Jordan, as framed in the neat oval of a Boeing 737 window, resembles Tatooine from the sky: a sea of rusty red sand, canyons and jagged mountains. As viewed through the windshield of a Citroën C3 sedan cruising Highway 15, the landscape is monochromatic, the sky a hazy gray. There are signs of civilization in the scattering of low, cement-block houses, but the single constant show of human habitation are the steely-faced traffic officers conducting impromptu roadside checks.
“Do you know of any place in the U.S. like this?” I asked Him once our American passports cleared us through yet another checkpoint.
“No, but if I was shooting a sci-fi, Star Wars-like movie, I’d definitely consider this,” he said.
But it was actually the Tunisian desert that stood in for Luke Skywalker’s home planet in the sci-fi franchise. Although parts of “Lawrence of Arabia” were filmed in various Jordanian desert locations, Petra, arguably the country’s biggest attraction, didn’t cement its spot in cinematic pop culture until 1989, when the ancient city’s Al Khazneh tomb (popularly known as “The Treasury”) served as “The Temple of the Sun,” resting place of the Holy Grail in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” A few shots of The Treasury’s towering façade (some of which included Harrison Ford and Sean Connery on horses in front of an obvious blue screen) were all it took to rocket Petra to the top of adventure tourists’ must-see destinations. (Admittedly, that’s how Him and I first learned of it).
The Treasury’s fame, however, somewhat betrays the grandness of Petra as a whole. In reality, the Treasury is simply an elaborate façade, a single monument among hundreds in a 264,000- square-meter complex. The Nabataeans, members of an ancient Arab tribe, created this city in stone more than 2,000 years ago. Most of the structures that still remain, including the Treasury, are tombs carved into the red sandstone hills. Don’t be a touron (tourist + moron = “touron”) by day-tripping from Israel for a quick Indiana Jones fix. (Doing so means you’ll pay the inflated “Non-accommodation” park entrance fee of 90 JD). Give this archaeological wonder the time it deserves and purchase the 3-day Petra Archaeological Park ticket (60 JD).
We rented the Citroën (175 JD for 5 days, unlimited kilometers) from Avis at Queen Alia International Airport (AMM) in Amman and drove the 240 kilometers to Wadi-Musa, modern tourist gateway to Petra. (Our plan was to return the rental at the King Hussein Bridge Jordan-Israel border crossing and then enter Israel by bus.) After three hours of beautiful but desolate desert scenery, the blocky homes, restaurants and shops lining the valley comparably constituted a major metropolitan area. We bunked at La Maision, a comfortable hotel conveniently located within walking distance of the entrance to the park. Our 90 JD bill for a three-night stay included a (colossal) breakfast buffet each morning and a (colossal) buffet dinner on the second night.
On that first day in the park, we stuffed Him’s satchel with a small bounty of boiled eggs, bread and jam packets pilfered from the breakfast buffet before setting out to find the Petra ticket booth and entrance. We discovered both down a small hill, wedged between stands advertising Harrison Ford’s chiseled mug to sell leather whips and sable fedoras.
After entering the park gate, Petra visitors must hike about 2 km before experiencing that gaping-mouth, Indiana Jones moment when a sliver of the Treasury is first glimpsed through a narrow opening in the rocks. First is a long gravely road angling downhill through the Bab-as-Siq (gateway to the Siq) past the Tomb of Obelisks (circa 1 B.C.). Ignore the men offering “free” rides on horses. Once you mount, these tricksters will demand a sizeable tip before they let you dismount.
Then there’s the Siq itself, a narrow, winding gorge formed when the Nabataeans dammed the Musa River to provide water to their city. Strolling through the crevice (less than 5 meters in width at some parts) and marveling at the 80-meter-tall cliffs towering above is a magical experience shattered only by the jarring rumbling of a horse-drawn carriage ferrying disabled, elderly or simply lazy tourists to within steps of the Treasury’s façade.
After expectedly rounding bend after bend, the dust cleared, the soundtrack in my head reached a crescendo and I glimpsed….a swarm of package tourists. But – yes! – beyond their lumpy forms and a pair of reclining camels, the Temple of the Sun rose 43 meters from the canyon floor!
Carved in a Hellenistic style during the first century B.C. as a tomb for a Nabataean king, the Treasury earned its name thanks to the urn crowning the tholos in the upper story. Modern day explorers believed the urn contained precious metals and gems, and they riddled it with bullet holes in attempts to bring it crashing down.
The entrance to the Treasury is roped off, but visitors can peek inside from a short distance. Within, the single, shallow room contains few adornments save for the natural swirl of color in the sandstone walls. (Alas, no decrepit knight guarding the world’s most impressive collection of shiny goblets.)
From the Treasury, we would our way around the canyon walls to the crumbling Theater, an arc carved almost entirely from solid rock around 1 A.D. In its heyday, the complex could hold about 7,000 people.
Although the Treasury and the Theater are roped off, much of the remaining structures within Petra are not, and visitors are free to wander inside. The cleanly carved interiors showcase dazzling displays of colorful stone painted by pressure and the passage of time. Don’t be surprised if you enter a shadowy tomb to discover a family of goats; Bedouin herders use some of the smaller monuments to shelter their flocks from the sun.
After exploring several shady tombs, Him and I hiked through the heat to the “High Place of Sacrifice,” a plateau where religious ceremonies and funeral rites once took place. Afterward, we settled atop fallen stones within the Garden Temple to eat our lunch. Away from the maddening crowds in front of the Treasury, our hideaway was peaceful and quiet, our only visitors a pair of friendly felines we nicknamed “Bug” and “Bug Jr.”
Many Petra visitors neglect to see Ad-Deir, or the “Monastery,” because doing so requires trudging up 800 steps carved into the hillside, but the tomb proved a definite highlight of our day. It earned its name because monks are said to have held services there during the Byzantine era. It is similar in design and size to the Treasury but visitors are permitted to go inside – if they can manage to haul themselves over the 4-foot-tall threshold.
Perched on a cliff top, the Monastery offers spectacular views across the desert canyons and mountains – so spectacular, in fact, that trinket sellers set up shop at the top of ridges and lure unsuspecting customers with enthusiastic, hand-painted signs promising “Best View!” and “Better View!”
Ignoring the sales pitches, Him and I ended the day gazing out across the desert from “Better View.” We had just enough time to imagine the alien landscape populated by pod racers and stubble-faced heroes on horseback before setting off for the 800 steps, a walk through the valley and a well-earned sleep at La Maision.