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

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 4 2015 11:59 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) 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.
The Nabatean amphitheater in Petra seats 4,000 people. (Wade Jewkes, Deseret News) The Nabatean amphitheater in Petra seats 4,000 people. (Wade Jewkes, Deseret News)
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.
The Monastery that sits on top of Petra is built similarly to the Treasury but is about 16 1/2 feet taller. (Wade Jewkes, Deseret News) The Monastery that sits on top of Petra is built similarly to the Treasury but is about 16 1/2 feet taller. (Wade Jewkes, Deseret News)
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.
The entrance to the Siq narrows to about 15 feet. Some believe the tight squeeze discouraged Moses and his followers from entering. (Wade Jewkes, Deseret News) The entrance to the Siq narrows to about 15 feet. Some believe the tight squeeze discouraged Moses and his followers from entering. (Wade Jewkes, Deseret News)
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.
The view coming out of Siq is the same shown in 1989 Indiana Jones movie. (Wade Jewkes, Deseret News) The view coming out of Siq is the same shown in 1989 Indiana Jones movie. (Wade Jewkes, Deseret News)
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.
Geography and landscapes may be similar, but there is certainly no comparison between Utah Indian rock art and the art gallery created by the Nabateans. In fact, many scholars believe this treasure of the ancient world was created to impress, as opposed to Egyptian custom of building elaborate burial tombs. The purpose of both the Treasury and the Monastery remains a mystery.
Some think the Treasury and the Monastery were burial tombs, but so far there is just not enough evidence to verify that. There are ongoing excavations that may prove to be more conclusive.
The Treasury still shows the marks of bullet holes shot by those who attempted to release the urn's treasure.  (Wade Jewkes, Deseret News) The Treasury still shows the marks of bullet holes shot by those who attempted to release the urn's treasure. (Wade Jewkes, Deseret News)
Dimensions of both monuments are similar, but the Monastery reaches 45 meters (147.6 feet) in height versus the Treasury's 40 meters (131.2 feet). The greater fame of the Treasury can only be attributed to its easier access — being located just over a mile into the ancient city.
In our tour group of 50 people, only about half braved the rugged mountain hike to the Monastery. Fortunately for me, at the top I bought a cold Coke, which saved the day. Just as they say, you can buy a Coke anywhere in the world.
After resting up awhile and admiring the stark beauty of the magnificent columns in this monument, I started back down. A member of our group, Janelle Andersen, caught me on the way down and told me there was some native Jordanian or Bedouin who was playing Tarzan up on the monument jumping between the columns. I told her she was joking and wouldn't believe it without seeing it. She promptly produced a photo on her digital camera, and I was ready to turn around and go back up to see this crazy guy. But he had already come down from his adventure, and she had talked to him. She said he must have been on drugs.
Temperatures at Petra were in the mid 80s in May. We were told that was cooler than average. Water and various other beverages were readily available. Inside the bowl area there were even a couple of restaurants. And, of course, the obligatory trinket stands lined the entire trail selling all manner of touristy things.
Over 800 monuments lie within the bowl structure, which is believed to have harbored some 30,000 residents during the first century A.D. Many hikes begin on the fringes of the center bowl leading to ancient structures that can best be viewed from the hike to the Monastery. To see everything at Petra would require a stay of at least a week.
The Nabateans were expert hydraulic engineers. The walls of the Siq are lined with channels that were originally fitted with clay pipes to carry drinking water to the city, while a dam to the right of the entrance diverted a stream through a tunnel to prevent it from flooding the Siq.
Petra became the center of a busy spice trade between the first century B.C. and the third century A.D. A large earthquake destroyed at least half the city in A.D. 363. Petra never returned to its earlier glory.
The birth and life of Jesus Christ, which took place not too far in the distance, seemed to pass unnoticed. However, by A.D. 313 Christianity had become a state recognized religion, but pagan worship continued in Petra side by side with Christianity.
A certain mobster monk called Bar Sauma arrived at Petra in 423 with 40 brother monks who felt it their duty to rectify whatever paganism was still taking place. Outside Petra, the monks had destroyed many pagan temples and were thrashing at the city gates when a torrential rainstorm hit that broke down part of the city wall.
The whole episode was deemed to be of truly miraculous significance as there had been an unbroken drought for four years, and the impressed pagan priests converted to Christianity.
Indiana Jones discovered the Holy Grail there, but the site of Petra was not identified in the film. And, oh yes, it was only a movie.

If you go ...

Getting there: Go with a tour group. There are too many pitfalls, otherwise. One example: The entrance fee to Petra included a horse ride to and from the Siq entrance, a distance of about one mile. But the animal owners were obstinate in extracting an additional charge. It required help from the tour operators to resolve the issue.
Accommodations: The Marriott in Amman was the best hotel we encountered in the Middle East. It had the best food and best room amenities. For more than one day at Petra, stay near the site. There are 75 hotels there today, and all are relatively new, as the first one was built in 1980.


E-mail: wjewkes@desnews.com

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