Home Travel Tips Cultural and Heritage Sites The Timeless Beauty of Petra

The Timeless Beauty of Petra

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Guest Post by : Haley Smith

As I climb the 800 or so steps to the Monastery in 120-degree heat, a little girl around the age of eight or so follows me, leading by a halter and rope an extremely ill donkey that looks to be near its deathbed. “Four Dinar for ride!” she confidently shouted out at the beginning of our climb, delivering the quote in Jordanian currency, the Dinar, which trades in at about $2 to one Dinar.  The girl obviously drives a hard bargain, so I play it cool.  It’s pretty clear after a few more steps, however, that the donkey isn’t up for it, so I keep on climbing.  The girl follows me to the top, confidence never wavering, the price dropping as we draw closer to our destination.

petra jordan
The Monastery In Ancient City Of Petra, Jordan


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Not much more than a year ago, I had packed up my Seattle apartment into a storage unit I found on www.usstoragesearch.com and headed out on my post-collegiate Wonderjahr for an adventure that overshot my wildest expectations.  I traveled through 13 countries before I headed home, but Jordan holds a special place in my heart, because of the city of Petra—it’s ancient splendor, and the pragmatic and friendly ways of its modern-day nomads.

A Long Time Ago, In a Land Far Away…

This is the place that gave rise to the saying, “old as dirt.”  Petra was established around 312 BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans, who were described in ancient times as a strong tribe of some 10,000 warriors, pre-eminent among the nomads of Arabia, disdaining agriculture, fixed houses, and the use of wine.  In addition to being warriors, the Nabataeans were nomadic shepherds who carried a profitable trade with the seaports in frankincense, myrrh and spices from today’s Yemen, as well as a trade with Egypt in bitumen from the Dead Sea. Their arid country was their best safeguard, for the bottle-shaped cisterns for rain-water which they excavated in the rocky or clay-rich soil were carefully concealed from invaders.

A Hidden Mystery

Petra eventually became lost in the sands of time until the year 1812, when it was re-introduced to the western world by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. At its peak, Petra’s population was about 30,000, an astonishing number made possible in this arid climate by clever engineering.  The ancient inhabitants of Petra carved channels through the solid rock, gathering winter rains into hundreds of vast cisterns for use in the dry summers, many of which are still in use today by the Bedouin people.  Not much is known about Nabataean culture today, except what can be gleaned from ancient examples of what would today be called graffiti—names and dates carved into the swooping rose-colored cliffs into which Petra’s majestic buildings are hewn.

The archeological site of the ancient city of Petra (“rock” in ancient Greek) was recently chosen as one of Smithsonian Magazine’s “28 Places to See Before You Die.”  I’m certainly glad I made it to this part of my bucket list—go, and you will be, too.

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