PETRA, Jordan — It would be a 30-minute walk along a dusty, narrow gorge in Jordan to reach our destination. Ignoring entreaties from local entrepreneurs — carriage? donkey ride? camel? — we chose to hike, our water bottles and cameras at the ready.
Suddenly, the gorge widened. Rising out of the red sandstone, almost like a mirage, was the famed Petra Treasury. It was thought to have been carved about 2,000 years ago, and was popularized in the 1989 film “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.”
With anxieties rampant about tourism in many parts of the Middle East, and with ISIS’s destruction of Palmyra, the Syrian site of fantastic Roman ruins, my husband and I on a recent trip to Israel jumped at the chance to see some of the region’s still accessible treasures. Just 200 miles to the south of Palmyra — roughly the distance between Boston and New York — Petra is among many sites in Jordan still functioning well for tourists. On a recent two-day trip from Jerusalem, we saw no evidence of the turmoil in the region, despite US State Department warnings to beware.
It helps of course, that Israel and Jordan years ago put aside their political differences and are working on everything from tourism to water desalination projects. Crossing the border between the two countries is relatively uncomplicated. Still, while we had traveled around Israel on our own, we decided to do something we almost never do: join a group tour to visit Jordan. It seemed an easy way to avoid delays and ease our travel to important sites.
In Jerusalem, we signed on with Abraham Tours, which organized the trip on both sides of the border. It was a mid-priced option — about $350 per person — which included two lunches, dinner, and overnight with breakfast at a Bedouin camp/hotel. We boarded the 16-seat minibus early one morning in Jerusalem, along with 14 others from Great Britain, Israel, Japan, and Sweden. Our driver shuttled us to the border, about a two-hour drive north near the Sea of Galilee. He gave us explicit instructions in English about the crossing and exchanging money to obtain Jordanian dinars to pay for a visa. He dropped us at Beit She’an Crossing, also known as the Sheikh Hussein Crossing, and we walked into Jordan. It was a non-event. We got the dinars, paid about $60 for our visa, and met up with our tour guide, Ashraf Al Hanini, who spoke fluent English and Arabic. Along with Ash, as he asked us to call him, was his minibus driver and an armed Jordanian policeman. That hadn’t been part of the Israeli briefing, but the officer was able to get us waved past police checkpoints that seemed to randomly appear. Meanwhile, Ash was offering up informed commentary about the sites we would soon see.
The first day alone was worth the trip. There was a lunch stop at a restaurant in Jerash for hummus, grilled chicken, salads and rice. We endured the first of two power outages at local eateries (the second at a different restaurant on the return trip to Israel). The food, nevertheless, seemed fresh and good. My husband even had a local beer – no problem despite local emphasis on teetotaling. After lunch, we were driven a few minutes to ancient Greco-Roman Jerash, spread out on hills opposite the modern city’s dense residential neighborhoods. Jerash is one of the 10 great Roman cities of a confederation known as the Decapolis League, and for centuries has been known as “Rome Away from Rome,” because of its monumental buildings, temples, and sculptures. Though few could be considered in excellent condition, the first view of Jerash is Hadrian’s Arch, a nearly intact, limestone and marble “Arc de Triomphe” that was erected around 129 AD to honor Roman Emperor Hadrian.
As we strolled along a Roman road in shirt-sleeve weather through Jerash’s south gate, we came upon one of the site’s distinctive features, the Oval Precinct or Plaza, a stone-paved oval about 100 yards in diameter, ringed by a towering colonnade. Jerash is not a UN World Heritage site, and Ash said this was attributable to the quality of the reconstruction, some of which used concrete that experts say disqualifies it for the designation. Still, Jerash is an indisputable treasure with two Roman theaters, and Temples honoring Artemis and Zeus, archaic Christian churches, and a colonnaded Cardo, or Roman main street.
After an hour or so strolling around Jerash, we were driven to the Citadel in Amman, Jordan’s capital. The site, known as Jabal al-Qal’a, sits on a hill in the middle of Amman. In one direction we looked down a precipice to the streets below and the remains of the 6,000-seat Roman theater of Amman’s ancient Roman ancestor, Philadelphia. In another direction, was a huge Jordanian flag that Ash told us was on a pole 100 meters high.
