A Visit to Jordan and Jerusalem

Petra: An Ancient Canvas
  |  Gorp.com
Practicalities

When to go: Weather, more than crowds, is the issue. Visit between March and May. Be wary about summer heat. Winter is chilly with cold rain and snow.

Jordan Information Bureau: (202) 244-1451; embassy: (202) 966-2664; A visa is required and your passport must be valid for at least six months after your date of entry.

Costs: Good value. Lower than Israel, higher than Egypt.

About Jordan:
(a) There is little military presence. It is said to be the safest country in
the region.
(b) Population is 96 percent Sunni Muslim. Population growth is the highest in the
Arab world.
(c) Literacy is 87 percent overall; 97 percent among children.
(d) Water: Jordan consumes 200 cubic meters (cm) per person per year. The
world average is 7,700 cm. The USA consumes110,000 cm per person.
(e) Cities: The area has been settled for more than 9,000 years but most
current cities were built in the 20th century. Some neighborhoods in Amman
look like upscale United States.
(f) Food: Arabic, European, Indian, and Chinese (plus Western-style fast
food).
(g) Only 4 percent of the land is arable; 1percent is woodland.
(h) Economy: not thriving; 25 percent unemployment (est.).

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Now let's take a look at what makes a visit to Jordan so remarkable. We'll start with Petra, located a few hours drive south of Amman.

Hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, a nomadic tribe of Nabateans migrated from what is now Saudi Arabia to a rugged, arid territory near the southern end of the Dead Sea.

In a narrow, isolated valley, using nearly vertical limestone cliffs as canvases, they carved dozens of colossal facades using the sophisticated style of Greek architecture. Drawing from the ancient Greek word for"stone," they called this place "Petra" and made it their capital.

I approached Petra through the Siq, a mile-long crevice no more than 30 feet wide and up to 400 feet high. Walking in the cool silence on paving stones laid down to serve Roman chariots, I paused to admire shrines, God figures, and giant camels carved into the sinuous walls. Here, and throughout Petra, the limestone is laced with nature's pastel colors: pale yellow, blue, purple, pink, and rose.

Turning the last bend in the winding passageway revealed, across a sunlit open area, the 140-foot tall facade known as the Treasury. Nabatean artists created this three-story structure in the first century B.C. Intended as a tomb, it has only one large room and three small side chambers inside. Above six massive columns and three alcoves housing statues of gods rests a stone urn believed to have held a pharaoh's treasure.

Past the Treasury, the Petra experience consists of following a path known as Colonnaded Street down a valley several hundred meters wide. I marveled at the Roman theatre built to accommodate 8,000, the Lion Monument, the Street of Facades, and dozens of royal tombs cut into the mountainside.

The largest and most magnificent edifice in Petra is a feasting hall more than 165 feet tall. Known as the Monastery, it is located a steep climb above the valley floor.

Invaders who swept across the rest of Jordan inevitably showed up in Petra. The Nabatean example was so powerful that it inspired Romans (who took over in 106 A.D.), Byzantines (fourth through seventh centuries), Arabs (until the twelfth century) and Crusaders to put their own craftsmen to work building additions.

Petra was then abandoned until rediscovered in 1812 by a daredevil Swiss explorer, Johann Burckhardt. Thereafter, Bedouins lived sporadically in the tombs until as recently as 1980.

I stopped for lunch in a very large Bedouin "tent" but, unfortunately, it seemed a little less than authentic. The cook stood behind the buffet table wearing a crisp white jacket and a chef's toque. My waiter wore a jaunty plaid vest.

As I departed Petra through the narrow Siq in a horse-drawn cart locally referred to as a "chariot," I thought how appropriate it was that part of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had been filmed in this amazing place. Fantasy within fantasy.


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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