My wife Molly has been teaching in Doha, Qatar for the last 3 years, affording us a rare opportunity to travel to places I thought I might never get to. In early 2014, we had the chance to visit Petra, Jordan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World,’ and possibly the most amazing place I have ever been to. Petra is perhaps most famous for its appearance at the end of ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,’ as the final resting place of the Holy Grail.
Being there, it’s easy to see why it was chosen. The place radiates ancient mystery. Every aspect of it inspires wonder, and there is more behind every corner and in every crevice. Petra is a living archaeological site – there are no ropes or barriers, no alarmed glass cases filled with artifacts. You are very literally a part of the site as you wander through it. The main site is usually approached by walking through the Siq, a steep-walled natural rock corridor made from the area’s famous red stone. Along side you runs an ancient aquifer which the ancient Nabateans constructed to create this artificial oasis in the desert and make the settlement of Petra possible.
A half-hour walk brings you to the site’s most breathtaking sight: a sliver-like glance of the famous Treasury, or Al-Kazneh, a fifth-century temple carved into the cliff-face itself. It sits there like a mirage, nearly pristing save for scores of bullet holes, the result of treasure hunters acting on the legend that the urn at the temple’s apex was an ancient repository for Nabatean gold. It is hard to imagine, but this resplendant sight is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to Petra’s wonders. When you’ve calmed your beating heart from the sight of the Treasury, a further walk down the trail opens into the valley proper, and you are greeted with rock-cut living spaces and tombs covering the cliff faces in every direction. The Street of the Facades even includes and ancient amphitheatre, and as you walk into the main part of the valley, there are even more ancient columned temples, excavation sites and rock-cut paths and staircases leading to other parts of the complex.
A robust hike (or ride on a donkey) will get you to Ad Deir, or ‘the Monastery’, the second most famous site at Petra, another carved temple on one of the surrounding mountain tops. You can sit and sip tea in the company of the local cat residents, dwarfed in the temple’s shadow and overlooking the surrounding desert vistas. It is utterly breathtaking and unforgettable. Getting down, we took a twisting, winding path down the other side of the mountain, past local villagers selling their wares, with close up views of many of the valley’s tombs. Tombs that you can walk into and explore. For the athletic types there are smaller hikes around the site to take you to places like the ‘High Place of Sacrifice’, Snake Monument, and a nearby Crusader fort. Worn and exhausted, it’s a trudge back to the main entrance, but you once again get to take in views of the entire site and revisit the Treasury. For the truly exhausted, there are plenty of camels to help you on your journey. Petra is truly one of the wonders of the world.
If you are ever anywhere near the Middle East, go out of your way to see it. It will stick with you for the rest of your life.