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
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
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
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
tv
Voices
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
News
i100
Extras
indybest
Sport
Scottish singer Susan Boyle will perform at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
tech
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
Latest stories from i100
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

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it