Monday, November 20, 2006


I had just one free day during my business trip to Amman, Jordan, and was determined to travel to the “lost” ancient city of Petra. Inhabited by the Nabataen people from the third century B.C. until the sixth century A.D., their civilization gradually declined as the overland caravan trade routes fell into disuse. Earthquakes cut off many of the access points and eventually Petra disappeared from the map. Then in 1812 a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt made his way through the mountains and walked into the majestic ancient city. Petra was found.

I decided to forgo the buses that run daily from Amman and hire a car and driver (which my hotel happily arranged for less than two hundred dollars) in order to make the most of the single day that I had. We drove for more than two hours through the hot, barren Jordanian desert, and then Mr. Ibrahim, my driver, called my attention to the curve ahead. “Watch,” he said quietly, as the landscape completely changed. Sprawled before us, as far as the eye can see, was the (kind of) rock of the southern Jordanian mountains. Somewhere inside those mountains, I knew, was a massive cleft (“siq” in Arabic) in the formidable mountain range that had caused this location to become the crossroads of the ancient world. Caravan trade routes linking Arabia with Gaza, Egypt, and the Mediterranean civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome all converged here. It is modern travelers who converge nowadays in this remote corner of the Jordanian desert to see the ancient city which was literally carved out of the rock, and whose sophisticated architecture shows the influences of Assyrian, Egyptian, Hellenistic and Roman cultures.

As we headed toward the gate to the ancient city, Mr. Ibrahim suggested that I leave time at the end of the day to visit “Little Petra,” about 7 kilometres to the north. “Of course, I will need to charge you an extra thirty dinar,” he said apologetically, “but it is worth it.” I wondered if this was a hustle, but then again, I knew I’d probably never visit this remote corner of the earth again. I agreed, and set off into the Bab al-Siq. This towering cleft in the rock (walls more than 300 meters high and no more than 12 meters wide) takes about 25 minutes to walk, and leads you directly into the ancient city.

Although I had seen many photographs of the incredibly intricate architecture carved out of the sandstone, the towering majesty of the structures is even more impressive in person.
What I did not anticipate from the photographs is the bustle of the bazaar-like atmosphere that pervades the entire route through the city; “guides” urging you to hire a horse or camel (“You look hot, lady”), stalls offering food and trinkets, Bedouin families selling jewelry. Even in its antiquity, Petra has retained the energy of its trading heritage.

I hiked about a third of the way through the city, and by mid-afternoon was climbing back out through the deep siq. Mr. Ibrahim met me at the gate and we headed for Little Petra. I wondered if it would pale in comparison to the majesty of the architecture I had just seen.

Mr. Ibrahim stopped the car, and the two of us got out and began to walk through the shadows of the towering walls of another siq into what appears to have been a residential neighborhood – a quiet village just 350 meters long. A hawk soared in the bright blue sky above Little Petra as we walked in silence, the only sound the wind blowing through the rocks, a Blue Sinai lizard scrambling for cover at our feet.

In Little Petra I had a persistent feeling that this village is still alive. It seemed possible that children were playing and goats were wandering this pathway just yesterday, rather than centuries ago. I wandered into the houses carved out of stone, imagining myself living here, hearing the murmur of voices from homes nearby after dark.

As the afternoon shadows deepened, we returned to the car, and began the drive back up the King’s Highway to Amman. As the city receded behind us, Mr. Ibrahim pulled over to the side of the road so that I could take one last photograph of the rugged stone mountain range bathed in the pink sunset light. I clamored gingerly down the rough sandstone, covered with sweat and gritty dust that I could taste when I licked my lips, making my way down a spot that was an overlook with a clear view across the valley. My guide called from the roadside above. "Your name is Nealon, correct?” I nodded, wondering why he had chosen this moment to verify my identity. “Good,” he said with satisfaction. “We will keep your name always here." Then he shouted "NEALON," and it echoed, over and over, across the rock formations of the Al-Wu'ayra.

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