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Travel Guide: Exploring Petra, Jordan

12th Oct 2011 1:53am | By Editor

Petra's ancient stone city is Jordan's biggest drawcard, for tourists and Hollywood directors alike. ERIC NATHAN joins the throng.

It's a little after seven in the morning as I make my way down the Siq, a narrow rock gorge that leads to the remains of the ancient stone city of Petra, Jordan's most famous and most visited tourist site. Fortunately, as my companions and I are the first to enter the site on this clear December morning, we find ourselves appreciably undisturbed by any other visitors. The local hotel in Wadi Musa, where we have just spent the night, has only two videos perpetually on offer: Lawrence Of Arabia and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade; both have scenes filmed in Jordan, and the climactic finale of the latter occurs inside a cavernous, booby-trapped chamber whose exterior environs were filmed along the very path we now walk. Having all watched the video the preceding evening, it seems inevitable one of us will begin whistling the theme tune.

Quite unexpectedly, following our leisurely 1200m stroll down the Siq, we catch our first glimpse of the prodigious carving commonly referred to as the Treasury. The surreal silence is interrupted by our collective exclamations of astonishment mixed with the clicking of camera shutters. Initially, only a sliver of the transcendent carving is visible between a gap in the high cliff walls of the Siq. But the further we walk, the more is revealed until the narrow Siq finally leads into a plaza where the majestic carving towers some 40m above us. We pause and stare.

It would be an almost inconceivable marvel to achieve such sculptural perfection in the present day. Knowing it was carved some 2000 years ago only serves to reinforce the inordinate sense of awe that overcomes us. Gouged out of the solid rock face by the Nabateans around the first century AD, the Treasury is only one of approximately 800 monuments in Petra's expansive settlement whose vestiges were added to Unesco's list of World Heritage sites in 1985. Passing under the impressive portico, I glance inside the entrance and find only an empty chamber. No stone lions like we saw in the movie, no Crusader seals set into the floor, no Indy. Probably a good thing, I surmise: the place is magical enough already.

Although we are the first tourists to arrive today, the locals have already set up their postcard stalls and it's not long before a young man approaches us, several camels in tow, to offer his quadrupeds as a quicker and less tiring means of reaching the other end of the city, some two hours walk over the mountains. Despite having only one day to see the widespread site, we decline, opting instead to explore on foot. Over the next few hundred metres, we come across countless other carvings and excavations in the rockface including a colossal amphitheatre capable of seating more than 8000 people. All around, there are pillars, doorways, arches, rooms, tombs and shrines all carved out of the solid rock face. Some are quite modest, others beguiling in their intricacy. Everywhere we look, remnants of the city can be seen.

Eventually, in an attempt to escape the supplications of the equally abundant camel drivers, we decide to explore off road. So we climb off the main track and into the mountains only to stumble upon more souvenir stalls manned by teenage girls who, speaking impeccable English, invite and then implore us to sit down for a cup of tea.

We scout around them and then press on towards the Monastery, one of Petra's unmissable features. Getting there entails a scenic, albeit lengthy, hike through the city centre (down the magnificent colonnaded street) and then up through the mountains. As exhausting as the walk may be, the effort is more than well rewarded. The Monastery (not a monastery at all, in fact, but almost certainly a temple) has a facade stretching close to 50m2 and although less ornate than the Treasury, it's breathtaking. Not that I have any breath left at all by the time I reach it.

Following lunch I decide to wait around while some rather unphotogenic shadows clear the monastery's facade. In an effort to find a better vantage point, I scramble onto a ledge and promptly stumble across three Jordanian men tucked up in their sleeping bags. Are they illegal campers, I ask myself? Are they Arab hippies? Are they waiting to ambush Indy? Have I been in the sun too long? As it turns out, they are construction workers renovating parts of the site and, burdened with the night shift, they sleep here during the day. As I sit and wait for the sunlight to clear, one of the workers extracts a flute from his bag and begins to serenade his compatriots. This musical awakening serves to convince me that I've most certainly taken too much sun and so I make my way back down.

Eventually I find myself back at the foot of the Treasury, ready to exit the site along the Siq. As I look back to cast my final glance at the receding carving, I find a greying, bespectacled man standing near me, also staring. The silence in my mind unconsciously begins to segue faintly into the Indiana Jones theme music and I find myself half expecting him to turn to me and, in an iconic brogue, cajole "Come on Junior," but he merely continues to stare, jaw agape, muttering "wunderbar, wunderbar"."