Petra Threatened? Hard to Tell in a Few Hours

The splendid site in Jordan looks rock solid, but UNESCO and others are worried about its stability

Petra, an ancient Nabatean site in southern Jordan, had been on my bucket list even before Indiana Jones visited on horseback. Sculpted sandstone, slot canyons and spectacular structures carved into the pink-hued rock. The most spectacular façade is The Treasury, made famous in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” an unreal story filmed in a very real place. One of my motivations for signing up for the recent Society of American Travel Writers Freelance Council meeting in Israel largely so that I could also visit Petra, once the crossroads of the Nabatean kingdom and now a splendid, captivating archaeological site in southern Jordan.

I spent a few precious hours in Petra, like many tourists, on a day trip from Eilat or from a cruise ship calling on Aqaba on the Jordanian side of the border. For visitors like me coming from Eilat, there are border formalities, both Israeli and Jordanian, so that officials can do whatever with passports and collect exit fees ($55 when leaving Israel, $8 when leaving Jordan on the return). Then there’s the bus ride over the mountains, which had a dusting of snow in January, an obligatory stop at a barely heated gift shop and finally, to the entrance to the site on the outskirts of the town of Wadi Moussa. Petra was an important as crossroads for camel caravans that traveled the trade routes linking it with China, India, southern Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome. The Nabateans established it sometime around the 6th century B.C., with golden age of construction between the 2nd century B.C. and the 1st century A.D.  Problems came first when the Roman Empire swallowed all and then when the Crusaders had their turn at invading this land.

Petra had long been considered a “lost city” from antiquity. It was discovered — or rediscovered — in 1812, just 200 years ago. It has since become a UNESCO World Heritage site, is listed on the “new list” of seven wonders of the ancient world (the new list being of wonders that still exist) and is Jordans #1 tourist attraction. As Petra Archaeological Park, it is now managed by an autonomous authority.

First enticing peek-a-boo view of the Treasury from the Siq.(Flickr image)

Petra is geologically, archeologically and culturally a world wonder. It is also a tourist trap — though one with rigidly controlled territories: horseback rides from the main entrance to the Siq; horse-drawn cart rides to the Treasury; camel rides and donkey rides beyond the Treasury. Vendors clustered here and there selling cold drinks, snacks, jewelry and souvenirs. But of course, it is possible to walk to and from the Treasury and experience it step by step.

UNESCO is concerned about instability, especially in the Siq, the slot canyon through which casual visitors approach the main part of the site. Most of us don’t see instability in this kingdom of rock, because it is such a wondrous much-anticipated place that walking and gawking through this timeless place is all we do. Turns out that the Siq, and perhaps much of Petra, is more fragile than it seems.

The Jordanian Ministry of Tourism and UNESCO just signed an agreement to implement an evaluation and preservation project in the Petra’s Siq. Financed by the Italian Development Cooperation, the $1 million project will focus on sustainable monitoring techniques for assessing the instability of slopes in the narrow gorge that leads into the ancient city with implementation by international and Jordanian geologists.

Petra for a Day

The best time to visit and photograph Petra is in the morning or late afternoon, but a one-day visit means being there in mid-day — not ideal, but a lot better than not at all. Many of the most gifted photographers have trained their lenses on the remarkable Petra site, but nevertheless, I’m posting some of my snapshots taken during a one-day excursion from Eilat earlier this year.

Checkpoints on either side of a no man’s land at the Israel-Jordan border. Everyone crosses the few hundred feet on foot. since no vehicles are permitted there.
The wide road from the main entrance to the Siq is divided into a lane for fast-moving horses and another for slower pedestrians and rubber-tired carts that take two passengers plus a driver.
Walking through the Street of Facades and the Siq to me was the most desirable way to approach Petra’s major landmarks, but carts like this are an option for those who cannot or prefer not to walk. Petra was hot in the middle of the day, even in January.
A group of Muslim women near the entrance the Siq.
It is easy to see how this narrow entrance to the Siq, a slot canyon, could have been overlooked for so long. When Petra was thought to have been “lost,” the smooth walkway that visitors today use did not exist.
Petra thrived because the clever Nabateans built open aquaducts from natural springs through the canyons to places where they needed it.
No visitor can fail to be awestruck by the first glimpse of the Treasury, no matter how highly anticipated and no matter how many pcitures s/he has previously seen.
Here’s the full view — not in glorious early morning light — but approaching mid-day.
Soldiers at the Treasury willingly pose for a quick snapshot. As elsewhere in the Middle East, military and police presence is obvious at this important tourist destination.
Vendors are part of the Petra landscape — at least in the accessible and popular areas where there are customers.
Camel rides can be part of the Petra experience. This one is unimpressed by the antiquity. After all, its ancestors probably passed this way thousands of years ago.
Camels really do have marvelous expressions.
Vehicles are supposedly not permitted in the Petra Archealogical Park — except when they are, presumably for some official reason.
Fragments of columns and other architectural elements are lined up here and there, hopefully for some current or future restoration project.
A day trip was better than nothing, but I wish that the sign said “au revoir” or “auf Wiedersehen” instead of good-bye, because I’d love to return for a longer visit.