Ancient city pays the price of peace

Thousands are now making the pilgrimage to Petra, writes Eric Silver

Petra - Like that other coffee-table wonder of the East, the Taj Mahal, Petra transcends all that the late-20th century can throw at it: mass tourism, hustling salesmen and bad poetry. The Graeco-Roman tombs and temples hewn in the living rock by Nabatean traders 21 centuries ago, still surprise and humble travellers to the desert ghost town.

Since Jordan made peace with Israel in 1994, the trickle of visitors has grown to a stampede, from 700 a day to 4,000: Israelis by the busload, but more often foreigners taking in both flanks of the Holy Land. The government has given up trying to limit the daily influx of tourists.

When I was last here, two years ago, the neighbouring bedouin township of Wadi Mussa (population 22,000) boasted three hotels. Now it has 32, four- and five-star and still building, not to mention "Petra Burger" joints and T-shirt shops offering 25 per cent discounts in Hebrew. Land values have soared from about pounds 2,000 an acre to pounds 200,000. The town's 3,500 houses are being painted Petra-pink by order of Queen Noor.

"In the summer," said a local guide, Mahmoud, a bedouin with a masters degree in electrical engineering, "the people here used to take their goats and tents into the hills and become nomads again. This year they're all working in tourism."

Dean Burgon, an obscure 19th-century Anglican, hymned Petra as "a rose- red city half as old as time". More prosaically, Mahmoud counts 15 different coloured stripes, traces of untapped minerals, in the sandstone caves and cliffs. Edward Lear's travelling cook described it as a place "where everything is chocolate, ham, curry powder and salmon". A British archaeologist, Crystal Bennet, chided him for leaving out the vanilla ice cream and blueberries.

You can travel to the site quite simply - by bus or hired car from Amman (125 miles down the Desert Highway) or Aqaba (75 miles). There are also day trips from Aqaba's twin Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat. Yet Petra itself remains a challenge.

Vehicles are banned. From the government tourism centre, you ride a horse, walk or take a buggy through a dark, dry, narrowing ravine that rears to 200ft on either side, then opens with a shock of revelation on the sun-drenched pink facade of the "Treasury", 135ft high by 75ft wide, with its exquisitely carved pillars and pediments, domes, decapitated gods and eagles. "This is the way every city should greet its visitors," marvelled an architect member of our party.

To the west, the Treasury plaza broadens into a stone-strewn valley with more temples cut in the walls on either side - all facades, with square, rainbow-striped caves hollowed out behind them. The Nabatean merchants built to impress, but lived more modestly.

The Romans, who followed them, added an amphitheatre and a paved and pillared road, the Byzantines a monastery. King Hussein's contribution, a scatter of coffee shops and at least one public lavatory - housed inside a cave with water mysteriously on tap - manages not to intrude.

Petra is built on scale which absorbs the multitude of visitors exploring on foot in the desiccating heat. From the Nabatean "High Place", 900 steps up the mountainside, their figures appear tiny, Lilliputian. Two thousand years after it was hewn from the cliff-face, Petra still dwarfs the modern world.

Suggested Topics
Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice