: The Ancient Rose Red City.
by Simon Wheeler, Nottingham, England
photos by Patrick Spinks
Petra, the ancient city
carved from rock, is hidden away in the canyons of southern Jordan.
Popularised by the Hollywood film 3 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade2,
this once lost city is one of the highlights of the Middle East. The
journey to Wadi Musa - the town which has developed around the ruins
of Petra to serve the tourist trade, takes roughly five hours by bus
from Amman, the Jordanian capital, or two hours from the southern port
of Aqaba. The majority of buses take the Desert Highway, which skirts
along the vast desert to the east of the country. Travel is fairly comfortable,
but be prepared for delays. We had two tire punctures along the way
(3very good journey2one local later told me). Buses in Jordan are basic
and inexpensive, but are a relatively safe and enjoyable way to travel.
Hire cars and long distance taxis are also widely available.
Wadi Musa is a sprawling
town brimming with places to stay and eat. Accommodation varies from
the budget backpacker level to 5 star 3palaces2 with air-con, swimming
pools and buffet breakfasts. The town even boasts an internet cafe and
a Pizza Hut. Local touts are abundant,offering their business cards
and trying to entice travellers to their commissioned lodgings. On this
visit I followed the recommendation of a fellow backpacker and stayed
at the Twassi Inn -one of the budget options in town. It is well run
by an American woman and it commands an impressive position overlooking
Wadi Musa. Many of the hotels offer an all you can eat evening buffet,
which is usually very good value. I paid JD3 for a bed in a four bed
room with a nice view and a shared bathroom. Other options are available,
such as a mattress on the roof, or the more expensive private rooms.
Many hotels in Wadi Musa offer this sort of budget accommodation. For
the less inhibited, sleeping on a hotel roof can be a good option when
it is hot. The atmosphere is friendly and many places show videos in
the evening. They always have a well-worn copy of 3Indiana Jones and
the Last Crusade2 available.
An early morning start
to Petra is strongly recommended. The visitor's centre and gates open
at around 6:00 am. The Jordanian government has tapped onto the popularity
of Petra and the entrance fee for foreign tourists is now quite steep.
You have a choice of a whopping JD20 for one day, JD25 for two days
or JD30 for three days or more. The two-day ticket is recommended. No
student discounts are offered and Jordanians pay a mere JD1 to enter.
There was a time when a determined traveller could get a free residence
stamp from Amman and claim they were employed in Jordan and realise
the same price as a national. Word about this appears to have spread
as many travellers try the ruse with limited success.
Once inside Petra you
walk for about a mile along a dirt track before entering the Siq (pronounced
seek). This is a winding passage which goes straight through the mountains.
At points it is only a few metres wide and the vertical walls of 100
metres high on either side make you realise how well-protected this
place would have been from intruders. The air inside is cool and it
is very quiet. Eventually, after about 1.2 km, the first glimpse of
Al Kazneh - 3The Treasury2 - a dazzling, towering edifice carved from
the rose-coloured rock appears. The most prominent of all of the buildings,
it was carved over 2000 years ago. The building is well preserved due
to its sheltered location. Bullet marks are noticeable in the caved
urn at the top centre of the building, which is believed to contain
treasure. Over time, many failed attempts have been made to break it
open. The Bedouin people of Petra used to live in the ancient caves
and buildings, but were relocated to a nearby village when the city
became a World Heritage site in 1985. Most of them return during the
day, and whilst the first visitors are sitting admiring the beauty of
Al Kazneh, they start to set up their trinket stalls and drink tents
for the onslaught of tourists later in the day.
Petra was thought to
be the home of the Edomites circa 1200 BC. Flourishing for over 400
years, Petra was eventually occupied by the Roman legions in 106 AD.
The city contains over 800 individual monuments that were mostly carved
from the sandstone by the technical and artistic genius of the Nabataeans.
