Dispatches

Petra Comes Alive

But it’s when you wander away from the groups and the guides that Petra comes to life.

It is only once you’ve visited Petra in Jordan that you realize it is so much more than just the breathtaking facade of the Treasury Building. In fact, the entire site would take days to properly explore, contains more than 3,000 caves—many used as dwellings—not to mention countless tombs, a theatre, monastery and churches all carved from the rock and a vast Great Temple: the only free-standing structure on the site.

And, it has still only been perhaps 20 percent excavated.

Camels, donkeys and carriages transport visitors from one end of this ‘Rose-red city half as old as time’ to the other while guides point out the perfect right-angles in the chiselled-out rooms and the natural frescoes created by the rocks. They explain the city’s history from ancient Nabataean times through Roman, from its abandonment to its use by the Bedouin and its rediscovery by Europeans exactly 200 years ago. But it’s when you wander away from the groups and the guides that Petra comes to life.

Although visited by hundreds of thousands every year, it’s easy to find a slice of Petra for yourself. You can follow the trails and explore the time-worn steps. You can perch high atop its streets and drift back to an age when it bustled with 30,000 residents. You can find solitude in a former tomb—later used as residence—and watch dust clouds suddenly kicked up by a gust of wind whirling through, or listen to the crows wailing mournfully from cliff tops…and all completely alone.

By night we returned to the site. Several times a week they illuminate the Treasury and the narrow pathway or Siq that leads to it with hundreds of candles. Groups are kept small and once at that most-famous of Petra sites, you sit on mats in the darkness, respectfully serenaded by local musicians and simply drift in time and space.

Nov. 15, 2012, 10:57 a.m.