What it's actually like to visit the Nabatean kingdom
PETRA, JORDAN—The American poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil has published a poem called “One-star reviews of the Great Wall of China,” a parody of online reviewers who just don’t buy into the grandeur of one of humanity’s greatest achievements. For Petra, the reverse might be true—it may be more spectacular than all those other monuments combined. In the words of a New York Times journalist’s wife— “[Petra] makes Machu Picchu feel like a pile of stones.”1
It’s true that some storied monuments underwhelm (the Alamo is an especially small monument for Texas) but others meet the hype. And though I’ve never been to the Inca ruin, so I hesitate to dismiss it, it’s true that Petra’s grandeur exceeds all expectations.
You might know Petra from the movies, particularly Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Harrison Ford and Sean Connery briefly ride through a narrow canyon into a clearing and face an incredible monument—in the film, it’s the portal to an ancient temple, the sacred hiding place of the Holy Grail. What the film doesn’t indicate is that the canyon is real, and it’s a mile long. It also doesn’t indicate that “The Treasury” (as the tomb they visit in the film is known) is but one of a massive complex of tombs cut into the red sandstone cliffs amidst the ruins of a Roman-era city, featuring an amphitheater and road.
It also doesn’t reflect the somewhat chaotic experience of visiting the site itself. Though the grand entrance to the Petra Archaeological Park in the vertiginous cliffside town of Wadi Musa is grand and modern—affecting an atmosphere of Jurassic Park—once you enter the park, you might encounter Jordanian guides calling themselves “Wifi” offering to take you to the highest point (for a price), Bedouin tribespeople selling trinkets and the experience of drinking tea or taking photos with children, and abused camels and donkeys available to tourists for “rides.” All these activities don’t stop an upscale restaurant run by the British Crowne Plaza hotel chain from operating (as well as hawking Snickers and Twix bars), or Jordan’s tourist visa package that includes multi-day passes into the site.
All told, Petra is a magnificent display of contradictions. As recent research has revealed, perhaps it’s always been that way—the Dubai of the ancient world, a spectacular oasis in the desert, conspicuous consumption in a harsh environment the greatest symbol of wealth, power, and influence.
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