Perhaps it was Ismail's desire to put a modern spin on ancient history.

Standing in front of the sun-baked Treasury, the most famous of this fabled city's monuments, he told a story of how the Romans had driven the Nabateans out of this mountainous stronghold in the second century.They had, he said, used a blockade, a primitive but effective version of what the United Nations is currently applying against Iraq, which is just across the shimmering sands. The Romans' masterstroke was to cut the Nabateans' water supply, a sophisticated system of channels carved through the mountains and pipes made of fine ceramics. It ran from the Wadi Mousa and was fed from Ain Mousa (Spring of Moses). It can still be seen today.

The system, supplemented by a series of carved mountaintop cisterns that caught whatever rain or snow might fall, kept a population of up to 20,000 from going thirsty in one of the world's most arid climates.

The Romans, for all their military strength, would have been hard pressed to attack, said Ismail. The only way into Petra was through the Siq, a mile-long gorge, up to 400 feet high and down to six feet wide at its narrowest.

It was tempting to seek parallels in what happened here centuries ago and what is happening in the region today as a mighty multinational army from the West tries to use a trade embargo instead of force to drive an Arab enemy out of his stronghold.

Unfortunately, Ismail's story was such an innocent exercise in misinformation that it would be a shaky basis for reliable precedent.

Current wisdom has it that the Roman domination of the Nabateans was finally achieved by Emperor Trajan when he ordered his governor in Syria, Cornelius Palma, to annex the Nabatean kingdom, based in Petra.

This was apparently done administratively rather than militarily, an assumption borne out by the fact that Trajan coins, issued after the annexation, carried the words Arabia acquisita (Arabia acquired) rather than Arabia capta (Arabia conquered).

"There is no evidence of a fight to the last by harassed Nabateans: The Roman occupation seems to have taken place as a matter of course," wrote Iain Browning in his authoritative history "Petra." He suggested there might even have been a deal with the Romans guaranteeing the last king of Nabatea, Rabbel II (A.D. 71-106), full independence for life on the understanding that the Romans would assume power after his death. An early lesson in linkage, perhaps?

But so much for Ismail and the trade blockade.

It is not even true that there is only one entrance to Petra - from the east through the narrow and spectacular Siq.

In biblical days, when this was a major crossing point for trade routes, the peoples of Edom, Moab, Judah and Assyria came here from the north and south, through the Rift Valley, along the shores of the Dead Sea or across the scorching Wadi al-Araba.

What is true today is that the Siq is the dramatic entry route for most tourists.

It was at the mouth of the Siq, below the village of Elji, that I met Ismail.

A Bedouin in his late 20s, he was casually dressed as much for the city as the desert in black shirt and jeans. His face was darkened by designer stubble that would have done a pop singer proud.

He was born in nearby Wadi Mousa. He had spent 18 months in London as a waiter, and his English was happily more understandable than his facts were reliable.

I had hired him, a horse and groom for 11 dinars (approximately $10) for the three- hour tour of the romantic ruins. Another dinar got me through the entrance gate.

I was invited to sign the visitors' book. Only three other names were in it the day I arrived.

The Bedouin groom, his red-checked kaffiyeh bound to his head by a knotted black band, persuaded the scrawny but docile nag to allow me to mount. The saddle was covered by a multicolored cloth, doubtless crocheted by one of the black-garbed Bedouin women I had glimpsed on the drive from Amman through the desert.

The Bedouin nearer Amman opt to live in small, flat-roofed houses, but farther south toward Aqaba the number of traditional low, multiroomed black wool tents increases. There are camels roaming the sand, but some of the tents have pickup trucks parked outside.

The entrance to Petra is nothing short of fantastic. The Siq is so narrow in places that it is hard for horse and groom to squeeze through together. It is shaded and mercifully cool. High above is a sliver of bright blue sky. Along one wall runs the ancient water channel.

The horse clip-clops through, rounding familiar twists and stopping obediently whenever Ismail, mounted alongside, recognizes another point of interest.

Suddenly ahead, bright against the reed-thin dark frame of the gorge, is the first glimpse of this (as described in an 1845 poem) "rose-red city half as old as time" - Pharaoh's Treasury, the Khasneh al Faroun.

To the Bedouin, who alone knew of Petra during its centuries as "The Forgotten City," the urn atop the monument was believed to have contained all Pharaoh's treasures. Ismail pointed out the many bullet marks attesting to the tribesmen's desperate attempts to break open the urn and be showered by undreamed-of riches. Such acquisitive marksmanship is now illegal.

Outside Pharaoh's Treasury - and almost every other point of interest - was a stall holder, offering "genuine" antiques, jewelry, embroidery and bottles of multicolored Petra sand.

These are hard times for them. Only a trickle of visitors arrives daily now. The hundreds of tourists who used to come have been inadequately replaced by a handful of journalists and the occasional businessman.

"Normally we get about 800 a day," said Ismail. "Now, maybe eight."

Apparently on some sort of commission, he kept pressing at each stall and within hearing of the stall holder: "You want to buy something?"

Finally, recognizing a hard touch with the easy perception that comes to a professional guide, he said: "I know one man who is 82. An old man. He lives in the caves here. He has many things. He finds them at night. They are genuine."

We eventually encountered the senior citizen outside the Urn Tomb, where he enticed me into his "museum," a cave in which a small table carried an assortment of "antique" oil burners, coins, seals.

I thanked him but declined a purchase. Ismail now seemed to start worrying about his own prospect of further enrichment from this rarest of species these days, a tourist.

"Don't forget to tip the groom," he hinted. We completed the tour, and I dismounted, aware that I might be the only business my two escorts had that day.

I gave the groom five dinars and Ismail 10. That was almost a 150 percent tip. Ismail thanked me but pointed out that I had only tipped the groom of my horse. The horse he rode also had a groom, although he did not accompany us. He now suddenly materialized like a genie out of one of the oil lamps I had declined to buy.

Fearing there might be a tribe at hand, I demurred further payment, said I felt I had been generous and if the other groom needed reward, Ismail, who rode the horse, would have to see to it.

He accepted the logic, or perhaps the firmness, in good grace, smiled and offered his hand.

I shook it and said: "I hope the crisis ends soon and business is again good for you."

He spat on the ground and said simply: "The crisis. The crisis is ... ."