The pink city's future isn't rosy

Petra's only purpose was to be seen and gawped at; The Bedouins prefer to sell trinkets than act ethnic
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Paula Weidegger condemns plans to `repair' Jordan's ancient city of Petra to make it more interesting to tourists

A "dream picture of perfection", said St John Philby, the Arabian explorer, looking down on to the pink rock barrier that envelops the ancient city of Petra. Happily, the bird's-eye view straight down on to Petra that so enchanted Philby in the Twenties remains unchanged. It is only once inside the city that visitors today are aware of "improvements" being made: the wonders of Petra, it appears, are not enough by themselves to enchant a generation of tourists who want more than our ancestors could provide to keep them diverted.

But, to begin at the beginning, Petra is wonderful; it is romantic and worth seeing. The idea of a city carved out of multi-coloured rock in abeguiling landscape of yet more sun-scorched rock remains utterly fascinating.

Deep within the crevices of spiky mountains in the biblical land of Edom, tucked in between a 3,000ft-high desert plateau and the Dead Sea, Petra began its life as a thriving metropolis in the fourth century BC, when it was settled by the Nabataeans. It remained one for almost a thousand years, attracting, in the first century AD, the inevitable attention of the Romans, who added to it theatres, villas, temples and colonnaded streets.

Naturally fortified, sited at the crossroads of one of the great spice routes between Asia and Europe, and fed by water from mountain springs, Petra was a phenomenon, a lucrative urban oasis in an otherwise petrified landscape. The city was all but abandoned, however, when an easier trade route was discovered between Arabia and Syria. It basked, very much forgotten, for more than 700 years before, in 1812, it was rediscovered byJohann Ludwig Burckhardt, the Swiss-born, English-educated Arabian explorer. From then on, Petra became a tourist destination, having no other purpose than to be seen and gawped at.

When Burckhardt arrived, most of the ancient houses, temples and shops hewn from rock by the Nabataeans and Romans had been washed away by torrential flash floods that were a characteristic of the area until a dam was built in recent years. What survived were the extraordinarily powerful faades of tombs and monuments carved directly into the rock face. These rise - urn upon pediment upon column - 90ft up vertical walls; some are pink, some purple, some striped grey and white and brown. No matter how many photographs you have seen of Petra in magazines and holiday brochures, the first sight of these monuments is as shockingtoday as it would have been to Burckhardt nearly 200 years ago.

Passing through a hot and dusty plaza filled with bony horses, the descent into Petra is through a narrow cleft in the rocks known as the Siq, along a winding riverbed; in places the walls appear almost to touch at the top. After a 10-minute ride on horseback, the rock face opens and you catch the first glimpse of the Khasnah, the most famous of themonuments.

Here, you will never walk or ride alone. Now that the border between Jordan and Israel has been reopened, the number of visitors to Petra has increased enormously.

On the face of it this is not a big problem; Petra is not Sissinghurst. Its very name means rock and even though the rocks of Petra are sandstone (easy to carve and easy for wind and weather to erode), it can easily withstand the tramp of thousands of pairs of trainers. Petra's future is not threatened by numbers, but by the apparent need to keep visitors entertained.

This process began some years ago when unsightly Bedouins who camped in the city's caves were moved to permanent homes outside Petra, to keep everyday life one step removed from the viewfinders of countless cameras and video-recorders. Now, a few select Bedouin families have been invited back to live in the caves during "opening hours" so they can provide travellers with a bit of ethnic colour for their photo-sessions. Naturally, the Bedouins prefer to sell trinkets and postcards than act ethnic, but they are aware of the role they must play to keep the tourists happy.

That was the start. If you go to Petra at Easter you will see the latest and most disturbing developments in Jordan's bid to entertain tourists they consider easily bored once the ruins have been gasped at and recorded on film. The steel skeleton of an enormous hotel under construction on the edge of Petra can be seen from within the gorge. Others are planned. The sorcery of a landscape composed of desert plains and a city carved from lonely rock is on its way out.

Meanwhile, the monuments themselves are being "repaired", to tidy them up for tourists, and not even in stone, but cement. A vast Roman forum is being "reconstructed", new columns rising by the score. The 1964 Venice Charter calls ancient sites such as Petra "living witnesses of their age- old traditions". It adds that "all reconstruction work should... be ruled out a priori". But who in Jordan is heeding this simple philosophy of conservation?

Before setting off to Jordan recently, on reaching Amman and back in London, I tried in vain to find someone in charge of the rebuilding of Petra to question. Finally, I was told by the press office in the Palace of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan that there was no one who could answer my questions. In Amman, however, an archaeologist told me how enthused Jordanian (and other Middle Eastern) tourist authorities were with the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, England. On the site of a former cinema car-park in York, the Jorvik Centre attempts to recreate a street scene during the Viking occupation of the city. Although based on careful archaeological excavation, it is a theatrical fabrication complete with songs and smells, an ersatz past represented as if real. Whether you find the goings on at the Jorvik Centre delightful or ghastly, you cannot deny the fact that three-quarters of a million people a year queue to undergo the Viking experience. Transplant the thinking and technology underpinning the Jorvik Viking Centre to Petra and you have a surefire way of bringing foreign currency to a hard-pressed Middle Eastern economy.

Of course, there are other ways of representing the past should it be considered necessary. Lyons, for example, boasts (very quietly) a superb Roman museum housed in a daring modern structure hidden in a hillside alongside the antique forum. It enhances, but does not impose in any way on what the Romans built.

In any case, there is already an excellent model of how Petra looked in its heyday at the entrance to the ancient site. A large Nabataean cave serves as a recital hall for ethnic singing and dancing. Local hand-thrown pottery is considered as fine as porcelain. What more do visitors want? Give them a museum somewhere nearby perhaps; give them all the interactive videos they want inside the museum. But leave Petra itself alone; its magic lies in what it was when Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, for better or worse, rediscovered this fabulous city of stone the year Napoleon marched on Moscow.