Rediscover Jordan's lost city of Petra

PAMELA ROTH, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:52 AM ET

Travellers faces light up like children on Christmas morning when they see the ancient treasury carved into the side of the rose-coloured rock facade for the first time.

“Wow. It’s so much neater and cooler in person that it is in pictures,” said a wide-eyed Beth Van Der Weert while basking in the beauty of the 2,000-year-old monument at Petra.

Four camels sit in front of the 40-foot high carving in the limestone cliff. They appear to be smiling for the small crowd of tourists wildly snapping photos.

The tourist’s voices echo off the towering rock walls as the sun bathes the treasury in soft light. Some are lost for words.

“It’s so wow. Just how intricate it is,” said Karen Smits, one of 14 tourists from around the globe who signed up with G Adventures to experience the highlights of Jordan through the convenience of a tour.

I awoke at sunrise in order to be one of the first travellers standing in front of the majestic treasury at Petra —  the crown jewel of Jordan. Exploring the massive archeological site takes about three days, but we packed much of it into one with 10 hours of hiking under the scorching desert sun.

We began our journey into Petra at 6:30 a.m., passing a few tombs along the way before entering the one-mile long siq (gorge) that takes you into the ancient city

The journey through the narrow and dusty dried up river bed that snakes its way to the treasury is an adventure itself.

I was enveloped in waves of colourful red, white and pink rock that rise 200 feet in some places. At times it is no more than three metres wide. A few of the siq walls have ancient carvings of camel caravans and stairs leading to the heavens.

The anticipation grows around each turn. Then suddenly, there it is, one of the most preserved ruins in the world welcoming you to Petra.

“It’s something unique, especially in the morning,” said G Adventures guide Zuhair Zuriqat, who came to Petra for the first time when he was 14 years old. “It was breathtaking really.”

The treasury dates back between 60 BC and 50 AD, and took approximately 60 years to build.

The six giant pillars on top and six on the bottom make the monument look like a palace. The pillars are encompassed with elaborate carvings of a giant urn, four eagles, horse riders and 30 flowers, depicting a Greek, Egyptian and Roman influence.

It’s purpose remains somewhat of a mystery, but one thing that’s certain is that the treasury wasn’t really a treasury.

According to Zuriqat, the treasury used to be a shrine or a tomb for one of the Nabataean kings and was used as a way to break the ice with traders who came to Petra.

The treasury got its name because the local Bedouin people (descendants of ancient tribes known as Nabataean) believed there was a treasure inside the giant urn. Bullet holes are still visible on the urn from the Bedouins attempts to release the treasure.

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The treasury is the gateway to the rest of the Petra valley, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

Nestled in the barren, rugged mountains in southwest Jordan, Petra was established as early as 312 BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans and was a thriving trading centre.

There are hundreds of elaborate rock-cut tombs with intricate carvings, temples, obelisks, sacrificial altars and colonnaded streets, along with a massive Roman-style theatre that could seat 3,000 people.

It wasn’t until Muslim leader Saladin and his armies took over this part of the Middle East that the city was largely abandoned.

The Bedouin have known about Petra for centuries, but the ruins weren’t introduced to the world until 200 years ago when a Swiss explorer disguised himself as an Arab scholar and infiltrated the Bedouin-occupied city in 1812.

In 1985, UNESCO took over preservation of the site. The Bedouins were paid by the Jordanian government to leave their caves in Petra and move into a village constructed nearby, where they received schools, medial clinics and electricity. They are still allowed to work in Petra selling their hand made goods to the thousands of tourists that visit the site each year.

But one man refused to leave his cave and still lives in it to this day. 

“At first it was hard. The old people describe their new houses as prison and it had no freedom,” said Zuriqat. “But at the end, they had to accept it and they are doing well.”

Overlooking the valley is Petra’s largest monument, the Monastery. But you have to climb 800 steps in 30C temperatures to get there. Or you can take a donkey.

My legs felt heavy a few steps into the climb. Bedouin people sat in the few small slivers of shade along the mountain path, offering hot Jordanian tea to sweaty tourists while showcasing their hand made jewelry and knives for sale.

I kept telling myself it’s just around the corner as I stopped several times to catch my breath and wipe the sweat from my brow. A small cafe near the top offers cold beverages and a misting fan — a welcome reprieve from the heat.

The view of the sand and rock valley below became more impressive with each heavy step. And then, just like the treasury, there it was carved into the rock facade around the next turn. My discomfort from the heat suddenly disappeared. 

At 51 metres high and 47 metres wide, the monastery is twice the size of the treasury, but much less decorated.

Its actual use is still debatable, but it’s believed the monastery was used as a church or for religious meetings, and likely began as a temple.

I was struck with awe how a civilization thousands of years old would be able to create something this enormous and elaborate.“It’s more powerful in a way. It seems so huge,” said Ann Beth Vester as she gazed in amazement at the mammoth monastery. “It leaves you wondering why? Why so far away from everything? Why so big?”

For more information about tours of Jordan visit www.gadventures.com.


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