Special report from Jordan, Part 2 (Petra)

By Bob Schulman

Landmark facade of the Treasury building awaits tourists at Petra.If you were surprised by the huge number of biblical and historical sites around the country – just a few of which have been named in this story – you're in for a real stunner at Petra. “Many tourists think the cliffside 'Treasury' building they've seen so often on travel posters and in movies such asIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the only thing that's there,” says tour guide Mahmoud Iwaissi. “True, there's nothing else quite like (that building) in the world, but it's only the start of the thrills waiting for them at Petra.”

Iwassi notes the historic site is one of the Seven New Wonders of the World and attracts more than 900,000 visitors a year.

Some history:Roughly 2,500 years ago, Nabataean nomads decided to settle down in what's now known as Petra, most likely when they found the place was easy to defend, thanks to a labyrinth of steep canyon walls, and was blessed with  lots of water. Over time, the city became a hub for caravans traveling on trade routes linking China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome.

Visitors check out tombs, churches, baths and other sights lining the cliffs of Petra.

In exchange for protection, water and a time-out for rest and relaxation, the caravans paid taxes to the Nabataeans, making Petra one of the wealthiest cities of the ancient world. The good times lasted until the first century B.C., when the city fell to Roman legions and later became part of the Roman province of Arabia.

Whatever you've seen or heard about Petra, nothing really prepares you for the immense size of the city – around four square miles, mostly not excavated yet – and the 800 structures there, from rock-cut tombs to churches, temples and baths to a 3,000-seat amphitheater. And if you're up to climbing 900 stairs, a towering monastery awaits you atop the cliffs.

Amphitheater was once used for plays and gladiator fights.

Huge “Monastery” towers over the city. Photo by Christine Loomis.

Camel drivers offer rides on the mile-long Siq walkway to the Treasury.Put on your walking shoes and slip a fresh memory card in your camera before entering the complex for a mile-long trek through the “Siq” walkway to the treasury building. And then another trek of almost a mile to the end of the site.

Visitors who can't handle walks that long can opt for rides on donkeys, camels or horses or in horse-driven carriages – all offered at varying prices depending on your haggling skills.

Perhaps taking a tip from the old-time Nabataean taxes, Jordan today charges 50 dinars (US$70) for a day in Petra for visitors who spent at least a night in the country. If you didn't, you'll need to shell out a whopping 90 dinars (US$127) to get in.

Staying there: Visitors who'd like to stay over in the area have a choice of a half-dozen tourist-class hotels in the modern-day city of Petra adjoining the entrance to old-time Petra. Recommended properties include the upscale, 183-room Moevenpick.

Photos by Bob Schulman unless otherwise noted.

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