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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A World Carved From rock

"Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," Harrison Ford gallops on a Bedouin horse through an improbable crack in the mountains at the edge of a desert. He dashes through an impossibly tall and narrow canyon until bursting into the sunlight before a breathtaking temple, carved into the sandstone mountain, which harbors the Holy Grail.


Well, there's no magic chalice, that was just for the movie. But the rest of it exists in the ancient stone city of Petra, just as grand and glamorous, and quite as magical.


The canyon is called the Siq, the temple is known as the Kazneh, or Treasury, and they mark the opening to a city, thousands of years old that was a key site in the dramas of the Old Testament. But until less than 200 years ago, Petra remained a secret to all but the Bedouin tribes who lived in its caves and tombs.


The city has weathered foreign occupation, earthquakes and more than half a millennium of neglect. Although today it is largely in ruins, Petra remains one of the most spectacular wonders of the Middle East.


The surprises begin tens of kilometers away from the city, as one drives in from the northern part of Jordan. After the almost instant transformation of the desert into rolling green hills, an enormous, barren rock suddenly appears on the horizon, apparently out of nowhere.


This is the Umm el Biyara, otherwise known as the Mother of Cisterns, which dominates every aspect of Petra and towers 330 meters above the valley. It houses El Deir, a Nabatean royal tomb, later consecrated as a monastery, a high place of sacrifice, and eight cisterns carved into the rock.


Approaching the gates of Petra, you still have a long way to go before catching a glimpse of El Deir. As you pass through the modern town of Wadi Musa, where Moses is believed to have struck a rock and made water come flowing out of it, and leave the last tourist hotels behind, you are jolted into an older world.


On a large square, not unlike a schoolyard, dozens of horses restlessly graze, occasionally indulging in a quick sprint around the enclosure, before being reined in by their masters and soaring up in clouds of sand to the nearest tourist.


The Bedouins are dazzling on their horses, but beware. You are permitted to ride the horses no further than a few hundred meters, and their masters will lead you on foot at a snail's pace. Only the three-wheeled horse-driven carts can transport you to the city's entrance, tearing down the narrow Siq and yelling "Bee Bee" to anyone who tries to cross their path.


Decline their invitations and you have before you a magical mile-long walk. The multi-colored rock that surrounds the path gets narrower and narrower, slowly curving into the most fantastic shapes with sunlight shining through intriguing gaps. Occasionally a tree juts out of the stone before you turn a corner to find a cave or a votive niche devoted to an ancient god and carved into the natural walls around you.


If you go through early in the morning or late in the evening, when you are alone, walking through the Siq can spook even the most cynical tourist, just as it was supposed to impress visiting traders when the city was first built.





Petra is believed to have been inhabited since about 1200 B.C., when the Edomites occupied the region. But little is known about it until about the sixth century B.C., when Nabateans began to arrive from nomadic tribes of Arabia.


What they found was a protected valley with water that they channeled along a carved gutter through the Siq, and a place that was virtually impervious to attackers. Beginning as highwaymen, they developed the city into a major trading post.


The Nabateans became the dominant rulers of the region, which flourished before being annexed to Rome in 106 A.D., when Petra was incorporated into the new Roman province of Arabia.


But local traditions were respected and new developments included the magnificent Colonnade Street and the tremendous Roman amphitheater. While some historians believe the Romans tried to reorganize the city layout, so much of the architecture remains undiscovered that this cannot yet be known.


While the Romans may have respected Nabatean culture, nature showed no such tolerance and in 363 A.D. a savage earthquake destroyed half the city. The establishment of the Byzantine Empire made Petra into a Bishopric, then a metropolitan and finally the administrative center of the province.


By that time, however, the trade routes had moved. Petra's wealth had virtually evaporated and its population faded. By the middle of the sixth century A.D. the city lay as a silent wasteland until it was struck by yet another earthquake in the middle of the eighth century.


Islamic rulers who invaded in the seventh century devoted little attention to Petra and it was not until five centuries later that the Crusaders arrived and built small forts on the hills around the crumbling city. After they left, the city lay forgotten once again.


