The Best of the Ancient Best
By David Rich
I’ve often puzzled over which is the world’s most fabulous archeological site. Of course, superlatives such as most fabulous, best, and crème de la crème may depend entirely on taste, or lack thereof.
But still, without arguing about definitions, I throw out the gauntlet for the debate to begin.
For me the best of the ancient best is Petra in Jordan, hands down the most photogenic, colorful and extensive on the planet, its Treasury first stumbled upon from the depths of a narrow chasm, the opening scene for Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Naturally there are those who prefer the grossly eroded antiquities of Egypt (admittedly Karnak in Luxor isn’t too shabby), or the-jungle-snarled temples of Cambodian Angkor Wat (many agree, that out of the 295 temples, Banteay Srei is the most exquisite), or the rapidly-slipping-off-the-hillside Peruvian Machu Picchu (decent location), or bewitching Bagon in Myanmar with its 4,022 grandiose and lesser temples, pagodas, and chedis.
But none of these, or any other potential candidates for the best of the archeological best, offer the psychedelic labyrinth of rainbowed sandstone from which Petra was born. Indeed, Egyptian stone is monotonously beige, Angkor obtuse gray granite, Machu Picchu grass-covered and weathered, and who goes to Bagon? For an informed decisio, the voter must personally visit each and every premier site.
Petra was carved from miles of living stone by the wily Nabataeans, who controlled the spice trade among China, India, Greece, and Egypt for 400 years from 300 B.C.E.
The site was embellished by the Romans with stadiums, columns, baths, and temples after conquering less-wily spice traders in 106 C.E. Yet the grandeur and location of Petra was unknown in the West until rediscovered by Swiss gallivanter, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, in 1812.
Petra sits on a modest plateau a hundred miles south of the Dead Sea. Its location is skewered by Wadi M?s?, Arabic for the Valley of Moses where tradition says a rock was struck and water gushed.
The locals would dearly love a repetition to fix their severe water shortage. A sign in my first hotel room said, “Fine of 10 JD for washing of clothes; water too expensive.” For many princesses a $14 fine would add frosting to the insult of having done their own wash, such as I did in my successor hotel.
Fingerprints of Antiquity
The so-called Rose City of Petra is more a Rainbow City. Its hundred meter (325 feet) vertical cliffs are swirled in shades of magenta, pale blue, pink, tangerine and gutsy gold, whirled together with pinwheels of alternating white sandstone to form the fingerprints of antiquity, jammed with elaborately carved temples towering out of vertical rock faces, a World Heritage site since 1985.
When you go this is how you’ll see it: First, a ticket office selling passes for one to three days, from 21JD ($30) to 31JD ($43.50). Without pushing the average athlete to exhaustion, it takes a minimum of two days to see the highlights, so at least buy the 25JD ticket for $35.
Once through the gate you’ll be offered expensive horses to tote your not-yet-tired-out fanny a few hundred meters (yards) to the entrance gorge, graced by the first of many souvenir shops. Skip the horses, which may come in handy on a less energetic trip back out.
To this point you’ll have walked down a dry river bed, your spirits rising as you saunter past temples (all temples are tombs), caves and carved stone blocks that would prettify any archeological site.
Funneling of Tourists
By then you’re wondering, “How can this be topped?” and it immediately is by the gorge itself. The cliffs thunder a hundred meters straight up, with patches only two meters in width, which in the mornings can mean the sudden funneling of way too many tourists.
But claustrophobia can be wonderful, even when coupled with too many photo-snappers in a space almost too narrow to sidle through. The walls are so high the sun seldom shines, which is a sheer relief in the often-sweltering Jordanian desert.
As you snake through the slot-chasm of gorgeous sandstone, the suspense palpably rises. My entrance was embellished by a Japanese tour-group leader linking her minions together in a single-file, eyes closed, marching in set cadence toward the expected surprise. Hilarity was me watching seventeen Japanese with eyes tightly clinched, marching the bunny-hop, blinking awake on leader-command, shrieking in unison, ‘Look at the Treasury,’ an assumption on my part.
The Petra experience balloons to the gigantic with the Treasury looming a hundred feet (30 meters) overhead, six massive Doric columns on the lower level seemingly supporting a temple façade with more columns, massive cupola and temple tops stacked above that.
Place of Sacrifice
Not only the color changes with the day’s subtle altering of light, but the thinning of tourists removes the atmosphere of feverishness, so that by early afternoon camels sprawl docilely in front of the Treasury for that perfectly composed shot, untrammeled by the presence of those pesky other tourists.
From the entrance of Petra to its furthest famous edifice, the Monastery, is six kilometers (almost four miles). This distance is interrupted a hundred times by the presence of templed tombs that cover miles of cliffs in most every direction, down seemingly deserted wadis, and up the mandatory steps to the shirt-drenching High Place of traditional Nabataean sacrifice, offering great views over the enormous complex.
On the way there’s a Roman coliseum, temples and ruins, all chockablock with the brilliant sandstone that makes Petra unique, interspersed with a hundred more temples and decorously carved caves.
The climb to the Monastery may unnerve the average couch potato, for whom saddled mules may readily be hired. The Monastery itself is so massive that viewing it from a close-by hill renders humans standing in front almost too small to notice, and mules miniscule.
But it’s the journey to and fro, from the Treasury to the Monastery that reveals the grandeur of Petra, the swirl of color peppering the miles of canyons like a Joseph’s coat of many colors. Petra is Greek for rock; appropriately, because Petra indeed rocks.
When You Go:
Well, you must go, flying to Amman, the Jordanian capital, or to Cairo with buses to the Israeli and the very close-by Jordanian border taking only six hours and costing $13.
You can fly to either Amman or Cairo for very little from anywhere in Europe, or about $1000 from North America, assuming you assiduously shop the internet.
Hotels in Wadi Musa/Petra are ridiculously inexpensive, three stars going from $25.
My taxi driver from the Israeli border (35JD or $50 for 130km — 80 miles and two hours) dropped me at Valentines, which is $14 a night and offers fabulous banquet dinners for $5.
So I could avoid the hassle of sending my laundry out I moved to the Petra Moon Hotel, single 18JD, $25.
No matter the hotel you can’t go wrong because the Jordanians are famous for their hospitality and friendliness, including the bus driver that took me to Wadi Rum, the hideout for Lawrence of Arabia, and back for $14, and the next day hauled me the steep couple of miles (three kilometers) up to the bus station for free.
Check out the new seven wonders of the world at: new7wonders.com.
After more than 100 million votes were tallied from all over the world, the new seven wonders are: Petra, the Great Wall of China, the Colosseum in Rome, the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Buenos Aires, Machu Picchu in Peru, Chichen Itza in Mexico, and the Taj Mahal in India.