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 Jordan‘s #1 tourist attraction. As Petra Archaeological Park, it is now managed by an autonomous authority.
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.