For 500 years Petra disappeared from history, lost to the Western world. It was only in 1812 that John Lewis Burckhart, a humorless Swiss man disguised as a Bedouin pilgrim, stumbled upon the wondrous city and opened it to the world.





Pondering the region's past as you creep along the Siq, you see swirling patterns emerge, born of centuries of wind and rain, and the rock becomes ever and warmer in color. Suddenly, as you turn one more corner, out of nowhere a magical glowing edifice appears -- the Kazneh.


With three perfectly smooth Nabatean -- almost Corinthian -- columns on either side of a huge doorway, the Kazneh, glows in pinkish terracotta. Carved out of soft sandstone the rock was as easy to manipulate by cutters as by the weather -- and yet its corners are remarkably sharp and well-preserved.


As in all the Nabatean tombs, the bareness of the Kazneh's interior highlights the mystery of these relics left by a lost people. The empty square rooms are stark in contrast to the magnificent exterior, offering the imagination endless scenarios for their original uses and appearances.


To the nomads who visited Petra, the large urn on the second level of the building was magically carved by the Pharaoh of Egypt. They also believed that a huge treasure was stored in the urn, and that shooting it open would reveal a shower of jewels and gold.


Follow the path to the town and immediately to the right there is another tomb, cut into the rock. "Baby! Baby!" cries a small group of Bedouin children perched above it. And sure enough, high up, near a long crack in the rock is a picture of a small child, its arms outstretched, barely recognizable in the surrounding grandeur.


According to the children, the figure is ordering visitors to stop and pay taxes as they enter the city. Keep going, however, and after passing about 40 caves you pass the Roman amphitheater, the street of colonnades and eventually the remains of a huge arched gateway leading to the Roman temple area.


It was here that I met Haroun, a Bedouin whose family owns one of the site's two restaurants. Until 10 years ago, when he was 13 years old, Haroun lived with his family in a spacious cave on the Western end of the valley. Then, through a combination of benefits and pressure, the Jordanian government made the families that inhabited the valley move to a newly built village on the outskirts of Petra.


Today, most of them make a living by selling camel bone and beaten-metal trinkets to tourists, or leading them around on horses, donkeys and camels. Their children are barefoot with matted hair and irresistible smiles.


"Many of us wanted to move," Haroun said. "They gave us real houses with water and electricity and good schools for the children. But I still don't sleep so well there and when I can I go back to my cave. The caves and the rocks and this valley are my home."


Now, instead of herding the goats that he said led him to discover every inch of the area, Haroun serves humus and beer to hundreds of tourists in a small tent opposite the temple. Occasionally he helps film crews, more often as a translator and organizer than as an extra.


Over several cups of sage tea, which along with large quantities of water are vital to one's health and well being as one climbs around the hot, dry city, he invited me to stay with his family in the new village.


The valley became quieter and quieter as its visitors filed out, back up the Siq. Then the Bedouins began to lead out their horses, camels and donkeys, and Haroun and I began our long walk to his village.


Sound-of-Music-style, we climbed over hill after hill, stopping to look at ancient Nabatean pottery -- fine terracotta-colored fragments with pale gray designs, littered around the excavations.


Haroun's older brother, Hussein, works with a team of archaeologists from Brown University, excavating a Byzantine church near the colonnades. Forbidden by the authorities to dig anything up without their knowledge, the Bedouins say they know of dozens of other Byzantine and Roman ruins buried in the valley. But the government will not provide money for excavations, and without a team of experts the Bedouins have no way of working on projects alone.


As the sun began to set, Haroun sat down on a rock, reached into his pocket and pulled out a tin flute. He had made it himself a few years ago and taught himself how to play it when he was herding the goats, he said.


Ancient Bedouin songs rang out across the now-deserted valley, where splendid mountains of rock tower over hills dotted with greenery and the setting sun glowed over the Royal Tombs.


