Crossing over to Petra

Petra is listed as one of the “new” Seven Wonders of the World.

By SAUL SCHWARTZ
May 12, 2019 01:00
Crossing over to Petra

THE THEATER and Nymphaeum are among the popular sights at Petra in Jordan’s southwestern desert. (photo credit: SAUL SCHWARTZ)

At the end of our first trip to Israel, my wife Fern and I traveled south from Tel Aviv to Eilat and then crossed into Jordan to visit Petra. Eilat provided us with some relaxation after seeing Israel’s main sites, whereas Petra amazed us with its ruby sandstone formations and ancient architecture. In hindsight, spending less than two full days in Eilat and Petra was insufficient to enjoy both fully.

Armed with our passports, we were driven by van to the Arava border crossing, also known as the Yitzhak Rabin crossing, a few km. north of Eilat. The Israel side of the customs post has many pictures of the life of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. With a border assistant from a tour company, we provided our passport to customs control, walked through a duty free shop and entered the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The process took under one hour. It is highly recommended to cross the border with an experienced tour operator who can deal with passport control on both sides of the border.

The trip from Aqaba to Petra took us two hours by van. The journey is about 120 km. Along the way, we saw many local Bedouin people and their black goat-hair tents. These semi-nomadic Bedouin tribesmen raise livestock, especially goats and camels. Their wanderings are driven by a search for grazing land and water for their flocks. Otherwise, there is not much to see during this trip, as the landscape is dry and barren. Fortunately, our tour guide Eyad helped us pass the time by explaining the parliamentary government of Jordan, the line of succession of its kings and its emerging economy. We stopped once for a short break, but there are not many places to stop along the way.

Petra is listed as one of the “new” Seven Wonders of the World. It is a city half-built, half-cut into red rose sandstone cliffs and rock. UNESCO considers Petra one of humanity’s most precious cultural possessions. It has been declared as a World Cultural Heritage site.

More than 2,000 years old, Petra was built in the heart of the Shara Mountains by the Nabataeans. At that time, it was a vital part of a major trading route connecting Egypt with Mesopotamia. The trade focused on myrrh, spices and frankincense. An earthquake in the fourth century CE led to the downfall and abandonment of the city. Today, intricate facades sculpted into the sandstone cliffs can still be seen, along with other remarkably preserved monuments of this civilization. Swiss explorer Johannes Burckhardt rediscovered Petra in 1812.

 

ALONG THE main trail, key sites included:

Bab Al Siq – This canyon passageway leads to the key sites. From here, you can spot the remains of a tunnel built to divert flood waters from coursing through the narrow cleft. We saw massive blocks in the red rocks that are square monuments. Above one large tomb, there are four pyramids and a niche with a statue in bas-relief that symbolized the five people buried there. Below that tomb, there is a banqueting hall.

The Siq – This narrow gorge leads us into Petra. This was the main entrance in ancient times as well as today. The Siq resulted from a natural splitting of the mountain. Two water channels run along both rock sides. The long, narrow canyon leads us between towering walls of astonishing red stone. Along the way, we saw many relics from Petra’s past, including a paved road, paving stones and sacred stones.

The Treasury – The Siq opens up into Petra’s most magnificent facade. The Treasury is almost 130 feet high. It is decorated with friezes and mythological figures across the rosy facade. The Treasury is crowned by a funeral urn. It is believed that it was built as a royal tomb.

The Theater – Carved into the side of the mountain, the semicircular theater consists of three rows of seats, separated by passageways. Seven staircases ascend the auditorium. The Theater can accommodate at least 4,000 spectators. This is the only theater in the world carved into rock. The theater was used for Roman style games.

The Nymphaeum – This is a semi-circular public fountain dedicated to water nymphs. Six columns decorate the facade. It received water from a tank. This area is shaded by a wild pistachio tree that is 450 years old. This fountain was used for both worship and refreshment.

Horses and horse drawn carriages are available for pedestrians who are unable to walk or get tired of walking. The carriages go through the narrow passages very quickly, and we had to pay attention to not get into an accident. We also became annoyed by the endless requests to buy postcards or to take a donkey ride. Indeed, there was an attempt to charge us to use the free restrooms!

A guided tour to explain the sites is a must. Upon reflection, our trip in Petra would have been better if:

• Our guide was more fluent in English. Unfortunately, we had a very hard time understanding him. We asked him to slow down in his speech, but his command of English was still limited.

• Our guide spent less time in Bab Al Siq and the Siq. We had insufficient time to go beyond the Nymphaeum, which is only about half way through the city. You should insist on getting to the Treasury fairly quickly!

• We had a full day to explore the city. A half day trip is insufficient to see all of the sites.

• We had more comfortable shoes and attire. There is a substantial amount of walking involved and the paths are not always easy to walk upon. The way back is very much uphill.

• We drank more water. Petra is dry and hot. Drinking frequently is a must here.

Just outside Petra, we had a very simple buffet style lunch at Al-Qantarah Restaurant. We then headed back on the rather boring drive to the Israeli border and into Eilat. As our trip to Israel came to an end, Fern and I reflected that we would have enjoyed more time in both Eilat and Petra.

The writer is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Virginia. He primarily writes travel articles after trips with his wife, Fern. He hopes to travel to every state in the United States and as many countries as possible.


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