BEFORE THERE WAS WALL STREET in New York or the Square Mile in London, there was Petra.
In the heart of Jordan’s Shara Mountains between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba lies an ancient trade center once an important crossroads between Arabia, Egypt and ancient Syria. From the first century B.C. to the third century, wealthy merchants flourished in one of the most influential and prosperous commercial hubs in antiquity.
Built by the early Nabateans, the caravan city is long gone, as is the rich incense trade route. But ever since the New7Wonders of the World proclamation in 2007, tourists, tour guides and Bedouins rediscovered — and now populate — the City of Stone.
Walk back in time through a narrow winding gorge called the Siq, a towering, 650-foot-high sandstone alley that slits a one-mile course until the climactic destination of the Treasury (al-Khazneh in Arabic) is revealed. Those familiar with the hit movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade will recall actor Harrison Ford slinking from darkness toward the shimmering temple’s pink glow. Legend has it a pharaoh’s hidden treasure is stored in the precarious urn that looms above — just one of the many mysteries lurking in this Middle Eastern sun.
Today, camel-riding tourists appear before the monstrous edifice. If you arrive at sunrise, chances are good Petra will be void of crowds. Besides the Treasury, other must-see highlights of the rocky ghost town include the Roman amphitheater, for views of an early entertainment complex that once held 7,000 spectators; the Royal Tombs, for the spellbinding collection of caverns; and the Monastery (ad-Deir).
At the Monastery, prepare for an hour’s hike up 900 rocky steps to see the largest carved monument in Petra. If the energetic jaunt doesn’t leave you breathless, the sight certainly will. Pure magic, the enormous façade is riddled with pockmarks of erosion. Inside, the atmosphere changes to a dark, cramped quarter. Only the faint squeaks of mouse-eared bats might be heard.
It’s time to return to the hotel, refresh and visit the local scene. In Petra’s living neighborhood of Wadi Musa, hotels and occasional shops line the dust-ridden thoroughfares. The closest resort to Petra, Mövenpick Resort Petra, features an on-site, Bedouin-inspired souk, the Zara Souk, bedecked in local handicrafts.
For drinks and a Bedouin dance, hit the Cave Bar, a quirky watering hole purported to be the world’s oldest bar. Inside this haunting Nabatean tomb, amid ancient carved stonework dating back two millennia, dancers perform for enthusiastic patrons at this fixture conveniently located behind the Petra Visitor Center.
Later, it’s a toss-up between cooking with the locals under the watchful eye of chefs at the Petra Kitchen, where authentic Arabic meals get top billing, or seeing the Treasury illuminated by candlelight. To help solve the evening dilemma, hit the pool back at the resort to see whether your head or your stomach will rule.
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