The Citadel was occupied as early as Neolithic times, but the visible remains are Roman, early Christian and Islamic. Among its remarkable artifacts is a hand from a colossal statue of the Roman god Heracles. The entire statue is said to have been 30 feet tall, and the hand seemed almost large enough to curl up in. In Roman times the Citadel was the acropolis of Philadelphia, and modern Amman’s main streets follow the ancient city’s main thoroughfares. As is the case in many former Roman sites around the Mediterranean — Spain is one big archeological site — if you had a house in central Amman today and you dug a hole in your backyard, you would very likely find remnants of ancient Philadelphia.
We walked through what must have been a magnificent Islamic palace and mosque from the 8th to 12th centuries, being restored by a Jordanian-Spanish team. Our group then headed to the tiny National Archaeological Museum, which has objects from throughout Jordan. Despite its size, the museum’s dozen or so displays include some remarkable pieces, including “ain ghazal statues” of humans said by some to be the oldest (8,000 years) statues ever made. They had long necks, blocky torsos, and prominent eyes, a little like ET.
As the afternoon sun was getting lower, we headed to Petra, leaving via the Desert Highway. It was dark by the time we hit the long winding entry road to the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp, a hotel of tent cabins, with a communal bath and shower house, much like a national park campsite in the United States. There was a US church group also staying there, and we dined informally at picnic tables around a campfire, sipping on tea and Nescafe. Then it was back to our small cabin-tent, which had limited electricity until midnight but enough to charge our cellphones.
Rising around 6 a.m., we found we had slept next to a large rock, which we scaled to catch the sunrise. The only visible neighbor was a shepherd, his dog, and his flock of perhaps 100 bleating sheep.
After a breakfast of yogurt, fruit, eggs, hummus, and pita, we headed to Petra, about 15 minutes away. Early arrival is a good idea. The site, though never crowded, is busier by midday when tour buses with day-trippers arrive. We had several options: Stick with the guide, head off on our own, or hire a local guide. We had about four hours before it was time to head back to Jerusalem.
Several members of the group struck out for a distant ruin, the Deir or Monastery, an hour’s hike up a mountain. But for us, the Treasury was our main destination. We followed a gravel path lined with blocks of rock known as Djinns — said to be endowed with some spiritual significance to the ancient residents of Petra, the Nabataeans. Then we hit the gorge, and the path narrowed.
The Nabataean civilization dates to at least the 4th century BC, with much of its survival due to its location on the main trade route from Gaza to the Gulf of Aqaba. By many accounts, it was a sophisticated culture that allowed equal rights for women, and had excellent civil engineers who understood water management. We could see remnants of water pipes along the canyon wall — the Nabataeans had to defend their city against floods from sudden downpours as well as preserve water for dry months.
Scholars say the Nabataeans became wealthy through control of the trade in frankincense and myrrh. In 61 BC the Nabataeans submitted to Roman rule. The main construction at Petra is believed to have taken place from 9 BC to 40 AD.
The gorge suddenly widened into a plaza, where there were people selling trinkets, and a small store selling cold drinks. As we looked up, we saw Petra’s iconic Treasury, which dates to about 87 to 62 BC. Of course, it is not a treasury. There is little to see inside — only a small room that may have been a burial chamber. Visitors aren’t allowed. Once Harrison Ford stepped through the entrance, he was back in a Hollywood studio. After the Treasury, the canyon opens up and is bounded by rock-cut tombs with columns and doorways that you can climb to see. The main public buildings are Roman temples and monuments, including a theater with seats for 7,000, a main road with a monumental colonnade and a yet-to-be understood Great Temple. Close by are remains of a Byzantine church with mosaic floors.
In Petra, more than 800 buildings have been identified, but much excavation remains to be done. What are those unknown treasures still buried? Probably, far more than Indiana Jones could have imagined.Miranda S. Spivak can be reached at email@example.com.