The Treasury Far and Near
Two Thousand and five hundred years before Harrison Ford and Sean Connery rode into Petra in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” the colonnaded canyon was a city of thirty thousand people. It was an important stop for the spice trade routes from Arabia North to Damascus and beyond. In 106 BC Petra came under Roman rule. Hadrian, the 14th emperor of Rome, visited in 131 AD.
He must have liked what he saw because he changed the name Petra, which means rock in Latin, to Hadriane Petra. But the change in the trade routes from overland to sea, coupled with the earthquake of 551 AD, brought everything to a halt. The destroyed canyon was left to rubble and decay for centuries. Only a handful of Bedouin sheepherders knew about the ancient city and they guarded their secret closely.
Indiana Jones and Johannes L. Burckhardt were alike in many ways, but there was one major difference. Burckhardt was the real thing. A Swiss geographer and scholar, he traveled the area in the 19th century in search of the source of the Niger River, and in the process picked up rumblings about a lost city. Knowing that the Bedouins would not share their secrets with an infidel, he mastered Arabic. In 1812, under the identity of Ibrahim bin Abdallah, a Muslim pilgrim, Burckhardt convinced a guide that he wanted to sacrifice a goat at the tomb of Aaron, the brother of Moses, which he thought was near the ruins. Before long he was riding down the canyon on his own and trying to hide his astonishment at what he had found. A century later, the authors of this article had Petra on their list of “the visit the places that are more difficult to travel to and walk around while we still have the ability to visit them comfortably.” Petra was a must.
The Roman Gate and Temple
The two main routes to Petra are a two-and-a-half hour drive south from Amman, the capital of Jordan, or a one-and-a-half drive north from Acaba are the two main routes to Petra. We flew into Tel Aviv, caught a commuter flight to Eliat, Israel, and spent the night. We had selected Desert Eco Tours, an Israeli travel service which partnered with a Jordanian agency for our guides. Early the next morning, a representative from Desert Eco picked us up and took us to the Wadi Araba Crossing. The Israeli agent shepherded us through the Israeli border and handed us off to his Jordanian counterpart. After a brief stop in Aqaba and an interesting desert drive, our group of 25 arrived at the main gate of Petra. Our guide secured tickets and we began a mile walk down a narrow entrance gorge called the Siq, Vendors shouted offers of free horseback rides, but their treatment of the horses were so harsh that no one took them up. Other vendors touted horse-drawn buggy rides that also were rejected – a good thing because the ride would have been short and not the entire way to the Treasury area of Petra.
The vivid red sandstone walls against a brilliant blue sky made striking photographs. You could see how the editors of “Indiana Jones” selected a piece of the Siq and moved it directly across from the Treasury to make the dramatic closing scene of their movie. Our guide showed us the sophisticated water channel along one side of the Siq that directed water from a spring into the center of Petra — amazing technology for 300 BC.
The walk down the Siq ended with a spectacular view of the Treasury –the iconic image of Petra. It was originally built as a royal tomb for the Nabataean King Aretas and later acquired the Treasury name because it was thought that an Egyptian pharaoh hid his treasure there. Not true, but the name stuck.
The crowds of tourists and vendors shouting, selling souvenirs and camel rides interferes with this view of a lifetime. We spotted a young man on a camel and asked him to ride over to just the right place in front of the Treasury. When asked what he wanted for this favor he replied: “What I really want is a new photo for my Facebook page. I’ll give you my email address, can you send me one?”
If you ever visit Petra come to the Treasury late in the afternoon. The sun is setting, the rocks take on a deep red color, and what’s best, the tourists are gone. A small number of camels and horse-drawn buggies are left and they are perfect elements for great photographs.
The Treasury area is just the beginning of Petra. There was so much more to see, but it was getting hot. The guide books were right: hats, sunblock and water — lots of water– are needed. We went through a narrow gorge and on a 200-yard walk to the Roman theater. Damaged by earthquakes and erosion, the 6,000 hard rock seats are still there. Fortunately, Petra was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985 and repairs are underway.
Approximately a quarter mile to the right were the Royal Tombs and exactly in the perfect position for our photographs was a Jordanian guard, complete with jalabiya and keffiyeh, the traditional white robe and checkered head gear). Well, almost perfect; we had to wait for him to get off his mat, smoke a cigarette and wander into the right spot, but it worked. We hiked up the steep, well-worn stairs and could enter the tombs. The colors of the sandstone walls was worth our effort. For a thousand and five hundred years Bedouins had made their homes in these tombs, but when Petra became a UNESCO site they were moved from the area.
Walking down gave us a myriad of ways to stumble, but we made it. In a quarter mile we were in the center of the city during Roman rule: The Great Temple. Although the earthquakes had taken a heavy toll, you can still marvel at what was built. The footprint of the structure is still there and will be clear in the future, thanks to an excavation project by Brown University. Walking on, there is the Hadrian Gate, the Monastery, and many more sites that have weathered this unforgiving desert environment for two thousand years.
We could have easily spent many more days exploring the Petra area and never tire of interest, but we recommend two days as about the right time to stay; there are more places to see in Jordan. We traveled north following the River Jordan and visited Mount Nebo, where Moses saw the promised land, and Jerash, the Roman city that survived the earthquakes of 325 AD and 747 AD. But that’s another story.
A Cautionary Note from the Editors
Petra’s appeal as one of the world’s most famous historical archeological sites may be dimmed in the eyes of some travelers by the State Department’s worldwide alert that does not prohibit travel but advises great caution due to civil wars and terrorism. Nevertheless, tourists with the proper credentials can still book flights there. For example, the Tripmasters organization advertises a package that includes stops into Amman and out of Istanbul with nine days in Petra, the Dead Sea, Cairo and Istanbul.
About the Authors
Dennis and Cindy Brack
For thirty-two and half years Cindy flew as a purser for Pan Am and Delta Air Lines. Yes, Cindy and Dennis did meet in the air, on a White House press charter flying between Tokyo and Seoul. Dennis, a photographer, was working for Time magazine at the time, covering President Reagan. Cindy was one of the crew. Dennis covered the beginning of the first Gulf war and his photographs were published on the covers of Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report, Paris Match and USA Today. He’s still working that beat at 76. “Presidential Picture Stories: Behind The Cameras At The White House” is his most recent book.