot of Petra can be seen in a day, but the extensive area is best explored in two or three days, which allows a more relaxed pace and lets you explore the Little Siq and other less-visited areas.  The “Petra by Night” guided walk, conducted twice weekly, should not be missed.