Petra, Jordan’s famous city of stone, faces a preservation struggle


The trail to the High Place of Sacrifice, an open-air altar where the Nabateans ritually slaughtered animals, provides a broad view of the tombs, monuments and carvings scattered throughout red cliffs of the ancient city of Petra, Jordan. (Christine Dell'Amore/For The Washington Post)

We’ve been hiking a narrow canyon for nearly half an hour, hemmed in by huge sunset-colored cliffs, and the suspense is killing me.

Where’s Petra? 

“It’s becoming clear why it was lost for so long,” quips one of my fellow travelers to the ancient Middle Eastern city.

Finally, rounding a hulk of rock, I spot a sliver of Petra’s most famous monument, al-Khazneh, or the Treasury. The two-story facade with its Greek-inspired columns is the first thing you see when you reach the end of the canyon, or Siq. Film buffs know it as the temple where Harrison Ford found the Holy Grail in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

(Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)

Petra, Jordan: Where to stay, where to eat, what to do and more

Ever since I’d watched Indy gallop away from the striking rock-carved edifice, I’d wanted to see it with my own eyes. And what better year than 2012, the 200th anniversary of Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt’s rediscovery of Petra in 1812? I had 21 / 2 days in the city — part of a nine-day tour of Jordan with the U.K. company Exodus — and I intended to take advantage of every second.

In real life, Petra — Greek for “rock” — was the religious capital of the Nabateans, an ancient civilization that once ruled much of what is now Jordan. These wealthy spice traders built Petra as a massive complex of monuments, tombs and marketplaces beginning aroundthe 6th century B.C. In its heyday, Petra served as a global crossroads, a place where camel caravans laden with frankincense and other goods stopped to hawk their wares.

Even now, standing before the Treasury in the cool Valentine’s Day sunshine, it was easy to conjure such a scene. A constant clip-clop of horses’ hooves, the bellows of colorfully blanketed camels and a flood of harried Arabic bounced off the high rock walls as tourists gawked up at the Treasury. (Unlike in “Indiana Jones,” the Treasury doesn’t hold a labyrinth of rooms — just a shallow recess and a royal tomb that’s not open to the public.)

Walking down Petra’s main path, or “spine,” I entered a more open mountainous area dotted with large caves, which housed most of Petra’s five Bedouin tribes as recently as 1985. That’s when Petra became a UNESCO World Heritage site, and many Bedouins had to move to a small government-built village overlooking Petra called Umm Sayhoun. Some resisted, though, and still live in Petra’s caves.

Perched on higher cliffs around me were arched entryways leading to the elegantly carved, high-columned royal tombs. Bedouins trotted by, trying to sell me donkey, camel and horse-carriage rides, shouting such phrases as “Nice experience in a Bedouin Ferrari?” And although Harrison Ford was nowhere to be seen, I got a kick out of Petra’s own “Johnny Depp,” a camel rider with kohl-lined eyes, a long black beard and a “Pirates of the Caribbean” T-shirt.

But although Petra retains much of its huckster spirit, its preservation is on shakier ground.

The Nabateans carved Petra out of sandstone, a soft rock that’s easily damaged by wind, rain, earthquakes and flash floods. Many of the monuments most exposed to the elements, such as the Royal Tombs, are already highly degraded. The civilization’s ingenious hydrology system, which diverted the floodwaters that regularly gush through the Siq, has fallen into disrepair.

On top of that, the thousands of people who live and work in and visit Petra daily put enormous pressure on the site. In 2007, a global poll named Petra one of the new seven wonders of the world, sparking a fresh influx of tourists, who now number about 2,500 a day — many of them unaware of park protocols.

Locals have also denuded parts of the site: Children sometimes break off pieces of colored rock to sell to tourists, or climb on fragile monuments and into religious niches. What’s more, the Bedouins’ beasts of burden erode the stone steps and paths, leave waste that damages the sandstone and overgraze the park’s vegetation. There may also be unknown threats — no one knows, for instance, whether the vibrations of horse carriages thundering up the Siq or the hum of generators, the park’s main power source, could render the surrounding rocks unstable.

“This is our dilemma: how to balance between the benefits of locals, providing a memorable experience for our tourists and protecting the site,” said Emad Hijazeen, commissioner of the Petra Archaeological Park. We were having Turkish coffee at his office up the hill from Petra’s main entrance. “Frankly speaking, it’s a hard job.” 

The Petra Development and Tourism Regional Authority, which oversees the Petra region and the archaeological park, already contributes 10 percent of each entrance fee, which is 50 dinars, or about $70, to the conservation of Petra’s monuments.

But the authority wants to go beyond that: It’s in the midst of a new conservation and tourism plan that will drastically shift how Petra functions. Part of the new vision is a shuttle bus powered by clean gasoline that will ferry tourists out of the park via a winding road near the end of the main spine, where most people finish their visit to Petra. If approved by UNESCO, the bus system will give weary tourists a lift while also reducing the impact of thousands of people retracing their route back through the Siq, currently the only way in and out of Petra, Hijazeen said.

