Travel

In Jordan, the tourist trail follows to the peerless ruins of Petra

By Chris Welsch

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

(MCT)

AMMAN, Jordan - The sedan crossed flat stretches of Jordan's dust-yellow desert, climbed barren ridges, descended through olive groves, then entered more desert, with heaps of tailings from phosphate mines rising on the horizon like new mountains.

"They call this the King's Highway. There's been a road here since the Iron Age," said Sameer Halh as he drove. "From Aqaba to Damascus. It's been paved since the Roman times. This was the spice route then. That's why Petra is where it is. It's a perfect gateway between north and south."

Petra is Jordan's No. 1 attraction, the ruins of a city carved into the walls of a red canyon. The desolation of the landscape made a vision of caravans - laden with goods and shepherded by wealthy tradesmen - hard to muster.

As we drove south from Amman, mile by mile, Jordan passed by the windshield. It was April; spring had just begun to assert itself. An improbable wheat field, rows of fragile green fingers reaching for the blue sky, came into view. A huge black bird flew over the highway.

"You see that?" Halh said. "We had a very sad story a couple of years ago when two men were attacked by some of these eagles. One died and one lost his eyes. Very sad. You know an ostrich? These ones have a body that big. And wings? Three meters."

Halh, white shirt and tie, tidy moustache, impeccable manners, was a credible fellow. His story didn't seem any less likely than some other things I'd seen in the four hours I'd been in Jordan.

Already I'd sat in the bleachers at the perfectly preserved Roman amphitheater in downtown Amman, stood on the mountain where Moses viewed the Promised Land, pondered some ruins of the Umayyad kingdom (of which I'd never heard before), and, outside a Byzantine Christian church in Madaba, stopped to smell the rare wild black iris, which is Jordan's national flower.

As we arrived in Petra in the dark, I was glad I'd have one full day to focus on what many see as a wonder of the ancient world that rivals the Pyramids.

At first light, I looked out the window of my hotel room. Dawn revealed a red landscape of camel-humped hills with doors and windows carved into them.

The Crowne Plaza hotel was right on the outskirts of the ruins. As promised, a guide appeared at 7:30 a.m. by the lobby doors. Leaning on a walking stick, the stocky old man in a red checked kaffiyeh looked me up and down with theatrical skepticism. "I am Hani Ali, and I am 79 years old. I hope you can keep up."

He said he'd been guiding in the ruins since he was 27 years old, and that his knees were finally giving out. "I should retire, you know. But everyone wants Hani Ali, and I can't say no."

We paid our entry fee for the archaeological park, and walked down what seemed like a dry riverbed toward the mountains. Finally we reached the Siq, which is essentially a crack in a 500-foot high mountain. The red walls of the canyon narrow until the sky above is just a meandering sliver of light. The walls of striped sandstone undulate wildly, carved by thousands of years of wind, rain and floods.

Petra (which means "stone" in Latin) is a quirk of geology, Ali said. It occupies a mountain-locked valley situated on the only easy route for north-south travelers. That meant anyone - whether they were carrying frankincense from Egypt or silk from China - had to pass by this Siq. Petra was built as a trade center. Its residents grew wealthy doing business with, and sometimes taking advantage of, passersby.

As we walked, Ali pointed out water channels carved into the rock. "Rain was channeled into tanks. This was a city of thousands of people. They needed every drop."

After the crusades ended in about 1200, the trade routes moved, Petra was abandoned, and eventually only local Bedouins knew about what had become a lost city, Ali said. Finally, a ragged opening appeared as we neared the end of the Siq. The view we encountered has beguiled travelers since the ruins were "discovered" by a Swiss explorer in 1812.

Being in the Siq, and coming into view of the vision that emerges at its aperture, is like being film exposed to light. The image of an immaculately designed, monumental structure emerging from a rugged wall of stone is indelibly etched onto the surface of memory.

Known as the "Royal Treasury," the structure is a bizarrely out-of-place Greek-style temple, taller than a 10-story building, carved with amazing precision from the red rock of the canyon walls.

"This actually is not a treasury," Ali said as we walked closer and then between its columns to the cave inside. "No one knows for sure what it was. But the Bedouins thought that there might be money hidden in that urn in the center, and they shot at it, hoping the gold would fall out."

