Petra — Ancient Nabateans built a place of wonder in the wilderness

Published: Sunday, Sept. 28 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

Visitors flock to the central bowl of the ancient city of Petra. The city abounds with ancient ruins.

Wade Jewkes, Deseret News

Just last year, National Geographic named Petra as one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World." What took them so long?

In 1989, Indiana Jones discovered Petra in the movie "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." Harrison Ford finally found the Holy Grail inside the Treasury at Petra after a triumphant dash and the usual heroics.

The movie depicted the romance of a "lost city," and there is surely no better location to characterize that sentiment than Petra.

"There is nothing in the world that resembles it." So says a Jordanian tourism booklet about Petra; and well, who's to argue?

Petra was discovered — at least in modern times — by Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt in 1812. The Bedouins inhabited the ancient city until 1985, where they lived in caves and tents until the Jordanian government relocated approximately 1,000 people to a nearby housing estate.

Perched on the edge of the Arabian Desert, Petra lies just 80 kilometers (about 49 miles) south of the Dead Sea and some 260 kilometers (161 miles) from Amman, Jordan's capital city. An Arab nomadic tribe known as the Nabateans built Petra, which became the ancient capital of the Nabatean kingdom from 9 B.C. to A.D. 40.

Nabateans were obviously very skilled craftsmen, and the precise, detailed carvings they created beget wonderment of how this was accomplished with tools from that era.

An interesting feature of the Nabateans is that inscriptions have been found that indicate Nabatean women, unlike many of their contemporaries, inherited and owned property in their own right.

Dates are sketchy as to when inhabitants first arrived, but 300 B.C. is a general consensus of archaeologists.

However, everyone who visits here is left breathless by the stunning, architectural beauty. And the breathless part can be taken almost literally when one considers the hike in is about two miles to the main bowl area and from there it requires a steep climb covering 950 steps to reach the famed Monastery monument — that is if the wear and tear on your body can withstand the rigors required from this masochistic behavior. But it is worth it.

However, for the less energetically inclined, rides can be purchased. There is no mechanical transportation, but you have various options of camels, horses, horse-drawn carriages and donkeys. Only the latter are available for the mountain climb to the Monastery.

The most famous monument is the Treasury, and as seen in the Indy movie, this intricately carved monument is suddenly thrust into view after you travel through a long, narrow gorge called a Siq that's about 15 feet wide, with rising walls some 900 feet high.

Inside the Treasury is a rather plain design, and it does not contain the huge stone lions found by Indiana Jones. An urn on top of the monument is believed to have contained treasure, and clearly visible bullet holes remain today where Bedouins are said to have fired shots every time they passed by in an attempt to release the treasure. (Maybe that's why the government moved the Bedouins out.)

One story says the pharaohs hid treasure in the urn while chasing the Israelites. Moses' wandering in the wilderness was definitely in the area, and there are stories that the narrow entrance into the Siq kept Moses and his band out. But time frames don't match, although there were possibly earlier peoples before the Nabateans.

But more likely stories revolve around pirates hiding treasures in the urn. In any case, no treasure has ever been found. At least not from gunfire.

At any rate, it is impossible to prepare anyone for what they will see at Petra. My first inclination when entering the Siq was the similarity to canyon gorges at Lake Powell; then I thought that wasn't really appropriate. Yet Steven Spielberg filmed the first half hour of his movie in southern Utah when young Indy was growing up.