On the far right was the Urn Tomb, the columns of which rise up over the valley. Named after the vessel on its roof, the Nabatean structure built in the first century A.D. was used as Petra's Christian cathedral about 400 years after it was built, probably as a burial site for Nabatean King Malchus II.


Next to it, the tiny Silk Tomb looks almost unnatural -- a designer tomb, by Herm?s -- named because of the watery pastel-colored stripes across its front. Further along, the Palace tomb is believed to contain the remnants of Nabatean kings, and the Corinthian tomb with its carved columns, is topped with a second level, remarkably similar to the treasury.


Above them all are the so-called high places, exposed mountain tops where the Nabatean high priests would offer sacrifices to their gods on sacrificial platforms in which the small gutters for the blood to run off are still clearly visible.


Haroun's chunky flute had a tinny harshness that complimented the carefree melody he played.


He put it back into the pocket of his jeans, readjusted his red and white checked headdress and set off once again toward his village. Once he pointed to a small plot of land allocated to him by the government.


"Here, I will build a house for when I have a wife and a family," he said. "But my real home is still in the cave where I was born."


By this time the sun had set and I had the distinct feeling that I was lost in the middle of nowhere. Haroun confessed that he was leading me the long and complicated way to his village so that the police could not see us on the main road. They know that his people frequently smuggle tourists into Petra and save them the 25 dinar ($35) entrance fee.


Earlier, the bedouins would also stop Israeli's from entering Petra illegally. Today, when the borders between Jordan and Israel have been opened, he guides them by the busloads.


As we neared the final stretch toward his village, I caught sight of a flashlight in the distance. Ready to duck for cover, I suddenly heard a plaintive sound as one of Haroun's friends rounded the corner with a bleating kid-goat in his arms.


Finally we reached Haroun's home where his mother had baked a pile of pita bread, and prepared the distinctly un-local meal of canned sardines. Still unaccustomed to living in a house, his family has made no attempt to decorate it, and the children's dirty clothes and matted hair belie the existence of the building's modern conveniences.


After supper, his sister gave me a mat which I lined up next to the big one that Hussein's wife shares with her two small children. And despite the television that blasts Arabic music throughout the night, I fell asleep within minutes to be awoken the next morning by the cry of the muezzin and the frantic braying of donkeys in the courtyard.





How to Get There


Aeroflot (Tel: 241-6996 or 578-0101) flies to Amman on Sundays at 11:25 a.m., arriving at 2:30 p.m. for about $516 round trip.


Taxis from Amman to Petra cost about 30 Jordanian dinars ($42), and buses run daily, every two hours from the Al Mimurah hotel on Middle East Circle. The journey takes about 2 1/2 hours by car and slightly longer by bus.


Transaero (Tel: 578-0537) flies from Moscow to Tel Aviv and Eilat for $484 round trip. While it is possible to reach Petra from the North by crossing the Allenby Bridge about one hour's trip away from Jerusalem, an easier alternative is to enter Jordan at the Eilat-Aqaba crossing, about 1 1/2 hours from Petra by taxi.


If you are going via Israel, an organized tour is probably the best idea, being cheaper and a great deal more convenient than struggling with taxis, buses and the border crossings on your own. Remember that the borders are closed Fridays and Saturdays.


Jordanian visas are much easier to obtain in Moscow than in Israel. The consulate is located at 3 Mamonovsky Pereulok, (Tel: 299-4344, 299-1242, 299-2845 or 299-9564)





Where to Stay


In Wadi Musa, the Petra Forum Hotel (Tel: 962-3-336266) offers a double room for the official price of $151 per night and singles for $134. The main attraction of the hotel is that the rooms have terraces that overlook the rocky moon scape of Petra and are magical at dusk, as bats fly overhead and shadows lengthen in the caves.


Prices at the Petra Forum Rest House range from $67 to $101. There are dozens of cheaper alternatives in Wadi Musa, including the Moon Valley Hotel, with double rooms for about $35. Prices are negotiable and do not include breakfast.


In Petra, many Bedouins will take paying guests to their homes or the caves for the night.