Also in the works is a Mitsubishi-funded solar plant above Petra, whose power will be wired into the park to replace its many diesel-fueled generators. A renovated visitor center will be transformed into an interpretation center and feature a time-based ticketing system that will stagger visitors throughout the day, thinning the crowds.

The park authority is also preparing brochures in several languages about how to protect Petra; this literature will be distributed to the park’s 150 guides. The renovated visitor center will display a list of do’s, such as staying on marked trails, and don’ts, such as not absconding with pottery shards or plants from the site.

I asked my Exodus guide, Danny Haddad, for his take on Petra’s fragility. “No site is immortal,” he said. He believes that the government’s emphasis should be on allowing as many people as possible to see the site. After all, “tomorrow if we get an earthquake, no Petra — finito.”

Some Bedouins I met had a similar philosophy. Atallah Ali, a Bedouin jewelry seller, reminded me that it’s been thousands of years, “and Petra is still here.” What’s more, 85 percent of Petra still lies unexcavated, he said, and thus out of the reach of threats, natural or human.

Aysar Akrawi, the longtime head of the preservation-advocacy group Petra National Trust, may know more about the dangers to Petra than anyone. I’d arranged to meet him at the entrance to Petra, and after days of interacting with only men, I was surprised to find a petite woman decked out from head to toe in purple.

We began a meander through the Siq, and although it was my third walk through the gorge, I saw it with new eyes. Akrawi pointed out rock dams and cross-drainage systems, Nabatean infrastructure that the Petra National Trust and its partners have helped restore.

Akrawi also showed me long cracks in the canyon walls, which form when the rock absorbs rainwater, taking salt up with it. Falling boulders are a constant worry; in 2010 a boulder fell into the Siq, luckily when no one was around. There were also two major rock collapses in 2011, one in an area frequented by tourists. The Petra National Trust is involved in a project to identify boulders that are most vulnerable to collapse and that can be anchored in place. The organization also runs a Junior Ranger Program, which gives local kids an opportunity to learn about different aspects of Petra, from its geology to its history. “If we keep this up, you within no time are going to have a generation that speaks the language of preservation,” Akrawi said.

As for Petra’s unnatural threats, they’re “really the human impact, and when you say human impact, you’re saying tourism management, or lack of it.”

As if illustrating her point, we witnessed several tourists scampering on monuments off the trail, sometimes with their tour guides watching. Each time, she tried to snap their pictures, which she’ll then send to the park authorities and use in advocacy presentations.

“It’s not the tourist,” she said. “It’s what you allow them to do.”

The Petra authority, with the help of the U.S. National Park Service, has already trained 80 park rangers to monitor tourists. But I realized that I hadn’t seen a single one. I asked Akrawi what they do.

“Drink tea?” she replied dryly. “Smoke cigarettes?”

I also asked her what she thought of the changes coming to Petra. She’s concerned about the environmental impact of wiring solar power into the site and about whether the new power source will lead to more nighttime events that could further stress it. She also seemed dubious about the environmentally friendly shuttle, especially because the Petra National Trust has not yet received details of the fuel’s composition. “We are not relaxed about it,” she said.

Some Bedouins also seemed less than thrilled. Ali Muhammed Ali, who manages Petra’s horse operations, said that shuttling tourists out the back road might hurt his business.

“It’s not good for us, because I like tourists to go to the end of the Monastery” and the High Place of Sacrifice — two of the more remote monuments — “and come back the same way to enjoy much, and spend much money,” Ali said.

To help the Bedouins who make their living in Petra, park authorities plan to create a central souk, or marketplace, on the shuttle bus route that would replace many of the gift shops within Petra, ideally bringing in more money for Bedouins while reducing foot traffic in the city, according to Hijazeen.

Ultimately, Akrawi said, as our walk neared an end, “you can’t anchor all of Petra.

“But why can’t it be as this site should be — better management, more awareness, understanding the outstanding universal values of the site?”

After parting with Akrawi, I charged up the strenuous trail to the High Place of Sacrifice, an open-air altar where the Nabateans ritually slaughtered animals. Pausing near the top, I turned to take in the whopping scale of Petra laid out before me — a panoply of tombs, monuments and carvings scattered throughout the red cliffs as far as the eye could see. Hijazeen had told me that the main spine takes a tourist through just 5 percent of Petra’s 101 square miles, and from here, that was clear as day.

Dusty and exhausted as I was, I couldn’t leave just yet. I made my way back to the Treasury and plopped down to watch the camel riders tend to their animals. As the light faded, I thought about the people I’d met who still find wonder in Petra, even those who’ve lived there their whole lives.

“It’s stunning, you know. I’m always looking at what’s wrong, but look at it,” Akrawi had said.

Hijazeen had spoken of a “good energy” about Petra. And donkey rider Khaldoun Haroun, whom I’d met on a hike, had told me, “When I go outside Petra, I miss it.”

I realized that the thread that unites the people of Petra — the Bedouins, the tour guides, the government officials — is their fondness for the site, an affection that, despite their differences, is firmly set in stone.

Petra, Jordan: Where to stay, where to eat, what to do and more

Dell’Amore is a freelance writer in Washington.

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