Jordan's Petra
Facade of al Khazneh, or the Treasury, seen from the Sig's narrow ravine. (Photo by Debi Lander)

Jordan's Petra

Dawn blew a gentle breeze through the entryway, but a few paces beyond, stillness prevailed. Unseen birds chirped wakeup calls and chalky dust stirred at my feet. I felt humbled as I trekked down the same path used by the Nabataeans, the people who prospered here 2,300 years ago.

I vacillated between wanting to rush forward or stop to savor the astonishing surroundings. I brushed along snaking corridors whose rock walls towered half as high as the Washington Monument. Then, about 30 minutes in, I stopped suddenly. Entranced by the protruding edge of the Treasury–Petra’s most elaborate temple ruins–I leaned into my camera lens to record the dramatic viewpoint.

Occasionally you live out a moment that etches into your memory. Your senses run on high speed, but your brain seems to record like a slow-motion video. Such was the case as I explored the mysterious Sig in Petra, Jordan.

The Sig (pronounced “seek”) is a mile-long ravine, a dry riverbed of sinuous twists and turns tucked between 300-foot salmon-hued boulders. The passageway alternately narrows to single file and then broadens enough to allow for a campsite–one of its original uses.

Keen observers notice niches, chiseled designs, water conduits and tombs blending with the sandstone. Miraculously, a few scrubby trees sprout through sun-baked crevices, bringing new life to the ancient desert.

At the end looms al-Khazneh–the Arabic name of the Treasury, one of the world’s most famous facades–which was recently hailed in a new listing of the Seven Wonders of the World. One by one, tourists step forward, file into the plaza and drop their jaws or gasp.

Here the wide-angle view of the Treasury emerges, a 130-foot stone edifice chiseled from a single slab. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade featured Harrison Ford and Sean Connery’s escape from the building. The columned site is the crowning jewel of “the red-rose city half as old as time,” so named by theologian John William Burgon. The delicate beauty and fine detailing intoxicate better than aged merlot and the pleasure is simply to stand in awe.

Petra was lost once when Middle East capitals and trading routes changed. Earthquakes twice ravaged the area. By the 13th century, only local Bedouin tribes remembered the city. In 1812, Swiss explorer Jean Louis Burckhardt disguised himself as an Arab and convinced a guide to take him to the Wadi Musa area. He rediscovered Petra’s tombs for the outside world but couldn’t fully inspect the ruins. His guide became suspicious and Burckhardt was forced to leave abruptly. He wrote about his findings but they remained hidden until his death.

Also treading the Sig each day are Bedouins, ­descendants of those who inhabited the complex from approximately 1,000 B.C. onward. In 1985, UNESCO declared Petra a World Heritage site and tribes were moved to nearby housing. Today, Bedouins fittingly pull camels and carts down the Sig, waiting before the shrine for tourists to purchase rides.

At one time Petra reigned as a capital city. A population of 30,000 flourished at the strategic north-south and east-west crossroads for spice and silk caravans. The ancient Nabataeans carved the rock walls, working from the top downward, sculpting tombs, temples, shops, an amphitheater and homes.

If the Sig and Treasury were all Petra had to offer, that would be enough. But the city also incorporates a 400-acre site that includes a 6,000-seat amphitheater and mountaintop Monastery. The typical half- to one-day visit most travelers allot is not sufficient.

When you finally venture beyond the Treasury, you can thread your way up Colonnade Street to the Royal Tombs. First comes the columned Urn tomb where you climb two stories of arched stairways and enter vaulted rooms. The much smaller Silk Tomb stands nearby, irresistible due to the spectacular coloring and variegations in the sandstone: ochre to saffron, mauve to baby blue. Next to the Silk Tomb rests the 80-by-90-foot-tall Corinthian Tomb.

The gigantic, architecturally complex Palace Tomb completes the street. Although missing the entire upper level, it is still the biggest at Petra: about 160 feet wide and taller than the Statue of Liberty.

Having investigated these tombs, you’ll likely begin to tire. Fortunately, an air-conditioned restaurant awaits, but only after you cross a wide, arid expanse, past Roman ruins and a museum. Around A.D. 100, the Roman emperor Trajan and his men conquered Petra, adding and renovating buildings. However, the Roman glory withered with time, leaving remnants of columns and arches that are not nearly as captivating as the Nabataean tombs.

Rest and enjoy lunch at the restaurant, because the 800-step climb to the Monastery requires fuel. The ­ascent begins on uneven, centuries-worn rock stairs and passes through wind- and water-swept corridors. The challenging route includes steeply inclined ramps and twisting paths. Donkey rides are an option, but either way the going is tough.

When you finally reach the summit, however, you’ll be re-energized by the unexpected, side-screened view of majestic El Deir (the Monastery’s Arabic name). Turn the corner and the near flawless urn-topped Monastery stands equally as impressive as the Treasury. The colossal facade faces west, onto a 200-foot open plaza believed to have been used for rituals and ceremonial processions. Time to sit and bask in the glory of an astonishing architectural achievement.

Unfortunately, the hike down is not much easier than the ascent. The vertical drop requires careful foot placement, but the plateau experience is incomparable.

On the way out of Petra, you can stroll along urban Colonnade Street, past Roman temple ruins, mosaic floors and what were merchant storefronts. In the distance you can take in the entire wall of Royal Tombs, a panoramic vista for the memory bank. Further on, you’ll pass the perfect semicircle seating in the amphitheater. The acoustics ring exceptionally clear and it’s easy to imagine performances.

