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Petra Carves Immortal Niche Middle East Site a Marvel in Stone

The Washington Times, Sunday, December 27, 1998
By Judith Kreiner

It’s a dandy place for an ambush. We enter a crack in the cliff just wide enough to admit a camel and rider and travel about a half-mile through a crevasse that at times widens to about the width of a pickup truck before bending into a sharp angle that makes it impossible to anything less flexible than a spine. The multi layered, multicolored walls of the pass tower over our heads. In places the ground is paved with stones that date to the Romans. Sand, though slippery, is easier on the feet. A hand full of defenders properly positioned could stop an army here-and occasionally did.

Then the pass ends, the crevasse opens wide and the ancient red city of Petra, “Half as old as time” as the poet said, is before us. We stand on a site that has been occupied for more than 8,000 years, a place that two millenniums ago was the center of the small but highly successful Nabatean civilization.

Here, protected from invasion by nature’s unyielding ramparts, a culture grew from a small group of hunter-gatherers into a sophisticated city of about 20,000. Through the years, they learned to harvest water from the site’s natural springs, the winter’s snowfall and summer’s showers. They built aqueducts through the mountain, carrying more from distant springs.

The water, and the protection guaranteed by the Petra mountains, attracted passing caravans in need of a place to rest and restock. Romans, Greeks, Turks, Egyptians-they all passed through Petra, leaving trade goods, foreign gods, new ideas and styles of architecture, and carrying away tales of a city hidden in stone.

Petra was never taken by force, though the Romans did add it to their empire with threats to the distant springs. The kings of Petra paid tribute and in turn the Romans built a theater that even today can seat 6,000 on its stone benches. In time, the Byzantine empire replaced Rome and the Christian God found his place as the devout built an impressive church only recently rediscovered and under excavation in the heart of Petra.

Though war passed it by, in time Petra seemed to sink into the rock. The city was severely damaged by an earthquake, but such disasters are common in the area and usually people rebuild. Speculation holds that the water table fell, the climate changed slightly and the site no longer could support such a large concentration of inhabitants.

It was never abandoned, however, as the local wandering tribes continued to occupy its caves and make use of its remaining small springs. In the early 1800s as a wave of interest in things scientific and matters ancient swept through the west, an Englishman followed up those tales of a hidden city. Local Bedouins led him to the crevasse and showed him Petra, no doubt puzzling why someone had come so far to see something so commonplace to them. Or perhaps they, too, marveled at the magic of Petra, this city nestled in the heart of a mountain. Certainly we current travelers marvel as we stand on the valley floor and stare up at the building commonly called the treasury. Its rose-red facade suggests both Greek and Roman architecture with its tall columns, capitals and pediments.

The shock is that it has not been erected but rather carved from living rock. The building within is a cave that has been enlarged to the size of a temple. Current knowledge holds that it is that burial site of one of Petra’s more prominent kings, though no evidence of a sarcophagus or grave exists today. To the untutored eye, it could just as easily be a temple or perhaps the office or a city official ready to collect a toll from the caravans as they enter.

(If you saw “Indiana Jones and the last crusade,” you have had a glimpse of Petra and the treasury. The facade was used as the frontage for the cave where the ancient crusader guarded the holy grail. The maze, the bridge and everything else, however, was the work of industrial light and magic.)

Turn right and begin walking downhill and there are more enlarged caves with fancy facades. There, too, are tombs, and bodies and grave goods have been found in them. One wonders why the residents of Petra found it necessary to keep their dead so close and in such splendor.

Petra’s living residents clustered in a good-sized town built of limits one and brick in the center of a huge natural amphitheater farther along the path. Here the mountain walls have retreated to leave a substantial flat area about the size of lower manhattan that supported homes, businesses and even some agriculture. Trees and bushes still grow lushly here, sustained by the natural springs.

The Byzantine church is here on a slight rise. It faces a temple with a decidedly grook feel to it.

Though Petra no longer shelters passing caravans, it still attracts travelers from Afar. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has relocated the Bedouin tribes that formerly occupied the site and tastefully turned it into a major tourist attraction. Visitors can walk from the tourism center down a steep hillside to the entry in the cliff, or they can rent a horse or a horse-drawn buggy and make the trip in style. (conversation with horse guide: “A madam is an American! Where in America does madam live?” “Washington, madam replies. “Ah, yes, my brother drives a cab in Seattle!”

The little wagons will carry passengers through the half-mile of the crevasse. Making the trip afoot, however, leaves time to marvel at the beauty of the cliffs, the Roman paving stones, tiny shrines to vanished gods and the recently excavated conduits that harvested water sleeping from the walls.

Even today, Petra offers rest and refreshment to the weary. The Intercontinental Hotel chain operates a small but attractive restaurant at the far end of the valley. It does a raving business in beer. It also offers shaded terrace where the weary can sit and watch the appearance of the rock change with the angle of the sun. There is only one way in and the trip from the restaurant to the left in the cliff is all uphill on sand. This is the point at which a camel begins to look attractive-or at least as attractive as it is possible for a camel to look. Discussion starts at 10 Dinar, about $15, but the price is negotiable when madam declares she does not wish to buy the camel but merely rent it for a while.

Petra is not inexpensive. Admission is 20 Dinar, about $30, and the tourist who is not up to making the trip afoot is going to lay out at least $20 and perhaps more-depending on the time of day, the direction of travel and the number of people willing to spend money instead of sweat.

Comparing, however, the cost to the price of admission at a Disney attraction is a useful antidote to sticker shock.

Petra is short on robotics and roller coaster but long on the magic that is to be found only in those sites where people have lived so long in such unbroken sequence.

Caveman, hunter, harvester, builder, trader and now tourist. and Petra remains, its stone enduring long beyond the brief existence of flesh. “Rose-red Petra, half as old as time.”

Cooperation between Jordan’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the national geographic society has brought examples of the art of Petra to the Washington area.

What: Petra: Jordan’s city in the rock.

Where: Explorers hall, 17th and M street NW

When: Through Feb. 7; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Admission: Free

Phone: (202) 857-7588