It’s not surprising that Petra was voted to be one of the new seven wonders of the world – pictures just don’t do it justice.
No matter how many images you see of Petra, Jordan’s most popular tourist attraction, nothing prepares you for the overwhelmingly breathtaking reaction that takes hold when you emerge from the shadowed, cool and narrow gorge that is the Siq and see, first just a sliver, then the massive columned façade of The Treasury (Al Khazneh) ablaze in its characteristic rose-red in the sunlight.
The immediate response is to stand still in awe of it – and everyone has their own reason to pause. Mine was to flashback to the final scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade which shows The Treasury in all its sunlit glory – not a lavish set design, nor a location enhanced (or created) by computer technology, but the real thing (except for the smoke billowing out from it) – truly a man-made wonder that has survived earthquakes, erosion and floods for more than 2000 years.
It’s easy to marvel at the sheer brilliance of the carving that was done by hand all those years ago by the Nabataeans but a closer look also reveals hundreds of bullet holes in the façade, said to be the handiwork of thieves who thought there were treasures inside for the taking (archaeologists, however, have other theories of its uses, ranging from a burial place to mere storage).
But The Treasury is not the only reason more than a million tourists flock to Petra every year. There are so many more things to discover across the vast site that it can take several days to truly appreciate it.
The best way to start is to see Petra at night. Two or three times a week (depending on season) it is possible to walk the 1.5km or so of the Siq after dark, guided only by candlelight (about 1800 candles light the path) to The Treasury where everyone takes a seat on the mats lined up on the ground to listen to a performance of traditional music by local artists. It sets a suitably spiritual mood, and prepares you for at least some of the mileage that’s to come in the following day (or more) of sightseeing.
As we were on a five-day itinerary that covered the length of Jordan, we walked briskly passed the amphitheatre, the street of façades and tombs, climbed for a closer look at a few, and then made it our mission to climb the 900 or so steps to The Monastery (at about 50 metres wide and 50 metres high it is even more imposing in the mountainside than The Treasury). Some people do the climb on a donkey but the steps are so steep and the path so narrow in some places this seemed more precarious even than walking – but we did not give in! By the time we got back to the Treasury we were glad of a carriage ride back along the Siq at the end of the day.
The writer was a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board and the Petra Marriott Hotel.