January 30, 2014
Petra: A City Tour of the Ancient Kind

A vista of magnificent buildings carved into towering rocks, countless megaliths, and pink gorges in the ancient city of Petra left this writer breathless. That and the vertiginous walk up the lookouts.

by Tomi Soetjipto
Lifestyle // Travel and Leisure
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It was a sight to behold that one forgot about ‘selfies’.

Even the pungent stench of horse dung stopped assaulting my nostrils the moment I saw a hillside monument carved out of the soft peach-tinted sandstone.

After a 25-minute walk along a winding pathway that slices through towering rocks, we had finally reached the Al-Khaznat, a ‘baroque’ style façade that has become the icon of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan.

Standing at the end of the track also known as The Siq, I scanned through the details of the façade that rises to a height of an eight-story building (about 40 meters, so our guide said).  A row of six round columns each with classical details support the lower part of the façade, topped with a triangular portico crown.  The architectural style reminded me a bit of the iconic White House, or the typical Federal Court buildings in the U.S.  The two columns in the center lower part give way to a dark-lit chamber that once housed tombs and ancient treasures; hence the monument’s nickname, The Treasury. The upper part is adorned with six columns with a circular balcony in the center.

Seeing a monument like this built by men more than 4,000 years ago, it’s hard not to be awed. But my travelling companion and I knew that more surprises were in store, as dozens of other similar monuments like The Treasury – though some in ruins – are scattered throughout Petra.

Exceeding 50 kilometers square in size, Petra encompasses canyons, gorges and dry riverbeds, with countless megalithic-looking stones. The vast landscape is vaguely reminiscent of a set for an outer space flick. Indeed, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has been the site of numerous Hollywood movies, most notably Indiana Jones and The Transformers.


'Untouched' Legacy

It was a warm and pleasant afternoon day in the middle of autumn and the temperature was lingering in the mid-20 degrees Celsius.  A decent number of tourists mingled with horses and camels decked out in bright-colored enamels and we were enjoying the highlight of our weeklong holiday in Jordan, a Middle East country dotted with so many biblical sites. 

As we walked past other monuments on the hillside, our guide,  a stout bearded man in his late 40s, clinically delivered a detailed lecture on Petra’s ancient background in his thick Arabic accent. I was too polite to ask him to repeat some of his points, so I bookmarked the moment to do some fact-checking afterwards. According to the National Geographic website, archeologists have so far unearthed only 15 percent of the site, while the remaining 85 percent is still “underground and untouched.”

That’s a lot of secrets waiting to be discovered. It’s no wonder that most Jordanians I spoke to have visited this new 7 Wonder of the World spot repeatedly.

“Every time I go back I am always taken aback,” my Jordanian friend Suha El-Hadidy told me of her impression of Petra.

“As I grow older I appreciate how advanced the Nabateans were as a tribe. They already had their own irrigation and water harvesting systems. Being a proud Jordanian I cherish all our historical sites, especially Petra,” added Suha, whose father recently spent a month living in Petra with a group of international archaeologists.

As the ancient history records, the Romans kicked out the Nabateans in 15 AD, but they preserved the city’s monuments and decided to build more landmarks. Hence, Petra also contains some Roman-influenced monuments such as the Amphitheater and the Marketplace.

On Top of The Hill

The next day we were back in Petra to discover its other jewel, The Monastery, a monument that sits at one of the city’s soaring hills.    But there was a price to pay; a long and steep trail that consists of 1,000 steps with no handrails.  I guess to fully experience Petra, you must hike it – at your own risk.Occasionally several tourists on donkeys slowly eclipsed our brisk hike. Unless you are physically unfit, I wouldn’t recommend getting on the donkeys because some of the climbs were steep and uneven, making the ride seemed a bit wobbly. The steps were littered with dunks and manure, baked by Jordan’s scorching sun, so we had to zigzag our way up.

After climbing up these stairs for 45 minutes (by this time you would swear that there a million, not 1,000 steps), the trail led us to a makeshift café selling drinks and roti (flatbread). With a false sense of victory and tired legs, we sank ourselves into a tattered and dusty sofa to have a glass of cold and refreshing lemonade. Neither of us had a clue we were actually five minutes away from The Monastery.

When we finally reached a dry and barren land about half the size of a football field, we both stood in puzzlement because there was no sign of The Monastery. As it turned out, the ancient legacy was carved to the hill on our left facing the opposite direction. After walking a few steps to the field, we turned our back and saw the soaring façade, complete with the columns and details similar to the Treasury.

To celebrate the visual feast, we took another hike to a lookout point, a small hill that commands a panoramic view of Petra. After a moderate 10-minute hike to the lookout point I was stupified.

As far as the eyes could see was a sea of soft pink colored gorges with their peaks rising up to the cloudless and perfect pitch blue sky, as if a gallon of blue paint had just been splashed to the sky. In a distant view, a stream of faint white line lingered above a chain of dry and rugged-looking mountains.

And so absorbed I was in this sepia landscape that for a moment I forgot to take a ‘selfie’ again.

Tomi is a former journalist at Thomson Reuters, Al Jazeera English and BBC Indonesia. He now works for an international development organization in Jakarta.