By this time, you may be ready to hire a camel, donkey or carriage to ride back to the Treasury or all the way through the Sig–the only way in and out. Once you leave the archeological ruins, you might want to stop for a cool drink at the Cave Bar, which is aptly located just beyond the visitor center.

A compelling reason to allow more than one day in Petra is to return and experience the spiritual power of the sanctuary at night. Some evenings, 1,800 flickering candles line the pathway, creating glorious reflections. Haunting music adds to the atmosphere as visitors follow the eerily lit Sig and find the Treasury bathed in golden candlelight.

Another activity choice is the Petra Kitchen, a cooking school for novices, where the chef and staff will gently coach you through the steps of preparing a traditional Jordanian meal. The evening ends with a remarkable feast created by the students.

Don’t Miss Wadi Rum

No trip to Jordan would be complete without a visit to the desert of Wadi Rum. Lawrence of Arabia, British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence, described the landscape as “red sands that stretch like seas between mountains of crimson sandstone. The rock monoliths sculpted by nature resemble the drippings of candle wax on a monumental scale.”

Bedouin tribes on camel still roam the territory where the sun’s rays reflect heat onto the desolate ground. Touring in 4x4 wheeled Jeeps has become the modern way to explore. You can cover many miles in a short time with the help of knowledgeable guides who include stops at ancient petroglyphs and photo-worthy natural sand bridges.

However, the favored and most authentic mode of transportation is still the camel. If you’re a first-time rider, you may find the initial minutes discombobulating as your dromedary makes an awkward, two-stage rise. Unnatural jostling to and fro follows, but you’ll soon adapt. The feel of the camel’s hooves compressing into the sandy sea is like nothing else. You’ll receive a view from the height that would guarantee a slam-dunk into a basketball net. To quote Lawrence again, the experience is “vast, echoing and Godlike.”

A tour of Jordan also calls for overnighting in a Bedouin tent camp, which is not nearly as rustic as it sounds. Each tent is made from goat hair or rug-like material and contains a double bed, table, chairs and one light bulb. Think of it as scout camp with a central bathroom–toilets, sinks, showers and warm water are available.

At nightfall, you’ll enjoy a traditional Bedouin meal, which has likely cooked for hours beneath the sand. Zarb resembles clay-pot roasted chicken, potatoes and onions. You can sip sweet Bedouin tea as the staffers play music on the lute and tabla.

The primary reason to camp is to experience the crystal-clear, star-filled night sky. The meditative cooing of doves awakens you in time to watch sunrise. Those who prefer an even more nomadic experience can arrange to sleep under the stars with nothing more than an air mattress and blanket.

You can also opt to tour the colorful desert by hot-air balloon, weather permitting. Whatever the chosen mode of transportation, you’ll leave Wadi Rum emotionally charged from the surreal scenery and full of material for your own tales of Arabian nights.

Traveler Fast Facts

What it is: The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a Middle Eastern country that contains more than 12,000 archeological sites. It borders Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West Bank. Jordan–the most stable government in the region–gained its independence in 1946 and is ruled by King Abdullah II, son of King Hussein.

Language: Arabic, but English is widely used and understood.

Climate: Long, hot, dry summers and short, cool winters. January is the coldest.

Currency: Jordanian dinars. Major credit cards accepted.

Getting there: Commercial flights arrive in Amman, the northern capital and largest city. Visas are required, but two-week tourist visas are available at Queen Alia airport and are easily extended. Check beforehand if entering Jordan at other locations. In the south, private jets use King Hussein International Airport or Aqaba Airport, which handles royal and general aviation. Jordan maintains two modern main roads, the King’s Highway and Desert Highway.

Clothing: Dress in the Middle East reflects heritage, tradition and religious beliefs. Many men and women still wear a thawb, a loose, long-sleeved ankle-length robe. Most women wear a hijab (headscarf) even if they don’t wear robes. Western visitors should be mindful of shorts, short skirts or bare shoulders.

Side trips: Options include the ancient Arab fortress of Ajlun; Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, where John the Baptist lived and Jesus was baptized; Byzantine mosaics at Madaba; and panoramic perspectives from Mt. Nebo.

Traveler Report Card

Accommodations (A-): Numerous four- and five-star hotels are in the major tourist areas: Amman (Four Seasons), Dead Sea (Kempinski), Petra (Moevenpick) and Aqaba (InterContinental). Basic but acceptable Bedouin tent camps are in Wadi Rum (Captain’s Camp).

Restaurants (B): Jordanian food is farm fresh, colorful and healthy. Meals begin with mezze, an array of appetizers like hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh and olives. Bedouin tea is sweet. Hotel coffee is terribly weak, while Turkish coffee is extremely strong. Purchasing wine and beer can be difficult outside of the upscale hotels and restaurants frequented by Westerners, as much of the Arab population doesn’t consume alcohol. Smoking a waterpipe–also known as shisha, hookah or narghile–is commonplace.

Activities (A+): Choose from a wide variety of activities in Amman, a modern city with an ancient Citadel. The Dead Sea is less than an hour’s drive from Amman. Extensive spa facilities attract international visitors for an almost mandatory mud treatment/float in the saltwater. The Roman ruins at Jerash are in better condition than those in over-trampled Rome. Wander freely through acres of columns and temples, climb to overlooks, listen to theatrical performers and watch gladiators reenact fights and chariot races. Snorkel or scuba pristine coral reefs in the Red Sea near Aqaba.