Journey to the Secret Rose City of Petra

by Habeeb Salloum
Special to

Jordan - "You must see Petra! It's unlike any other place on earth." A friend, who had travelled to the ruins of the ancient trading city, waxed poetic when I told him I was planning a trip to Jordan.

His words were on my mind the day we reached Amman, the country's capital, and, thus, my first priority became a visit to this once lost hand-carved stone city of the Nabataean Arabs. Next morning, the cool morning air was invigorating as we made our way southward on a four lane desert highway. At first, arid lands and sand were far away from our minds as we drove between rows of flowering shrubs, edged by evergreen trees. Beyond were rich farmlands dotted with what appeared to be magnificent newly built stone villas. I was told later that most of the owners had made fortunes in the Arabian Gulf countries, then returned home to enjoy their wealth creating a 21st century farming scenario at its best.

A short time after leaving Amman, we stopped and picked up a well-dressed hitchhiker - in Jordan, one is not apprehensive about people asking for rides. Unlike in many other parts of the world, there has not been a case where a driver picking up a wayfarer has been hurt. In fact, usually the hitchhiker quickly becomes a friend and source of useful information - most Jordanians know some English and many are even fluent.

Our new passenger Awwad Hijazin, turned out to be a Christian Arab who claimed that his ancestors originated in the Yemen. In contrast to many Lebanese Christians who insist that they are not Arabs, he was proud of the Arab Christian tribes who have lived in Jordan long before the advent of Islam. Demonstrating true Arab hospitality, Awwad was persistent, "You must stop for coffee. My home is on the outskirts of Karak. It's on your way." It was hard for us to decline his repeated insistence, but our plans called for a full day.

We had said our final no, when from a high rise we spied, across a valley on the opposite hilltop, Karak, once known as Kir Moab, dominated by its castle - imposing due to its massive size. Awwad refused to leave until he had taken us for a tour of his historic town - once the chief city of biblical Moab and later the capital of a Crusader state. During the Crusades its citadel, located on the rim of a plateau 1,100 m (3,608 ft) above sea level, was one in their great chain of fortresses. It is chiefly remembered for its notoriously cruel Crusader lord, Renaud de Chatillon, who, because he broke a truce, was beheaded by Saladin after the Muslim victory at the Battle of Hittin in 1187.

The fortress whose foundation was laid in 650 B.C. while from a distance looked impressive, was inside a heap of ruins. However, it is presently in the process of being renovated. We enjoyed the grand view from atop its walls, then left on Highway 35 south, making our way on a winding road through hilly farmland. On and on we wound our way over what is called the ‘King's Highway’ which once ran from Babylon to Egypt. Soon we were driving through barren hills with hardly a dwelling or human in sight - only here and there shepherds tending their flocks of goats or camels. Houses and spots of greenery only appeared a short distance before Tafila, a quite large, neat and, above all, clean town where we stopped for tea.

What amazes first-time visitors to Jordan are the virtually litter-free cities and even smaller towns like Tafila - cleaner than most urban centres in Europe and North America. Once when I remarked on the absence of garbage on the streets, a Jordanian acquaintance said, "It's His Majesty! Our former king wanted this country to be clean and spotless, appealing to visitors." The people must have taken their sovereign's wish to heart. Jordan appears to be one of the cleanest countries in the world.

A short distance after Tafila, while making our way through a hilly countryside, we picked up another hitchhiker who was a member of the Jordanian air force. Khalid, who hailed from near Shawbak's castle was on his way to Petra. We were delighted when he said that he would be happy to guide us through this, what was once the sister Crusader castle of Karak.

Like its twin, it was more impressive from a distance. Once inside, we found that only a tiny part had been renovated. A well with 375 steps cut into rock had been uncovered, but we did not care to try and go down to its depth. However, visiting this castle, called by the Crusaders Montreal, proved worthwhile. Its commanding view over an incredibly desolate land was breathtaking. One could easily see why the site was chosen for a fortress.

From this once famous bastion that fell to Saladin in 1189, it was only a short drive to the town of Petra, formally Wadi Musa. Its population of some 20,000 owe their living, in the main, to the tourist industry and to those tourists who travel to explore the Nabataean capital of Petra - Jordan's number one tourist attraction some 262 km (160 mi) south of Amman.

In its heyday, Petra was a true wonder of international commerce, water-work engineering and stone-carved architecture in the midst of the most forbidding desert canyons in southern Jordan. The city is one of the most fantastic sites that have come down to us from the ancient world. Today, it is noted for its many monumental facades chiselled by hand into the towering sandstone cliffs – some 30 m (98 ft) high.

Called by the Arabs ‘Raqueen’, mentioned in the Bible as ‘Sela’, and Chinese scrolls as ‘Lecan’, Petra began to be cut out of solid rock, beginning about 500 B.C. by the Nabataean Arabs who were, in the main, merchants. They chose the site for their capital due to its impregnable location. Surrounded by sheer and rugged sandstone hills, it could be easily protected from all directions. The only entrance was through a narrow fissure called 'Siq', ripped through the rock in a prehistoric quake and averaging about 5 m (16 ft) wide and, in places, 100 m (328 ft) high.

Straddling the major trade routes in the ancient world, its location gave the Nabataeans access to the levying of taxes on caravans that carried the frankincense and myrrh of Arabia and the silks and spices from the Far East to the north and west. Its inhabitants became immensely wealthy and continually expanded and enriched their sandstone city until it became one of the most opulent urban centres in the Middle Fast.

