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Petra

In a land of kings, these relics are awesome, like their setting

Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Prager
Globe Staff / March 19, 2006

A downside to visiting any of the world's A-list travel sites is that they are not so much virgin experiences as they are comparisons -- with what you learned in school, with photographs you have seen, or with tales cousin Jerry told from his summer vacation.

At the other end of the spectrum, you could call it the Z list, are a million places you have never heard of because there is no reason to go.

Wouldn't it be great to arrive at a destination of the highest order that has somehow escaped the broad notice given to, say, the Great Wall, or the Great Pyramids?

Welcome to Petra.

It's not exactly unknown, certainly not as it was for centuries before 1812, when it was rediscovered for the outside world by the Swiss adventurer J.L. Burckhardt. Experienced travelers know it, but not many among the general public.

Petra has stunning vistas, hundreds of temples, tombs, and dwellings hand-hewn from solid mountains, and a chasm unique on earth.

The entrance to the siq, as the chasm is known, does not advertise what's to come -- essentially a stroll through a mountain split apart. At points the passage is no more than 6 feet wide while the heights on either side can surpass 200 feet, blocking the sun and lending an eerie stillness appropriate for the inspiring discoveries ahead.

The walk down can easily take a half-hour, and you may want to consider hiring one of the many horse- or donkey-drawn carriages that ply the partly cobblestoned way, particularly if you need to save your strength. Petra does not give up its delights without physical demand, and only the fairly fit will be able to take in its broad expanse.

The siq is not a canyon created by erosion, but rather a rift opened by tectonic forces. Viewing it from scenic overlooks high above, it looks as though prehistoric giants removed a thin sliver of solid rock with a bread knife.

Visitors get the first payoff for their efforts at the last bend in the siq, when a slice of the Khazneh, or Treasury, comes into view between the high walls. From there, each step forward brings a bit more of the impressive columned facade into view until you have reached the open plaza that marks the siq's end.

The facing wall of rock is about four stories high. Almost half the height is devoted to the entrance, which is guarded by six columns of Greco-Roman style, a testimony to those empires' influence on the Nabateans, the civilization that built and occupied Petra for centuries, ending in the first or second century AD. The upper half has statuary and other adornments, as well as evidence suggesting that builders originally may have had even higher aspirations.

Also worth noting are the points at which the solid rock face was breached; they are abrupt and squared, making it simple to imagine the scene preconstruction, and breathtaking to contemplate the sculptors' vision that such majesty would be revealed if just the right chunks of stone were removed. Alas, the facade is as good as the Treasury gets; like most of Petra's monuments, the interior is plain.

Also in the plaza is the first of many canteens inside the walled city, offering bottled water, film, postcards, and other tourist necessities at tourist prices. Though somewhat crude, these shops are at the top of Petra's sales chain; less organized vendors, right down to enterprising 5-year-olds, sell everything from what are purported to be Nabatean coins to, literally, Nabatean bone (I saw finger parts), and even Petran rocks.

The siq and Treasury are probably Petra's best known sights, especially among Indiana Jones fans; exteriors for the final scenes of his third saga, ''The Last Crusade," were shot here. Almost 70 years ago, Agatha Christie set a Hercule Poirot mystery, ''Appointment With Death," here; in 1988, it was made into a movie starring Peter Ustinov that was filmed on location.

There is a lot to Petra. To say you have seen it, you must spend at least two full days. A companion told me that on his way into the site about 8 a.m. for his second day of touring, he saw a group of tourists on its way out, which struck us both as an absurd waste of energy. Why come only to skimp?

Some would say the Treasury is Petra's greatest jewel, but a more rewarding gem, if only for the extra effort required to see it, is the Monastery, one of Petra's ''high places," a name descriptive of stature and altitude. More than 90 minutes' walk from the Treasury, at Petra's opposite end, it is of similar design but substantially larger, roughly more than 50 feet high and more than 45 feet wide, according to the Lonely Planet guidebook.

The interior is, again, quite square and plain, hardly worth the effort to pull oneself over the makeshift pile of rock where stairs once stood. Still, it is improbable that many visitors will resist going inside after getting there: The Monastery is at the end of 800 stairs cut into the rock of a narrow pass.

It is a visit best planned for near the end of the day, because afterward, the temptation will be to head straight back to Wadi Mousa, the town outside Petra's gates, for a shower and rest. It is not a trek older or infirm tourists should attempt at any time. Donkeyback rides are offered by their friendly tenders (their tireless slogan: ''1 hour to walk, 20 minutes to ride"), but even a ride is strenuous.

Opposite the temple is yet another canteen, this one combining a spacious cave and a shaded outdoor cafe operated stylishly by Haroun al-Fakir, 37, a native Bedouin thoroughly at home in the modern world. In the half-hour I was with him, he conducted his thriving jewelry business and other ventures in three languages not his own, which he said he had learned just from talking with tourists. (Once he took time out to take a call on his cellphone. In Boston, I cannot get from home to work without losing signal, and here he is in the mountains at the edge of the Wadi Araba, taking and making calls with elan.)

The Araba is a vast plain that stretches from the mountains that guard Petra all the way to the Red Sea at Aqaba, about 90 miles away. Just beyond the Monastery are vantage points from which to view those peaks, which reminded a companion of the Grand Tetons. You have to see it; the vistas just do not fit inside a viewfinder.

Indeed, the mountains of this place were grand before man ever started carving them out. Petra is known for its rose-colored stone, and it does glow warmly in the slanted rays of early and afternoon sun. But veins of purple, magenta, gray, and yellow dance throughout the limestone, creating natural frescoes wherever cutters have exposed a cross-section, such as on the walls and ceilings of the Urn Tomb, one of the largest temples, inside and out. The pattern suggests a Peter Max creation.

Petra's topography, too, is special, and as varied as the hues. Standing on the High Place of Sacrifice, which is notable more for its sweeping vistas than for what the hard climb up reveals, one sees in the distance dark crags next to rounded hills that resemble a package of store-bought dinner rolls.

Hiking there or to the Monastery are fairly standard destinations for adventurers in Petra. But there's at least one more trek to try -- the High Place on El Kubtha Mountain -- and it offers several payoffs for the 75 minutes' exertion it exacts each way. When you arrive, your perch affords an incomparable view of the Treasury from about 650 feet above the plaza floor. Reward enough.

But once you have reached the highest point and are traversing level terrain again, you get the grand perspective on another of Petra's pearls, the 8,000-seat amphitheater, whose back-row rooms suggest the world's first luxury boxes, all of it carved out of a mountain.

Yes, the vistas are spectacular, but there's another grand satisfaction as well: People have taken the route for thousands of years, but the trail is just clear enough to make out. There are no rope lines, no tourist minions, no processing of any kind. It's just you, experiencing the thrill of discovery.

Contact Michael Prager at prager@globe.com.

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