We’ve been hiking a narrow canyon for nearly half an hour, hemmed in by huge sunset-colored cliffs, and the suspense is killing me.
“It’s becoming clear why it was lost for so long,” quips one of my fellow travelers to the ancient Middle Eastern city.
Finally, rounding a hulk of rock, I spot a sliver of Petra’s most famous monument, al-Khazneh, or the Treasury. The two-story facade with its Greek-inspired columns is the first thing you see when you reach the end of the canyon, or Siq. Film buffs know it as the temple where Harrison Ford found the Holy Grail in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
Ever since I’d watched Indy gallop away from the striking rock-carved edifice, I’d wanted to see it with my own eyes. And what better year than 2012, the 200th anniversary of Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt’s rediscovery of Petra in 1812? I had 2 1/2 days in the city – part of a nine-day tour of Jordan with the U.K. company Exodus – and I intended to take advantage of every second.
In real life, Petra – Greek for “rock” – was the religious capital of the Nabateans, an ancient civilization that once ruled much of what is now Jordan. These wealthy spice traders built Petra as a massive complex of monuments, tombs and marketplaces beginning around the 6th century B.C. In its heyday, Petra served as a global crossroads, a place where camel caravans laden with frankincense and other goods stopped to hawk their wares.
Even now, standing before the Treasury in the cool sunshine, it was easy to conjure such a scene. A constant clip-clop of horses’ hooves, the bellows of colorfully blanketed camels and a flood of harried Arabic bounced off the high rock walls as tourists gawked up at the Treasury. (Unlike in “Indiana Jones,” the Treasury doesn’t hold a labyrinth of rooms – just a shallow recess and a royal tomb that’s not open to the public.)
Walking down Petra’s main path, or “spine,” I entered a more open mountainous area dotted with large caves, which housed most of Petra’s five Bedouin tribes as recently as 1985. That’s when Petra became a UNESCO World Heritage site, and many Bedouins had to move to a small government-built village overlooking Petra called Umm Sayhoun. Some resisted, though, and still live in Petra’s caves.
Perched on higher cliffs around me were arched entryways leading to the elegantly carved, high-columned royal tombs. But although Petra retains much of its huckster spirit, its preservation is on shakier ground.
The Nabateans carved Petra out of sandstone, a soft rock that’s easily damaged by wind, rain, earthquakes and flash floods. Many of the monuments most exposed to the elements, such as the Royal Tombs, are already highly degraded. The civilization’s ingenious hydrology system, which diverted the floodwaters that regularly gush through the Siq, has fallen into disrepair.
On top of that, the thousands of people who live and work in and visit Petra daily put enormous pressure on the site. In 2007, a global poll named Petra one of the new seven wonders of the world, sparking a fresh influx of tourists, who now number about 2,500 a day – many of them unaware of park protocols.
Locals have also denuded parts of the site: Children sometimes break off pieces of colored rock to sell to tourists, or climb on fragile monuments and into religious niches. What’s more, the Bedouins’ beasts of burden erode the stone steps and paths, leave waste that damages the sandstone and overgraze the park’s vegetation. There may also be unknown threats – no one knows, for instance, whether the vibrations of horse carriages thundering up the Siq or the hum of generators, the park’s main power source, could render the surrounding rocks unstable.
“This is our dilemma: how to balance between the benefits of locals, providing a memorable experience for our tourists and protecting the site,” said Emad Hijazeen, commissioner of the Petra Archaeological Park. We were having Turkish coffee at his office up the hill from Petra’s main entrance. “Frankly speaking, it’s a hard job.”
The Petra Development and Tourism Regional Authority, which oversees the Petra region and the archaeological park, already contributes 10 percent of each entrance fee, which is 50 dinars, or about $70, to the conservation of Petra’s monuments.
But the authority wants to go beyond that: It’s in the midst of a new conservation and tourism plan that will drastically shift how Petra functions.
The park authority is preparing brochures in several languages about how to protect Petra; this literature will be distributed to the park’s 150 guides. The renovated visitor center will display a list of do’s, such as staying on marked trails, and don’ts, such as not absconding with pottery shards or plants from the site.
Aysar Akrawi, the longtime head of the preservation-advocacy group Petra National Trust, may know more about the dangers to Petra than anyone. I’d arranged to meet him at the entrance to Petra, and after days of interacting with only men, I was surprised to find a petite woman decked out from head to toe in purple.
We began a meander through the Siq, and although it was my third walk through the gorge, I saw it with new eyes. Akrawi pointed out rock dams and cross-drainage systems, Nabatean infrastructure that the Petra National Trust and its partners have helped restore.
Akrawi also showed me long cracks in the canyon walls, which form when the rock absorbs rainwater, taking salt up with it. Falling boulders are a constant worry; in 2010 a boulder fell into the Siq, luckily when no one was around.
To help the Bedouins who make their living in Petra, park authorities plan to create a central souk, or marketplace, on the shuttle bus route that would replace many of the gift shops within Petra, ideally bringing in more money for Bedouins while reducing foot traffic in the city, according to Hijazeen.
I realized that the thread that unites the people of Petra – the Bedouins, the tour guides, the government officials – is their fondness for the site, an affection that, despite their differences, is firmly set in stone.