A thousand luminaries wash orange candlelight across curving cliffs soaring 500 feet above a sand floor as murmurs reverberate along the narrow, mile-long entrance to Petra at night. The air is cool and smells of dried bark although little is found in the way of vegetation in this twisting path carved by natural processes over thousands of years. What does exist is a sense of wonder and excitement as travelers leave the modern world behind and wind their way to a stone city empty for centuries.
This year Jordan is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the rediscovery of Petra, one of the finest wonders of the world. Built more than 2500 years ago, the city was once a thriving metropolis along trade routes from the Arabian Peninsula to Europe and from Asia toward Northern Africa. Deserted for over a thousand years and known only to local nomads, the sandstone city’s glory was re-discovered in 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt.
The joy of rediscovering Petra in 2012 is rooted in the ruins’ ability to surround modern visitors with history at every turn. The total immersion begins in the Siqas waves of rough sandstone walls curve from a narrow glimpse of sky above down to the remains of Roman cobbles underneath. When Al Khazneh, or the Treasury, comes into sight, with chiseled columns 60 feet tall and an early morning sun warming the sand under adventurous feet, visitors are confronted with a sight of awe inspiring, man-made beauty. Jaws drop and most are stopped in their tracks.
Ancient and seemingly unchanged with the passing of millennium, the Treasury itself is giving up new finds to curious archeologists with two crypts excavated in the last two years. A third crypt is said to remain buried under rock and sand as major discoveries continue beyond the 200th re-discovery anniversary.
Petra was recently listed as one of the Seven Wonders Of The World not because of the Treasury alone. The tomb is only the beginning of discovery for modern visitors as they wind down a slightly wider path, passing more tombs carved into the flat, stone walls. Some are grand, such as the Tombs of Kings with its nearly half mile long face of over 20 separately carved tombs. But many more are understated except for their sheer numbers. Like a modern parking garage, the smaller, open tombs are stacked upon each other on higher and higher ledges of rock. Most are accessible for exploring.
In the summer months a hot wind is pulled through the narrow reaches of the city, but in the winter temperatures can be mild and comfortable. Photographers will want to arrive early and head past the tombs to photograph the Great Temple, which only had its excavation begun in 1993, and Al Deir, or the Monastery, while they are bathed in glorious, golden morning light. Circling back to the Treasury during the late morning will result in the rich colors of the rose-red stone giving their best show for digital memories.
The truth is, modern travelers interested in unlocking the varied mysteries of Petra should purchase a multi-day entry ticket and allow time to wander and explore. Three days is optimal but two will suffice. If pressed for time, highlights of this UNESCO World Heritage Site can be covered with a single-day ticket but this wonder deserves more time for full discovery if it can be mustered.