Talking Travel Destination Worldview Peter Flaherty Jordan Petra

Incomparable Petra,
by Peter Flaherty



The incomparable “rose city” of Petra is one of the greatest and most beautiful archaeological sites in the world. Its renowned “Treasury,” the impressive building carved out of the red sandstone rock that commands one’s attention upon entering the site, is justifiably the most famous single image of Jordan’s rich historical past. Recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, Petra is without question one of the country’s most popular and widely visited attractions. Our two-day stay in Petra was definitely one of the highlights of our Jordan trip. I was very glad that we had the opportunity to explore this vast and magnificent site with some degree of time and leisure, since unfortunately many visitors try to squeeze in as much of Petra as they can possibly appreciate on a short, one-day stop. But Petra is one of those archaeological treasure-troves that is best savoured and enjoyed slowly. It is a unique city, and a dramatic legacy of the people who built it, the mysterious Nabataean civilization that dominated the Arab trade routes stretching from China and India to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean in ancient times.

Our base for exploring Petra was the comfortable and ultra-modern Movenpick Hotel, conveniently located just a short walk from the entrance to the Petra Visitors Centre. From there it was easy to access the site, walking just over one kilometre from the modern town of Wadi Musa to the narrow passage between the massive walls of rock that provides the main access to the ancient site. Entering Petra through this chasm, known as the Siq, is a stunning experience in itself. As we made our way through this dramatic entrance, our excitement mounted as we waited with anticipation for our first glimpse of the Treasury, whose towering façade bedecked with magnificent columns was made famous in the final sequence of the popular Hollywood film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Viewers will recall that Harrison Ford and his partner, played by Sean Connery, entered Petra on horseback. It is possible to do this, and visitors who find the walk into the site too taxing can also approach it by donkey cart.

Once inside Petra, the sheer size and grandeur of this ancient city imposes itself immediately on the visitor. There is literally so much to see and appreciate that it is almost daunting to know where to begin. Guides are available to tour the various buildings and other points of interest, and can be booked at the Visitor Centre. But for anyone with the requisite physical stamina and interest, exploring Petra on foot is strongly recommended. However, it should be noted that some of the more challenging hikes up to the highest and most remote parts of the site should not be attempted alone, and a few require the assistance of a local Bedouin guide.

Our first day at Petra was spent exploring some of the more accessible points of interest beginning with the Treasury and continuing into the centre of this ancient city. After the first sense of wonder and amazement I experienced upon seeing this breathtaking building for the first time, I was eager to proceed along the Street of Facades to other impressive sites, including the Theatre, the Royal Tombs, the Great Temple, and the Petra Church. As we moved from one fascinating location to another, Petra’s rich and intriguing historical past slowly revealed itself to us. Known as the “lost city,” (to the “outside” world) Petra was only rediscovered in the early 19th century, when the intrepid Swiss archaeologist and explorer Johann Burkhardt found his way into its innermost recesses. Burkhardt’s fascinating account led others to the site, including the English painter David Roberts, whose beautiful water colours aroused great interest among Victorians obsessed with romantic images of the “mysterious Orient.” Attractive reproductions of Roberts’ original paintings can still be purchased at the various gift shops that dot the site.

Archaeological explorations began in earnest during the 1920s and still continue today, as only approximately 10 per cent of Petra’s total area has been thoroughly investigated, and much remains to be discovered. Archaeological research teams from various countries, including France, Britain, and the United States are active in various parts of the site, sometimes competing with the tourists that descend on Petra during the peak tourist season, running from early fall to spring. However, with the decline in tourism in Jordan as a whole resulting from heightened Middle East tensions at the time of our visit, we practically had Petra to ourselves, with very few visitors to contend with. For the local Bedouin people, some of whom continue to follow a semi-nomadic lifestyle, earning part of their living from the Petra tourist business, this drop in the number of visitors has been a serious economic difficulty. We did our best to assist them as much as we could, by stopping at various souvenir stands, coffee shops, and other tourist-related businesses around the site.

After a full morning of exploring, it was pleasant to enjoy a delicious and relaxing lunch at the Basin Restaurant, conveniently located at the western end of the Colonnaded Street. Dishes included a fine selection of Middle Eastern appetizers, a chicken and beef barbecue, and some wonderful desserts. After lunch, we negotiated with a group of Bedouin drivers for enough camels to stage an impromptu race among some of the more adventurous members of our group. The race was hotly contested between Gisele, our tour guide, and Bob Fisher, who had the advantage of considerable equestrian experience. As for myself, I was happy to move at a more leisurely pace, despite the efforts of Faisal, my adolescent Bedouin assistant, to urge the beast on to greater feats of speed. It was my first ride on a camel, and it was a memorable, if somewhat nerve-wracking experience. When I told Faisal that we did not have animals like this in my country, he expressed considerable surprise.