The fabled riches of Petra caught the attention of the empire-building Romans who, after cutting off its water supply, occupied it in 106 A.D. The Nabataean sculptors continued chiselling and carving the mountainsides until the Empire fell apart in the 4th century A.D. Subsequently, it faded into obscurity and for centuries was only known to a few Bedouins. In 1812 a Swiss explorer, Jean Burckhardt found the ‘lost city', bringing it to the attention of the world.

Entering a 1,200 m (3,936 ft) awesome cleft in the pinkish sandstone, we made our way to what has been called ‘the rose-red city half as old as time’. Suddenly, in dramatic fashion, our guide pointed to the opening before us. "Behold! The Khaznah (Treasury)! The pride and joy of Petra." The facade of this rose-coloured building, carved from solid rock, was stunning in its majesty. It is the most beautiful and the most photographed structure in Petra and is believed to have been built as a royal tomb. The treasury is the first marvel for tourists as they enter. It was used in the final sequence of the film ‘Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade’.

From the Khaznah, the Siq broadened out, its walls carved into homes, tombs and façades in a bewildering array of styles. Time and weather have eroded these creations of man, remodelling them into new structures. I was dazzled by the work of the ancient sculptors modified by the handiwork of nature. Even the layered sandstone, smoothed, scalloped and streaked by wind and time, seemed to vie with the monuments created by the ancients.

A short distance after the Treasury, our guide pointed out the most important buildings of the some 800 major monuments that survive. From the number of these structures, it is estimated that the city, in its prime, had a population of about 25,000.

The Roman theatre carved out of a solid sandstone canyon wall and seating some 7,000 in its prime, still has a firm outline, even though greatly eroded. The nearby Street of Façades, with its many impressive frontages of tombs, held my attention for quite sometime, but there were many other remains that I wanted to explore.

Penetrating further into the city, to our right, I was impressed by the monumental Urn, the largest of the royal tombs that, in the 5th century, was transformed into a church. The neighbouring royal tombs, on a somewhat lesser scale, are also quite stunning. Soon we were walking on the once colonnaded Roman Street at whose end we stopped by the remains by the Arch of Triumph and the edging Qsar al-Bint (Temple of Dushare – the chief god in Petra) - the only freestanding structure in Petra. A few minutes climb further on and we were in the Petra Museum that overlooks the ruins and examining the numerous artefacts of this historic city. Walking down a series of steps, we reached the Basin Restaurant. Here, as we sipped our drinks, I was enveloped in a feeling of contentment. After touring this once famous trading centre of the ancient world and, one of the most fascinating historic ruins, it was a well-earned rest.

We did not have time to examine El Deir or the Monastery, an enormous temple chiselled into a stone hillside whose 850 step climb begins at the Basin Restaurant, or El Madbah, the High Place of Sacrifice, 1,035 m (3,395 ft) above sea level with a spectacular view of Petra below.

The next morning we drove for about 15 minutes to Little Petra, a tiny version of its bigger sister Petra. Here, we explored some beautiful rock formations, tombs and other structures hewn into the rock. It was a minuscule version of the well-known Petra - a little gem still virtually hidden from the outer world.

As we left Little Petra late in the afternoon, our guide pointed to the reddish rocks." See how the rays of the setting sun create a fantasy world of colour." "Yes!" I nodded my head. My thoughts were on the two Petra’s that we had explored. It was truly a bewitching sight - a captivating picture that will always stay with me.


photography: Habeeb Salloum

If You Go:

Facts about Jordan

1) Tourist visas are easily available at any entry point into Jordan except at the King Hussein Bridge. These are single entry visas and cost 10 JD. Groups of five persons or more arriving by way of a designated Jordanian tour operator are exempted from all visa charges.

2) The U.S. dollar is equal to about .70 cents to the JD (Jordanian dinar); Canadian dollar about 60 to 1 JD. Exchange cash or traveller cheques at the money exchangers - they do not take commission.

3) The usual price to rent a reasonably modern small car with full insurance is around 30 or 35 (JD) per day. The roads are good - gas costs .60 JD per litre. Jordan is a small country with good roads, making important historic sites easily accessible. Taxis are reasonably priced and are one of the most convenient methods of transportation. However, agree to the fare beforehand. If taxi metered, add 200 fils tip to price shown on metre.

4) Modern medical services are readily available in Jordan's larger cities and towns and the larger hotels normally have a doctor on call. Most doctors speak English fluently. Emergency medical treatment for cases not needing hospitalization is free in Jordan.

5) There are many Internet cafés all around the country – even in remote places.

6) Jordan is a very safe and friendly country in which to travel. Most Jordanians speak English and are very hospitable to strangers.

7) Conservative dress is advised for both men and women. Women will feel more comfortable when travelling in the country if they dress modestly - no leggings, mini skirts, shorts or sleeveless tops.

8) For souvenirs the best thing to buy for women ARE silver necklaces with a locket of the god Dushare – a unique reminder of the Petra.

9) Departure taxes for non-Jordanians are 10 JD at the airport and 5 JD at other crossings.

10) For those in North America who would like to see a little of Petra without travelling to that country, they can travel to Ottawa, capital of Canada and see the excellent Petra Exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization – running from April 7, 2006 to January 2, 2007.

Note: All prices quoted are in Jordanian dinars (JD)

Jordan Tourism Board
P.O. Box 830688, Amman 11183
Tel: 962-6-5678294/962-6-5678254
Fax: 962-6-5678295

Jordan Tourism Board North America
6867 Elm Street, #102 - McLean, VA 22101
Tel: 1 703 2437404
Fax: 1 703 2437406

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