You’ve seen this scene so many times, and in so many movies, that it’s an absolute cliché.
The narrow rock canyon opens, and the lofty facade of a rose-coloured stone building is revealed, an enormous structure of pillars supporting a pediment upon which even more pillars rise. It’s sunk into the rock face - no, emerging from it, still part of the raw red sandstone it’s carved from, seemingly half-finished, until you get closer and see how ornately it’s carved.
Oh, but what a cliché. What a sight it is, now that you’re actually here.
This single transcendental experience is the reason so many film crews come to Jordan’s ancient city of Petra.
Most Western audiences will recognize it as the home of the Holy Grail from Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade - but they’d also remember it used in a dozen others productions, if they racked their brains hard enough.
This is the Petra most of the world knows - and as with so many famous landmarks, it’s an incomplete picture. But Petra is special because of the sheer scale of that disconnect. Even today, so few people understand the real nature of this architectural wonder...
Let’s start with the most common misconception about Petra. It’s a temple, right? Or is it a tomb? Okay, just what kind of building is it?
Answer: it’s not a building. It’s a city - and in 90% of the photos you’ve seen, you’re only looking at the tiniest corner of it.
To understand Petra properly, let’s roll things backwards from that glorious moment when the Treasury is revealed as you exit the canyon known as the Siq (“shaft”).
Your introduction to the environs of Petra may be a jarring one.
To meet the needs of international tourism, a thoroughly welcoming modern town has emerged nearby (Wadi Musa, population 17,000), complete with stores, gift shops and hotels.
At one end, a fortified gateway marks the current entrance-way to Petra - a place to show your pass and follow the signs towards the distant cleft in the weathered sandstone walls that surround the town.
At this point, the scale of the place may be starting to dawn on you. Petra, you’re told, is far bigger than Wadi Musa - and yet there are almost 7,000 people here.
The big difference is how the land’s being used. Wadi Musa’s streets have been made from scratch, built into open space - but Petra’s ancient builders worked with what was already available, while making a few cunning improvements of their own.
You can see one of them when you walk into the Siq, the mile-long canyon that forms the eastern approach to Petra. To live in these murderously dry mountains surrounded by desert, it’s all about controlling your water supply - not just piping water in where needed, but also protecting everyone against the instant ferocity of flash flooding.
Ancient Petra seems to have been a marvel of early hydraulic engineering, and cisterns and water channels can still be seen on either side of the canyon - at the head of which is a huge dam, originally doubling as a defensive arch into the city.
Two thousand years ago, defense was a big deal for Petra. It was also odd, unnatural, a bold experiment that broke with tradition.
The ancient Petrans were nomadic Arabs who found safety through movement. To linger in this unforgiving landscape was to invite all kinds of trouble - including the plundering malice of neighboring tribes. To stop and build would have been a serious matter - and the fact they did it showed their confidence in being able to deal with anything the situation threw at them..
There are signs of settlement in the archaeological record going back 9,000 years - but it’s only under the Nabataean Empire that Petra reached its peak as a city.
Over the centuries from 400 BC, this vast kingdom of Arab tribes centered its power and wealth on Petra, and successfully defended itself by controlling the water in the region.
A former general of Alexander the Great recorded accounts of Nabataean tribes destroying enemies by leading them into the deserts around Petra and dehydrating them out of existence, using secret water caches to keep themselves alive.
Coming out of the canyon, that first overwhelmingly impressive building you’ll see (and the one internationally known as “Petra”) is The Treasury (Al-Khazneh). Its name speaks more to the legends of Petra’s fabulous accumulated wealth, and less to the actual facts, since it seems to have been a crypt and mausoleum.
But still. Just look at it. It screams of wealth, power, faded grandeur. It’s incredible.
No wonder this is where so many people stop, take photos, and turn back towards their buses or hotel rooms. What on earth could possibly top this?
But you keep exploring, working your way through the camels (there are usually camels here) and following the rock face - and suddenly there’s another facade, and another, and another. None are as ornately carved as the Treasury, but they’re all on the same scale, and all emerging from the surrounding rock.
You keep going - and Petra grows to its true size. There are many streets of buildings here, spread out over 60 square kilometers, and you’d never know unless you actually came here and saw them for yourself. It’s the perfect place to hide a kingdom’s real power.
Under the Nabataeans, Petra prospered for centuries - and only met its match when the Roman Empire conquered Egypt to the west, annexed Judea to the north and quickly had the kingdom surrounded.
In 106 AD, the last Nabataean king died, and with its usual mixture of bribery and military force, Rome took control of the city, feeding off its still-impressive mercantile revenue until nearby Palmyra (Syria) became the next great crossroads for trade in the area, and Petra once again faded from view - inconsequential, powerless and largely abandoned.
Now the people are back, more than ever - except now they’re trading money for unforgettable experiences.
Petra’s been a UNESCO site since 1985, and now attracts nearly a million visitors a year. Inevitably, some pull out their phones, take selfies in front of the Treasury, and head back to the modern world. Even today, the best of Petra is still hidden from so many.
But not you, and not today. You’ve got a whole city to explore. Time to get walking.
If exploring the rich history of Egypt, Israel, and Jordan is something that interests you, join Wheel & Anchor for an unforgettable program featuring cruises on both the Suez Canal and the Nile. More information here!