Jordan – Been There

The rose-red city half as old as time

The soft sandstone of Petra, seen here in the multi-colored rocks, made it perfect for carving into caves and later more extravagant buildings. The Nabateans also developed hydraulic engineering systems that diverted the area's flash floods of winter, and captured the water to allow a city to grow in the desert.

Photo by Roberto Cornacchia / Alamy

Jordan – Been There

The rose-red city half as old as time

Carved directly into the pink and orange desert rock, the ancient Nabataean ruins of Petra are Jordan’s jewel in the crown, made famous onscreen by Indiana Jones and rivaling the ancient cities of Pompeii or Machu Picchu in legend.

Adrian Hartrick
Adrian Hartrick Travel Writer

This vast stretch of land, once a city of perhaps 30,000 inhabitants, is still occupied by semi-nomadic Bedouins, but the invasion of tourists from around the world has been a mixed blessing. “The Jordanian government has attempted to regulate and control their lifestyle in order to protect the ruins,” says my guide, Omar. “But they also have free rein to sell whatever they can to the millions of visitors that pour into the site every year.” This has provided them with revenue and opportunities that would be otherwise hard to come by in such an isolated part of Jordan.

Once I have trotted down the narrow Siq on a tired horse, for the obligatory Indian Jones photo opportunity, I enjoy exploring the ruins at leisure, stopping for tea with many of the Bedouin hawking postcards, fossils, jewelry and other souvenirs. My guide points out the many bullet holes around a giant urn carved above the entrance to Al Khazneh, known as the Treasury to its cost. “Tribesmen shot at it with their rifles, thinking it might split open to reveal the treasure,” says Omar.

Most of this site has still to be excavated. “Three-quarters of the site is still untouched, still buried.” he says. “There was a big fall in tourism during the Gulf War, but that allowed a lot more work to be done and a whole other layer was discovered, covered by centuries of sand.” I climb the 800-plus steps to the site of the Monastery, more properly called El-Deir and built in the second century.

As I admire its rock-hewn splendor, the words once used to describe Petra come to mind: “A rose-red city half as old as time.”

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An indication of the impressive size of Petra's Great Temple can be seen from its fallen columns....

An indication of the impressive size of Petra's Great Temple can be seen from its fallen columns. Archeology has revealed that all of Petra's buildings were covered in thick stucco and painted in bright yellows, blues, reds, and greens. Photo by Juan Carlos Munoz / Alamy

Juan Carlos Munoz

Juan Carlos Munoz

Agency
Alamy

An indication of the impressive size of Petra's Great Temple can be seen from its fallen columns. Archeology has revealed that all of Petra's buildings were covered in thick stucco and painted in bright yellows, blues, reds, and greens.