OF SALT AND THE EARTH In a land of kings, these relics are awesome

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PETRA, JORDAN — A downside to visiting any of the world's A-list travel sites is
that they are not so much virgin experiences as they are comparisons
with what you learned in school, with photographs you have seen, or
with tales cousin Jerry told from his summer vacation.

At the other end of the spectrum, you could call it the Z list, are
a million places you have never heard of because there is no reason to
go.

Wouldn't it be great to arrive at a destination of the highest order
that has somehow escaped the broad notice given to, say, the Great
Wall, or the Great Pyramids?

Welcome to Petra.

It's not exactly unknown, certainly not as it was for centuries
before 1812, when it was rediscovered for the outside world by the
Swiss adventurer J.L. Burckhardt. Experienced travelers know it, but
not many among the general public.

Petra has stunning vistas, hundreds of temples, tombs, and dwellings
hand-hewn from solid mountains, and a chasm unique on earth.

The entrance to the siq, as the chasm is known, does not advertise
what's to come essentially a stroll through a mountain split apart. At
points the passage is no more than 6 feet wide while the heights on
either side can surpass 200 feet, blocking the sun and lending an eerie
stillness appropriate for the inspiring discoveries ahead.

The walk down can easily take a half-hour, and you may want to
consider hiring one of the many horse- or donkey-drawn carriages that
ply the partly cobblestoned way, particularly if you need to save your
strength. Petra does not give up its delights without physical demand,
and only the fairly fit will be able to take in its broad expanse.

The siq is not a canyon created by erosion, but rather a rift opened
by tectonic forces. Viewing it from scenic overlooks high above, it
looks as though prehistoric giants removed a thin sliver of solid rock
with a bread knife.

Visitors get the first payoff for their efforts at the last bend in
the siq, when a slice of the Khazneh, or Treasury, comes into view
between the high walls. From there, each step forward brings a bit more
of the impressive columned facade into view until you have reached the
open plaza that marks the siq's end.

The facing wall of rock is about four stories high. Almost half the
height is devoted to the entrance, which is guarded by six columns of
Greco-Roman style, a testimony to those empires' influence on the
Nabateans, the civilization that built and occupied Petra for
centuries, ending in the first or second century AD. The upper half has
statuary and other adornments, as well as evidence suggesting that
builders originally may have had even higher aspirations.

Also worth noting are the points at which the solid rock face was
breached; they are abrupt and squared, making it simple to imagine the
scene preconstruction, and breathtaking to contemplate the sculptors'
vision that such majesty would be revealed if just the right chunks of
stone were removed. Alas, the facade is as good as the Treasury gets;
like most of Petra's monuments, the interior is plain.

Also in the plaza is the first of many canteens inside the walled
city, offering bottled water, film, postcards, and other tourist
necessities at tourist prices. Though somewhat crude, these shops are
at the top of Petra's sales chain; less organized vendors, right down
to enterprising 5-year-olds, sell everything from what are purported to
be Nabatean coins to, literally, Nabatean bone (I saw finger parts),
and even Petran rocks.

The siq and Treasury are probably Petra's best known sights,
especially among Indiana Jones fans; exteriors for the final scenes of
his third saga, "The Last Crusade," were shot here. Almost 70 years
ago, Agatha Christie set a Hercule Poirot mystery, "Appointment With
Death," here; in 1988, it was made into a movie starring Peter Ustinov
that was filmed on location.

There is a lot to Petra. To say you have seen it, you must spend at
least two full days. A companion told me that on his way into the site
about 8 a.m. for his second day of touring, he saw a group of tourists
on its way out, which struck us both as an absurd waste of energy. Why
come only to skimp?

Some would say the Treasury is Petra's greatest jewel, but a more
rewarding gem, if only for the extra effort required to see it, is the
Monastery, one of Petra's "high places," a name descriptive of stature
and altitude. More than 90 minutes' walk from the Treasury, at Petra's
opposite end, it is of similar design but substantially larger, roughly
more than 50 feet high and more than 45 feet wide, according to the
Lonely Planet guidebook.

The interior is, again, quite square and plain, hardly worth the
effort to pull oneself over the makeshift pile of rock where stairs
once stood. Still, it is improbable that many visitors will resist
going inside after getting there: The Monastery is at the end of 800
stairs cut into the rock of a narrow pass.

It is a visit best planned for near the end of the day, because
afterward, the temptation will be to head straight back to Wadi Mousa,
the town outside Petra's gates, for a shower and rest. It is not a trek
older or infirm tourists should attempt at any time. Donkeyback rides
are offered by their friendly tenders (their tireless slogan: "1 hour
to walk, 20 minutes to ride"), but even a ride is strenuous.