After the camel race, a few of us who still had the energy and enthusiasm began a challenging hike up a steep stone stairway to the High Place of Sacrifice, one of the most stunning observation points in Petra. Our strenuous efforts in the hot afternoon sun were well rewarded when we reached the summit, where the views of the nearby town of Wadi Musa and the surrounding mountains were magnificent. We were glad for the bottled water we had taken with us, and the return trip down the stairs was considerably easier. It is believed that the High Place was indeed used by the Nabataeans as a place of sacrifice, but like many sites within Petra, this particular spot received its name much later. In addition, little is known about the religious beliefs and practices of the Nabataeans, who seem to have absorbed elements of surrounding cultures — including those of Rome, Greece, and Mesopotamia — into their own unique belief system.

After a short rest and dinner at the hotel, we returned along the narrow Siq, this time under cover of darkness, our way illuminated by thousands of small candles covered in paper bags that guided our path. We were experiencing one of the real wonders of this magical place, known as Petra by Night. Our group formed at the start of the Siq and proceeded in silence to the open area in front of the Treasury. We were accompanied by a local resident who had served in the British army during the period of the British mandate before Jordan gained independence, and he proved to be an excellent source of information about Petra’s history and current status as a major archaeological site. But more than that, his narration was a profound and personal introduction to this fascinating place. After we sat on rugs provided for us, we were entertained by a Bedouin who sang traditional songs to the accompaniment of an oud, the Arab version of the guitar. Listening to this haunting music under the stars in front of the majestic façade of the Treasury was truly a magical experience.

For a few among us who were up to the challenge — and it is indeed physically challenging — our second day in Petra began early, with a demanding five-hour hike from Little Petra to the Monastery. This trek proved to be quite demanding, as much of it required us to climb uphill over rocky ground with few clearly marked trails. Our Bedouin guide proved to be indispensable for us, hopping energetically over the difficult terrain with the grace and agility of a mountain goat. The most challenging part of the hike was without question the narrow ledge we had to ease ourselves across, hugging the rock face while trying not to look down at the precipitous drop below us. We had been previously warned about this potentially dangerous stretch, and our guide was very reassuring and encouraged us all to take it in our strides, without undue worry. I am glad to state that every member of our group made it safely across the ledge!

After the most demanding part of the hike was over, it was a pleasure finally to reach the imposing Monastery and enjoy a Turkish coffee while reclining on a padded camel saddle in the café just across from this magnificent building. After our rest, we walked across to enter the Monastery’s central opening, where our guide entertained us with an impromptu flute concert. As we listened to the evocative strains of the flute, surrounded by all the ghosts of those who once inhabited this ancient city, the sense of Petra’s mystery and magic was almost overwhelming.

But Petra is not just the “rose-red city, half as old as time” that the 19th-century poet Dean Burgon called it. Petra is a living place, and those who inhabit the surrounding area are very proud of it, and regard it as an important source of their livelihood. As we returned to our hotel after the strenuous hike of the second day, we were taken to enjoy a visit and a cup, or rather glass, of tea with a local patriarch known as Mohammed. Mohammed has lived in Petra all his life, and raised his substantial family in a cave just outside the Siq. Today, he still operates a small convenience store from within the cave, while some of his sons run a local horse riding service. Mohammed greeted us warmly, and proudly boasted of his children’s educational and other accomplishments. Later we learned that he is a highly regarded figure in the community, and that our visit with him was a great honour.

Our final evening in Petra was another wonderful treat for the group. We gathered at the Petra Moon Kitchen, a “do-it-yourself” restaurant cum cooking school just down the street from our hotel. There, under the watchful eyes of a an expert team of local women, we put together a traditional Bedouin feast, known as mensaf, or chicken cooked with rice and other vegetables. Along with some delicious salads and other tempting side dishes, this meal was truly a memorable one. It was all the more enjoyable because we had the added satisfaction of having prepared it ourselves, with some much-needed help, of course! After dinner, some of us reclined on the outdoor patio of the restaurant, talking to the owner and sipping a dark, rich Turkish coffee. It was a wonderful conclusion to our memorable visit to Petra, one of Jordan’s most important and fascinating historical and cultural treasures.


To view a slideshow of Petra, CLICK HERE