02 April 2004
The most celebrated tourist destination in Jordan, Petra was unknown to the Western world until the early 19th Century. Some books refer to it as the “Lost City” of Petra, but I’m sure the locals never entirely lost track of it. But for the Westerner, this part of what is now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was, for the better part of the past millennia, a thousand miles from nowhere; a hard and dusty part of a harsh and isolated land, foreign in every way.
Today Petra is not very isolated from the rest of the world. One can fly to Jordan from anywhere any day of the week. There are modern improved roads that get you quickly from Amman to Petra. As for being foreign, hard, or harsh, there is a Crowne Plaza, a Marriott, two Movenpicks, and a dozen other hotels in the nearby town of Wadi Musa to take one’s lunch or lay one’s head.
Like anywhere else in the world, vendors try to milk visitors for all they can. I got angry with myself when I left my cap at home and had to buy one from a souvenir shop. I got even angrier with another guy who tried charging me three dollars for a Snickers bar. “Don’t (explicative) with me!” I barked in ugly American English while wearing my new, big, floppy beach hat with a Jordanian flag and a camel embroidered onto it. “I’m not a (explicative) tourist! I live in Amman! I’m (explicative) local!"
That said, a trip to Petra is definitely worth it. In its current form, the city was built nearly 2000 years ago by the Nabateans; traders who populated the Arabian peninsula and who had frequent commercial interaction with their neighbors to the East and West. Borrowing styles from the Greeks and Romans these ancient Arabs carved their magnificent capital into the rose-red rocky cliffs near the place where a thousand years earlier Moses brought forth water from the desert with a rapping of his staff.
While a guide isn’t necessary, it doesn’t hurt to have one on an initial visit. The man I hired on my first journey through Petra knew the area well and spoke English fluently. In addition to pointing out all of the interesting bits of carved rock trivia that a first-timer might miss, he also enjoyed pointing out all the hot, young, female Japanese and European tourists who were ambling about. As we finished up that day, this black-bearded Arab with bright blue eyes, half-way unbuttoned shirt, and inappropriately tight jeans declared, “There two things I live for: A wild horse and a wild woman.” With that, he kicked his steed in the sides, shouted “Ya!” and went galloping up the trail. Who knew such heroes still existed?
Petra is one of the world’s best secret gardens. Like the Kingdom of Narnia or the backyard of Worcester College, Oxford, what makes Petra so fantastic is the dramatic way one enters it. After walking or riding a horse down the hill from town, one comes to the entrance of a narrow wadi, a deep dry channel cut through stone made by an ancient river. With its gently down-sloping trail, beautifully striated pink and red rock walls, and much appreciated shade, the wadi (called locally “the Siq”) is very inviting to the curious pedestrian. Dog-legging right then left then right again, the Siq gets tighter and tighter as one goes along. The rock walls get taller and closer together until all you can see is a sliver of blue sky above you. The temperature inside this narrow, vaulted passage is quite cool, even during the warmest summer months.
A kilometer or so down into the Siq, one encounters to their left a broken rocky relief of two camels being led forward by a man. Just a little bit farther and one sees the right half of the pink Treasury building of Petra, framed by the narrow irregular opening of the Siq’s rocky terminus. The pace quickens as one hastens toward this luminous objective. Stepping out of the Siq one emerges into a huge, sun-lit natural courtyard. The Corinthian columns, Isosceles triangles, detailed statues, and ornate large urn are in full view. Its straight lines and smooth surfaces contrast pleasantly with the natural surroundings; a perfect thumbprint of Man carved into the side of the side of a sheer rose-red cliff.