The rooms behind the facade were perfectly square and fairly small - not at all in scale with the outside. Ali said that archaeologists had recently discovered another layer of the building under the present facade. "The more we dig, the more we find," he said. "Eighty-five percent of Petra is unexcavated. All of the secrets are still buried here."

More tourists started to arrive in the box canyon, stopping dumbfounded to stare, just as I had. "Let's go, I want to stay ahead of the crowd," Ali said.

We walked out into a broader valley, with facades and caves carved into every vertical face.

The Nabateans were an Arabic tribe, Ali said. Their kingdom was at its peak from about 300 B.C. to 100 A.D., when the Romans finally conquered the area. "Petra spread out over 90 square kilometers," he said. "When the Romans came, they built a forum and a second city, but it was destroyed in an earthquake in 363 A.D. There are ruins and foundations, but nothing like what you see here."

In deference to Ali's ailing knees, we hired donkeys and a driver, who rode behind us cracking a whip, to carry us up to the top of one of Petra's peaks, known as the High Place of Sacrifice.

The donkeys labored and wheezed. Ali rode in front talking nonstop, sometimes about Petra, sometimes about life in general.

"My father had 38 sons and seven daughters," he said at one point. "We had no TV then. Only making kids was the entertainment. He married six times but died young while he was engaged to the seventh at 101."

Ahead of us, someone was singing. We came around a corner and the voice became distinct, belting out a hymn with skill and fervor in American-accented English. "Hallelujah, Jesus is Lord, Hallelujah, death is no more, Hallelujah, hope is restored, Hallelujah Jesus is Lord!" Then we saw him, a young man in a group of tourists on donkeys going down the mountain on a different trail.

Ali looked amused and annoyed at the same time. "Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! (God is great!)" he yelled, causing our donkey driver to burst into laughter. "That guy is a good singer," Ali said. Then he yelled: "Sir! You are a good singer!"

The High Place of Sacrifice was on top of the mountain. It was a flat space, with benches carved into the stone. A basin marks what was probably the sacrificial altar. Ali explained that some people believe the Nabateans conducted human sacrifices on the mountain, and that the blood ran down a narrow channel, still visible, down the side of the mountain to the mouth of a stone lion, which we would see on the way down. "Back then, they worshipped everything they feared," he said.

The sky had clouded over, and I tasted rain in the air. From the mountain we could see the whole valley of Petra, the carved city and the stone paved Roman road leading to the open ruins of the forum, with square foundations and a few columns left standing. The camel-backed red mountains guarded the horizon in all directions.

"Don't feel bad if it rains," Ali said. "I have seen Petra in every kind of weather, but I believe it is most beautiful in the rain. The stone shines, and the color gets very red."

We rode down, past the timeworn form of the blood-drinking lion, and more monuments and caves carved into the mountainside. We stopped to rest at the bottom, and the Christian singer and his girlfriend came down the trail on foot, looking lost. "Aha! My friend! Now you will hear me sing," Ali said, and he broke into a deep-throated, perfectly pitched Muslim call to prayer. The American endured the song with his lips pressed flat.

"You see, I am also a good singer," Ali said, beaming. "It appears you are lost. Where do you want to go?" They were lost, the man admitted, and Ali directed them onto the right path for the Roman forum. He added with a wink, "Allah bless you."

Ali and I shared lunch in the bustling cafeteria by the Roman ruins. He had a beer and about five bites of curried cauliflower. He said he might run into me in the afternoon. "Every time I think I might rest, someone calls with a job," he said. "The tourists need me."

I spent the afternoon wandering the ruins, the remains of hundreds of years of human endeavors, struggles and sacrifices. The road that passed through Petra had seen followers of Isis, Dushara, Jehovah, Jesus and Mohammed. They all had left their marks. They all had spilled their blood as kingdoms rose and fell.

At 3 p.m. the rain came in big fat drops. Then it came in sheets. Without an umbrella, I got soaked on the long walk back to the hotel.

But Hani Ali had been right. Petra was most beautiful in the rain, with the wet stone showing a deep, dark red.

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Chris Welsch: cwelsch@startribune.com

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