T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) wrote: "...so you will never know what Petra is like, unless you come out here. Only be assured that till you have seen it you have not had the glimmering of an idea how beautiful a place can be."
We arrived at the Lost City of Petra early in the morning. And even at that hour it was already crawling with tourists from all over the world. Petra is Jordan's number one tourist attraction. In 1985 it was designated a World Heritage Site and in 2007 was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Petra is much more than just the site from an Indiana Jones film.
"The ancient city of Petra was built from 800 BC to 100 AD by the Nabetean Arabs. In this era Petra was a fortress, carved out of craggy rocks in an area which was virtually inaccessible. In the first and second century, after the Romans took over, the city reached the peak of its fame.
When caravan routes were slowly displaced by shipping, the city's importance gradually dwindled; it fell into disuse and was lost to the world until 1812, when it was re-discovered by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt."
It is an amazingly sophisticated city, literally carved out of a stone crack in the earth. The Nabateans cleverly engineered a system of dams, cisterns, and aqueducts to take advantage of the regular flash floods the area is prone to, which allowed the city to flourish even in the desert environment.
The entrance to Petra leads through the Siq ("the shaft"), a narrow gorge a little over a mile long. At some points the path is only about 15 feet wide with wall heights reaching 655 feet. At the end of your long dusty journey down the Siq, the spectacular sight of Al Khazneh ("The Treasury") awaits you.
The city of Petra covers an area of about 100 square kilometers with over 800 different monuments, temples, dwellings, steep staircases, and winding pathways. Needless to say, one afternoon is not nearly enough time to explore it all.
Up until 1985, the Bedul Bedouins were inhabiting the dwellings of Petra. Bedouin culture is the root and origin of all the countries of the Arabian peninsula and pre-dates Islam. In the mid-1980's, the Bedouin of Petra agreed to move out of the caves and into a small government subsidized village, Umm Sayhun, on the edge of what is now Petra National Park. Their traditional ways of life have eroded and have been replaced with a market-based economy based on tourism.
Vivien Ronay, a photographer who documented the Bedul Bedouin from 1988 - 2003, wrote, "Because of tourism, some of the people of Petra have gotten wealthy by tribal standards, and this has created economic disparity and a lack of trust. When I visited in 2001, everyone came to me to talk about these new troubles. Western anxiety just hadn't existed there before, and now it seems it has seeped into every nook and cranny."
Though the Bedouins do not live in the Lost City of Petra, they work there by day selling tourist trinkets, postcards, traditional textiles, soft drinks, and snacks.
This Bedouin girl, who was maybe four years old, was camped out with her mother and older brother in between the cliffs of the city, selling postcards to tourists.
Petra is beyond beautiful. Unfortunately, I think the unsustainable tourism heightened by the New Seven Wonders of the World designation is a real threat to the site. But I'm not sure what the Jordanian government can do to ensure that the beauty of Petra endures.