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Lost City of Wonder

Articles

Lost City of Wonder

Janice and George Mucalov

Explore ancient rose-red Petra – and marvel at its magnificent rock-cliff monuments

The largest monument at Petra, the “Monastery” rests high above the city. When the sun sets, a shadow of a lion’s head (the sacred animal of the Nabateans’ goddess) is recreated on the rocks opposite.

Gazing up at Petra’s monuments – feet sinking into soft red sand and dust swirling about – you can’t help but be amazed by the genius of its ancient Nabatean builders. Wealthy traders and masterful sculptors, they chiseled a vast city of beautifully carved royal tombs, sacred halls, mammoth temples and cave houses out of rose-and-peach rock in the Jordanian desert. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Petra today ranks alongside the Great Wall of China as one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.”

To reach Petra, a horse carries you along a stony track to the “Siq,” the narrow 1.2-kilometre canyon snaking through one of the mountains guarding the metropolis. Sandstone cliffs soar 80 metres on either side as you walk the Siq’s twists. Stone idols line the passage, and guides point out clay pipes that fed water into the city. Limestone slabs you’re walking on date back to Roman times.

Suddenly, the Treasury, carved into a sheer rock wall, comes into view. Sunlight glows on this monument’s façade: double rows of 12 Corinthian columns, crowned by a giant stone urn. Left, down a colonnaded street, hundreds of royal tombs, sacred halls, cave houses and even an amphitheatre sprawl before you in a desert valley.

The Nabateans started building Petra around the 5th century B.C. While they likely chose its site for easy defence, the stronghold stood at the crossroads of ancient trade routes linking East and West. Travellers on caravans of camels loaded with spices, incense, silks and gold were taxed by the Nabateans when they made safe passage through Petra’s corridors.

Researchers have discovered the Nabateans sculpted their monuments to capture key celestial events and create images with sunlight. The setting sun etches a sacred lion’s head near the Monastery. 

Petra’s grandest edifice, the Monastery, perches atop 850 sandstone stairs that twist through even more other-worldly canyons. Enjoy a respite inside its awe-inspiring architecture, take in polychrome views and enjoy a refreshing tea from a simple Bedouin shack up top.

Petra at its height was a glory of the ancient world, only fading away in the 4th century A.D. when the Nabateans left. Perhaps earthquakes or shifting trade routes led to its decline; no one knows for sure. Lost to the modern world until a Swiss explorer rediscovered it in 1812, only 60% of the city has been unearthed again. Who knows what other secrets this ancient kingdom may yet reveal?

 

After passing through the city’s narrow entryway, the intricately carved “Treasury” suddenly bursts into view. It’s believed the stone urn crowning Petra’s most famous monument once hid treasure. 

 

 

How to visit

Package tours to Jordan and Middle Eastern cruises offer Petra excursions. Independent travelers, hire a licensed tour guide to maximize your visit (book at the Petra Visitor Centre). Allow two days to take in the 65-acre site. Two-day 55 JD (about $85 CAN) admittance fees include a horseback ride to the Siq entrance. A horse-drawn carriage to the Treasury costs extra as does a donkey ride up the 850 steps to see the Monastery. www.visitpetra.jo

Where to stay

Petra’s closet hotel is the luxurious Movenpick Resort Petra, with 183 newly renovated rooms, seven dining venues, and gorgeous Middle Eastern interior design. moevenpick-hotels.com 

Best time to go

Pleasantly warm Spring (March to May) and Autumn (September to November) are the best times to visit. Avoid Summer’s scorching heat.

Health and safety

Jordan is safe to visit (but check Canadian government travel advisories before you go). Minimize health risks by drinking bottled water and eating at recommended places. Petra is hot and sandy: wear comfortable walking shoes (not sandals); carry bottled water, a hat and sunscreen.

Photo by Janice Mucalov

 

The only access into Petra is through a wondrous, long, narrow gorge with rose-coloured sandstone walls soaring 80 metres high on both sides.