The wealth and political power of this indigenous Arab people was derived
from their control of the trade routes that linked China, India and
Southern Arabia with the wealthy Mediter-ranean markets Greece, Rome,
Egypt and Syria. The first modern European to see Petra was a Swiss
man - Johann Burckhardt - who had travelled here in 1812 disguised as
a Muslim pilgrim.
The first day is best
spent walking to the further away places in Petra - specifically El
Deir (the Monastery). This involves a fairly steep walk - although anyone
with a reasonable level of fitness should be able to get there, within
an hour. If you don't fancy walking, there are plenty of locals offering
rides on their poor old donkeys for around JD7. The first part of the
walk goes through the main part of the city.
buildings are of note here. As mentioned before, an early start is advisable,
as only a handful of tourists and backpackers enter the city before
8:00 am. Apart from the Bedouin starting to arrive by foot or on their
donkeys, it can be quite a serene setting. Another advantage of an early
start time is the temperature. Even during the winter months of October
to February, the thermometer can easily creep above 30 ĄC. As you pass
through the main part of the city you will start to climb up well worn
ancient steps along the route towards El Deir.
Along the way there
are many interesting caves and small buildings, including the Lion Tomb,
which is a small carved building set in a gully. The two weather beaten
lions, which give it its name, sit at the base of the monument. Along
the way, the views are exceptional. The Monastery is majestic. As with
most buildings in Petra, the inside is very plain: just a squareroom.
It is possible to climb around the back of the Monastery and onto the
urn, although this is quite a dangerous climb. A walk further west will
bring you to the edge of the mountains. With Wadi Arabia 1 500m below
and views over to Israel in the West and Wadi Musa in the East, the
perch is spectacular. Bedouins serve sweet cardamom tea and play traditional
tunes to accompany the fantastic views. To the Southwest is the peak
of Mt. Hor, topped by a small white dome, marking the traditional site
of the tomb of Aaron - the brother of Moses. The walk to visit Aaron's
Tomb takes about six hours and is a very hard climb, best accompanied
by a local guide. Enquiries about this should be made at the visitors
centre. By 11:00 a.m., tour buses start to arrive en masse in Petra
and the area swarms with tourists. The Treasury building is the most
popular destination and a wise place to avoid. The gates close at dusk.
Completing the longer walks on the first day allows you to explore the
closer monuments on the second day. The only challenging walk is to
visit the 3High Place of Sacrifice2, which is near to the Siq. The route
is steep and dramatic along more well worn steps and takes approximately
one hour. Once reaching the top, which is over 1 000 m above sea level,
the rock has been visibly flattened out to make a platform for sacrifices,
complete with gullies to allow the blood to run out. A pair of large,
macabre, looking obelisks, and the remains of buildings and fountains
can be seen. Views are excellent, particularly in the morning. Further
explorations of ground level Petra offer insight into the history of
the region. Tombs range from the insignificant to huge intricately carved
Possibly, the most impressive
collection of these are the Royal Tombs, with the Urn Tomb being the
biggest of all: easily on the same scale as El Deir (The Monastery).
Designs of the tombs vary, as does the amount of damage from the elements.
The colouring of the rock is sometimes brilliant bright reds, yellows
and orange with streaks of grey and black forming many beautiful patterns.
Some tombs appear to have Roman features, an indication of being more
recent additions. With approximately 500 tombs in Petra, it1s advisable
to get a guide-book or the free map and basic guide available in Wadi
Musa. Horse or camel rides, for a moderate fee, are available. Bargain
hard for everything and don't accept the first price.
In the heart of Petra
is a colonnaded street. This would have once been a bustling Roman marketplace
with shops and houses. Some of the columns are still in good condition.
The 8 000 seat amphitheatre, cut from the rock, is thought to have been
built by the Romans, but speculation suggests that it may have been
cut by the Nabataeans themselves. There are storerooms under the stage
floor and a slot where a curtain would once have been lowered at the
start of performances.
Petra ranks as a highlight
of most travellers visit to the Middle East. Jordan is one of the safest
and easiest countries to travel in the region and represents a destination
that is both enjoyable to visit and good value for money.
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