Petra: Jordan’s iconic tourist attraction
Amman - “It is a lifetime experience, though quite expensive,” exclaimed Josef Henkle, as he walked out of the ancient site of Petra, Jordan’s most famous tourist attraction, acclaimed as one of the new seven wonders of the world.
Although entry to the glittering capital of the Nabataean empire costs as much as $70.50 for non-Arab visitors, Henkle said it was worth every penny.
“The next time we come back we will spend at least two days and also make sure that we experience the site at night, as they have a magical and very special setting,” said Henkle, a cruise ship tourist on a day trip from Aqaba.
Nestled in the mountains south of the Dead Sea, Petra, which means “stone” in Greek, boasts magnificent temples, tombs and elaborate buildings carved out of rose-red solid rock, making it perhaps the most spectacular ancient city remaining in the modern world.
The UNESCO World Heritage site, believed to date to the fifth century BC, fell into the mists of legend after an earthquake in 363 forced inhabitants to abandon it. For centuries, Petra’s existence was a well-guarded secret known only to local Bedouins and Arab traders until it was found in 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhard.
The city’s sandstone geology makes it an exceptionally fragile site. It is in a seismic zone, making it vulnerable to earthquakes and flash floods that damage its architectural features. Beginning in the late 20th century, the ruins were threatened by ever-increasing numbers of tourists who roamed over the ancient stones without measures to protect the fragile site.
“In view of Petra’s uniqueness in the world and the magnitude and gravity of the dangers threatening the site, it is of the utmost importance that Jordan takes [quick and robust action] to protect and preserve its cultural heritage for future generations,” travel and tourism veteran Walid Muhajer said.
He referred to a study in 2000 by the German-Jordanian Project for the Establishment of a Conservation and Restoration Centre in Petra, which estimated that 80% of the monuments in Petra were “severely weathered and, for all practical purposes, lost forever”.
The site was four times placed on the World’s Monuments Fund’s 100 most endangered monuments, prompting the creation in 1989 of the Petra National Trust, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to the preservation and protection of the site.
The Treasury, the most impressive of all of Petra’s monuments, is the first building that appears to visitors after walking 1.5km down a winding path to the Siq, the narrow valley into the site. As the Siq sends visitors to the right, the number of niches, caves and tombs increase around the 8,000-seat amphitheatre, after which the valley widens out to the main city area.
Until as recently as 1984, many caves were home to Bedouins, who have since been relocated to nearby Wadi Mousa, as part of government’s efforts to preserve the site.
In addition to the Treasury, the triple-arched Triumphal Arch, the Temple of the Winged Lions, which was dedicated to the fertility goddess Atargatis, and the Monastery, similar in appearance to the Treasury but far bigger, are among Petra’s most spectacular structures.
The site has seen a drop in visitor numbers in recent years because of regional instability. According to statistics from the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, the number of tourists visiting Petra was down 33% during the first eight months of 2015, pushing several businesses and hotels in the city close to bankruptcy.
“(Only) Arabs and Jordanians are mainly coming these days but not foreigners,” said Tamer Hasan, a camel guide at the site. He noted that “there is not much business, although security in Jordan is very good”.
“Jordan is safe,” he said.” We do not have the same problems as Iraq and Syria but travellers are scared.”
Nonetheless, foreign visitors such as Henkle are happy to spend the day in the iconic site which, however, suffers from neglect and inadequate tourist facilities.
“The last part of the road to the Treasury is littered and covered in the droppings of the many horses, camels and donkeys that run around the site. In some areas the stench on the site, because of lack of toilets, didn’t help either,” Henkle said.
“I do not mean to sound arrogant but the government and responsible authorities need to do something to improve the conditions of the site, as a lot more could be done.”