Opposite the temple is yet another canteen, this one combining a
spacious cave and a shaded outdoor cafe operated stylishly by Haroun
al-Fakir, 37, a native Bedouin thoroughly at home in the modern world.
In the half-hour I was with him, he conducted his thriving jewelry
business and other ventures in three languages not his own, which he
said he had learned just from talking with tourists. (Once he took time
out to take a call on his cellphone. In Boston, I cannot get from home
to work without losing signal, and here he is in the mountains at the
edge of the Wadi Araba, taking and making calls with elan.)

The Araba is a vast plain that stretches from the mountains that
guard Petra all the way to the Red Sea at Aqaba, about 90 miles away.
Just beyond the Monastery are vantage points from which to view those
peaks, which reminded a companion of the Grand Tetons. You have to see
it; the vistas just do not fit inside a viewfinder.

Indeed, the mountains of this place were grand before man ever
started carving them out. Petra is known for its rose-colored stone,
and it does glow warmly in the slanted rays of early and afternoon sun.
But veins of purple, magenta, gray, and yellow dance throughout the
limestone, creating natural frescoes wherever cutters have exposed a
cross-section, such as on the walls and ceilings of the Urn Tomb, one
of the largest temples, inside and out. The pattern suggests a Peter
Max creation.

Petra's topography, too, is special, and as varied as the hues.
Standing on the High Place of Sacrifice, which is notable more for its
sweeping vistas than for what the hard climb up reveals, one sees in
the distance dark crags next to rounded hills that resemble a package
of store-bought dinner rolls.

Hiking there or to the Monastery are fairly standard destinations
for adventurers in Petra. But there's at least one more trek to try the
High Place on El Kubtha Mountain and it offers several payoffs for the
75 minutes' exertion it exacts each way. When you arrive, your perch
affords an incomparable view of the Treasury from about 650 feet above
the plaza floor. Reward enough.

But once you have reached the highest point and are traversing level
terrain again, you get the grand perspective on another of Petra's
pearls, the 8,000-seat amphitheater, whose back-row rooms suggest the
world's first luxury boxes, all of it carved out of a mountain.

Yes, the vistas are spectacular, but there's another grand
satisfaction as well: People have taken the route for thousands of
years, but the trail is just clear enough to make out. There are no
rope lines, no tourist minions, no processing of any kind. It's just
you, experiencing the thrill of discovery.

 

IF YOU GO

How to get there

Petra is about 140 miles southwest of Amman, and reachable by
scheduled bus (two a day), tour bus, rental car, or hired private car,
though at $100 or more one way, the 3 1/2-hour ride is pricey. From
Israel, multiday bus tours are available from Jerusalem.

Daylong bus tours cost roughly $150 inclusive. For those who prefer
traveling a la carte, taxis await on the other side. You can go to the
bus station in Aqaba, or arrange transportation directly to Wadi Mousa,
the town at Petra's edge. We did the latter; the 90- mile trip cost
about $50, including a stop by the highway for tea.

Where to stay

Petra Palace

011-962-6-5711660,

011-962-3-2156723

Rooms are clean and spacious, breakfast included, and box lunches
available. The pool can be very refreshing after a day in Petra.
$130-$180 double.

Taybet Zaman

011-962-3-1520111

Built from a defunct hillside village, the hotel retains a village
ambience with a number of smallish buildings connected by a sometimes
confusing warren of stone-paved streets lined with rooms, shops, and a
restaurant. There is a swimming pool. $120-$170.

Where to eat

Food is decent and generally moderately priced, often served buffet style.

What to do

A single day's entry to Petra costs about $30, but a two-day pass is
only $5 more; a three-day pass costs about $45; all are available at
the visitors center. You can go alone and rely on your guidebook, or
hire a guide at the gate. The standard price is about $20 for two
hours, or $50 for the better part of a day, including a hike.

Petra at Night, which runs several nights per week when there is
enough tourist interest, takes you on a candlelight walk through the
siq and offers sweet local tea and seating in the plaza in front of the
Treasury, one of Petra's jewels. The plaza is lighted only by candles,
so the supreme anticipation of seeing the Treasury awash in light goes
unrealized.

Little Petra is about 10 miles from Petra's entrance. The site is
free to enter, but it will cost about $30 between the round-trip cab
ride and hiring a guide. The carved, sometimes hand-painted spaces are
impressive, though not comparable to its vast neighbor. But there are
reasons to go. You are likely to have the place to yourself, and after
you have viewed the sights on the 500-yard main street, your guide can
lead you on the 20-minute hike to Beidha, a 9,000-year-old settlement
that our guidebook said is one of the oldest excavations in the
Mideast.