You’ve seen it in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. You’ve seen it in National Geographic, on postcards, in travel magazines and on advertisements for tour packages to Jordan.
So you might think you know what to expect of Petra, the ancient Nabatean city that is today a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Only you don’t. Because nothing can prepare you for how you feel walking through the Siq, a narrow, kilometre-long gorge that forms a natural corridor leading into the former city.
The cliff walls shield you from the blazing sun. A cool breeze brushes goosebumps on your arms. Above, the birds flit and sing, as they have for ages, unbothered by human hardships. Meanwhile, your feet tread in the footsteps, not only of the crowd of tourists ahead of you, but of the generations of people, whose crowning achievements and crushing failures have long been forgotten.
You imagine what this journey might have been like for the city’s Nabatean citizens, coming home after long caravan voyages some 2,000 years ago. Or for the Bedouin people who resettled in Petra after the city lay largely abandoned for centuries, or for the Europeans who brought news they had “rediscovered” it to the Western world in the 1800s.
But just as you lose yourself in these thoughts, the Siq comes to an abrupt end. The gorge opens up. And there it stands in front of you, basked in brilliant sunlight: the majestic archeological jewel, known as the Treasury, carved from the face of a red sandstone cliff.
The Himalayas or the Grand Canyon might put into perspective how small you are in the world. But at Jordan’s sites, you learn how small you are in time.
This spring, I spent a day exploring Petra on a small-group tour run by Explore Worldwide. It was part of a week-long trip that delved into Jordan’s culinary customs and traditions.
Moayad Al Otaibi, an antiquities scholar-turned-tour guide, describes Jordan as “an open museum.” At every turn, you will find historic landmarks and remnants of the rise and fall of many empires and civilizations, stretching back to the Stone Age. At a time when the world faces multiple threats, from disease and climate disaster to war and economic inequality, it is both staggering and reassuring to see that life, in fact, goes on.
In the northern city of Jerash, for example, you may wander through well-preserved architectural relics of the Roman empire. Between the capital of Amman and Wadi Musa, the valley through which Moses is said to have led his people to Canaan, you can explore Shobak Castle. This hilltop fortress was built by Crusaders in 1115 AD and seized decades later by soldiers of the Muslim leader Saladin. To the south, in the desert of Wadi Rum, you can ride an Ottoman-era steam train that was attacked during the Great Arab Revolt of 1916. And in the desert’s Lawrence Canyon, you can savour a cup of tea at the café pavilion of Awwad Al Zwaydeh, whose great-grandfather fought alongside T.E. Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia.
And yet, all of this feels like recent history when you hike through the Beidha Neolithic site, just north of Petra, and marvel at the remnants of stone walls built by some of the earliest humans to settle in villages millennia ago.
If that doesn’t take your breath away, Petra surely will. It reminds you that an entire civilization can all but vanish.
After the death of the last Nabatean king Rabbel II, his kingdom fell into the hands of Romans. And in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, Petra lost its importance as a major trading stop, as Roman ships increasingly delivered goods by sea, replacing the need for caravans.
Precisely when and why the Nabateans abandoned Petra remains a mystery.
“There’s still a lot we don’t know about this period. Still a lot of question marks,” Al Otaibi says.
Today, according to Al Otaibi, less than 20 per cent of the 264 square-kilometre Petra Archeological Park has been revealed; the rest remains buried.
As you explore the ancient city’s many caves, which the Nabateans carved into the cliffs as tombs for their dead, you can’t help but wonder what will be remembered of your own way of life, your customs and rituals. Centuries from now, will there be any traces left, besides the countless plastic disposable water bottles you discard? (Jordan’s tap water, while clean, is not recommended for travellers.)
Throughout Petra, you spot stone monuments and idols representing the Nabatean god Dushara, and his mother Al Uzza. She is believed to have created the surrounding mountains to protect the people.
When you stand in the shade of the cliffs, you can imagine sharing this ancient belief; you do, indeed, feel cradled and safe from the elements.
I felt awe. Wonder. Perhaps slight irritation at all the other the tourists, who, like me, were jockeying for space to take selfies. But more than anything, I felt a deep sense of humility.
If you go, Petra will not be the only place in Jordan where you will experience nature as a benevolent force. In the Dana Biosphere Reserve, Jordan’s largest nature reserve, park guide Issa Al Khawaldeh leads visitors through trails that overlook spectacular rock formations. Along the way, he points out fragrant, wild plants that are used as traditional medicines, and forages artemisia for the tea he will serve when it comes time for a hike break. He boils it over a small open fire in a tiny kettle that he pulls from his knapsack.
The name “Dana” has multiple meanings in Arabic. But Al Khawaldeh offers his preferred translation: It is a term that is used when referring to your children, meaning they are part of your heart. Similarly, it is the affection you feel in this place, embraced by the mountains. He encircles his arms in a hugging motion.
When he tends to the fire for your tea, Al Khawaldeh, with his big black moustache and cowboy hat, smokes a cigarette and sings. Accompanied by the birds, his song sounds like a lullaby.
It is so sweet here, and so serene, you want to hug the mountains back. The Nabateans, the Romans and the Crusaders had their heyday. But these mountains are still here, and deserve protection themselves.
Jordan puts you in your place within creation. Especially if you spend a night at a Bedouin-style camp in the desert of Wadi Rum. After a luxurious, traditionally cooked meal, you gather around a campfire and turn your gaze upward. No words are sufficient to express how you feel. No photo can capture the heavens.
In the morning, your footsteps in the sand have disappeared. They are replaced by the tracks of countless desert creatures, whose nocturnal activities go undetected while you sleep. The desert is not as barren as it appears by day. Long after you are gone, life will carry on.
IF YOU GO
- Amman’s international airport is the main point of entry. Complete your travel declaration form online and apply for the mandatory QR code, 72 hours prior to your departure, through the website: www.gateway2jordan.gov.jo
- Explore Worldwide offers several small group tours in Jordan lasting nine to 11 days. The nine-day Jordan Discovery, for example, starts around $2,300, flights not included. www.exploreworldwide.ca
- The sight of all the delicate animal prints in the desert underscored the fragility of the ecosystem and made me think of my own footprint on the environment. I bought carbon offsets to reduce the climate impact of my visit through Gold Standard, goldstandard.org.
The writer travelled as a guest of Explore Worldwide. It did not review or approve the story before publication.