Monolith A wonder on life's journey

27Feb/14Off

Petra: Jordan’s Holy Grail

words and pictures by Roderick Eime


Described by a famous poet as “a rose-red city half as old as time”, Jordan’s Petra continues to beguile all who visit. But for how much longer?

Massive sheer rock faces, weathered by time and formed into a smooth, labyrinthine passage (siq), lead us a full mile along this ancient trading route. Two thousand years ago, traders bringing luxury goods such as incense, silk, spices and perfumes would pass through here, paying a toll to the resident Nabataeans who controlled the area.

Our caravan consists of backpack and camera-toting voyeurs, some on camels and others transported by precarious carts pulled by runaway horses. The delirious cries of over-excited tourists echo from the far reaches of the ravine, while above, some uninhibited teenager tries to perform a one-footed yoga tree on an overhanging ledge fifty metres above us. He wobbles alarmingly and the horrified crowd gasps and points in disbelief as he gathers himself up, just.

Twenty years ago, it was movie goers on the edge of their seats as Indiana Jones and his posse clip-clopped, mouths agape, into the ravine that opens up at the end of the siq. In a surrealistic reveal, the famous Al Khazneh (aka The Treasury) comes into view as we amble agog into the sunlight again.

This superb edifice is the trademark structure of Petra, impossibly ornate and painstakingly carved out of the sheer sandstone rock face. Amid a throng of leering, selfie-shooting backpackers, indolent camels and jostling tour bus hordes, we stand and gaze up at this magnificent sight. In spite of the rabble, Al Khazneh looms more than 40m above us, apparently unfazed by the milling crowd. We sit for a moment with a cup of tea bought from a ramshackle kiosk and imbibe the scene, distracted by a fragrant steaming aroma.

Amazingly, this stone metropolis sat for centuries almost undisturbed until rediscovered by Swiss adventurer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, in 1812. Burckhardt disguised himself as a Bedouin to infiltrate the off-limits region and stealthily made notes and sketches.

Apart from Harrison Ford in 1989’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, T E Lawrence (of Arabia) (1914), President Barack Obama (2013), Queen Elizabeth II (1984) and King Baldwin (12thC) are among the notables to gaze on the spectacle of Petra. Pope Francis may also visit in May this year (2014).

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985, Petra is in fact a sprawling outdoor archaeological museum of almost 70,000 hectares, of which only 20 per cent has been excavated. At its tourism peak, Petra would host as many as 8000 visitors every day, but with the combined effects of the GFC and the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, anecdotal reports put the drop-off as much as 75 per cent.

But this lull in trampling tourists could be just what the beleaguered site needs. For several years, there have been concerns about whether the already eroded and crumbling facades can withstand much more attention. It could be a chance to install reinforced pathways and fencing to protect the delicate masonry from further damage. As 60 Minutes reporter, Tara Brown, declared “Petra is being loved to death.” *

After Petra’s appearance in the Hollywood blockbuster, visitor numbers soared. Some say by as much as ten times and the tide will surely return when the current Middle East strife abates. And if human interference wasn’t enough, the entire region is hotspot for earthquakes and many monuments have suffered under the wrath of nature as well as man.

“There’s a balance between economic and cultural value that needs to be struck,” Jordanian royal and custodian of Petra, Her Royal Highness, Princess Dana Firas, tells Brown, “Jordan needs to preserve this priceless heritage as much as we need the tourism dollars.”

Unlike her bountiful neighbours, Jordan has no oil and apart from tourism, relies on meagre export dollars from agricultural produce and minerals.

{subs: need to cut words? Cut the next two pars – 184 words}

Apart from Petra, Jordan hosts numerous other ancient natural and manmade formations like Wadi Rum, the otherworldly landscape that was the setting for the 1962 epic “Lawrence of Arabia” and described by the Welsh-born army officer as “vast, echoing and god-like”. Today, visitors can camp in the desolate valleys, embark on Bedouin camel treks and even take a dawn flight in a hot air balloon.

Then there’s the Dead Sea, less than 50 kilometres from the capital Amman and the lowest point on the surface of the Earth at -400m. The fabled inland body of water is also facing its own threats as its source, the Jordan River, has been diverted by Israel. Millions of tonnes of minerals like potash and bromine are extracted from the water annually by both Israel and Jordan and the water level is falling rapidly. While the going remains good, thousands of visitors staying at such plush resorts as the 5-star Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea enjoy the therapeutic and healing qualities of the water and mud known for its remarkable properties as far back as Aristotle (c.350 BC).

But the ornate, parched and abandoned realm of the ancient Nabataeans remains the struggling kingdom’s major drawcard and while most ‘tick box’ visitors spend less than a day within the confines of The Petra Archaeological Park, a comprehensive exploration would take several. Climb 1000 stairs to reach the fabulous ‘monastery’, at least double the size of the ‘treasury’ and something of discovery in itself. Then there’s the amphitheatre, the museum, the royal tombs, the great temple and the staggering Byzantine Church with its intricate mosaics.

That same poet, John William Burgon, a 19th century clergyman, concluded his verse with the lines:

It seems no work of Man's creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!

Silent and beautiful certainly, but while these hand-hewn rocks of ages still stand, it’s the modern swashbuckler, Indiana Jones, who has set the tone for Jordan’s Holy Grail.

Go2

Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways provide convenient connections to Amman (AMM) from Australia. Cruise passengers can also visit Petra via shore excursions from Aqaba.

Petra is located 262 km south of Jordan’s capital, Amman. Park entrance fee is 90JD (AU$140) for visitors not overnighting in the town. www.visitpetra.jo

Best time to visit is spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November).

Stay: Mövenpick Resort Petra is located opposite the entrance to the park. www.moevenpick-hotels.com

Eat: Classes in Jordanian cuisine at Petra Kitchen www.petrakitchen.com

For more information on travel to Jordan, see www.visitjordan.com

The writer was a guest of Jordan Tourism Board

Breakout Factoids:

The name ‘Treasury’ was coined from the misguided belief that the structure contained a pharaoh’s treasure. Bullet-ridden sculptures bear testament to locals’ attempts to break open the mythical cache.

In 2007, Petra was voted into in the controversial New Seven Wonders of the World along with the Taj Mahal and Colosseum. Petra received a reported 14 million internet votes, twice the population of Jordan.
* http://sixtyminutes.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=8748047

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