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Jordan: Of Sandstone and Sanctuary


Walking in Petra

Books have been written on Petra. I’m allowed a few hundred words. For this story, it’s fitting to note two things about Petra. It is near Wadi Musa, the Valley of Moses, where Moses may have struck the rock with his staff for water, thus being forbidden by God to enter the Promised Land. And Petra was likely the last staging post for the Three Kings, who took gold, frankincense and myrrh to Bethlehem to honor the birth of Jesus.

Setting Scripture aside, I’ll begin by repeating what I told Jordan Tourism Board host Omar Banihani during lunch there. In my opinion, Petra is every bit the archaeological site that Machu Picchu is. The study it represents in ancient human achievement is equally remarkable, but Petra is much larger.

Most see the iconic image of the Treasury in Petra and think of that as their destination. For me, the walk in was the prize. To walk a mile or so through a towering canyon that was lost to outside civilization for five centuries seemed otherworldly. Once you arrive at the Treasury, you’ve only begun to see that 2,600-year-old site.

“In 600 B.C., Petra’s story began,” said our guide, Mahmoud Twaissi, as we walked into the Siq, the canyon leading to the Treasury. “Petra was the capital of a huge kingdom built by the Nabateans until the second century A.D. In the fourth century A.D., they accepted Christianity as their religion. There was an earthquake in the seventh century that destroyed much of Petra. We believe that 80 percent of Petra lies beneath the rubble.”

We stopped to study huge stone steps carved high into a cliff face.

“Babylonians built steps for souls to climb to the sky,” said Mahmoud.

“In the 12th and 13th centuries, the crusaders built a fort in Petra,” he said. “After that time, Petra was lost to the Ottoman Empire. In 1812, a Swiss explorer, Jean Louis Burckhardt, announced he had found the lost city of Petra. Even then, it was more than a century before tourists started coming with Thomas Cook.”

Our group spent most of the day in Petra. We walked two and a half miles or so into the site and stopped at the Treasury to admire its ornate facade in the morning sun. We proceeded onward to gaze at towering archaeological sites including the High Place of Sacrifice, the Urn Tomb and the Monastery. The Urn Tomb was converted to a church sometime in the fifth century.

After lunch at the restaurant on-site, most of our group took donkeys up to the Bedouin village above Petra and caught a ride back to the hotel. Several others of us walked back on our own, spending all the time we could in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.