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Petra: Jordan's Ancient and Mysterious Treasure

A visit to awe-inspiring Petra, ancient Jordanian cliff city and architectural treasure.

Petra, where breath-taking architecture is carved into rose-colored sandstone cliffs, is a three-hour drive south of Amman, Jordan.

Accessible only through a narrow gorge, Petra was one of the most easy to defend cities of the ancient world. Its leaders became rich through trade, good water management and by exacting tolls from caravans. Petra's glory days were in the century before Christ's birth. When Rome annexed it in the second century, Petra had about 30,000 residents.

Petra's temples, tombs, theaters and other buildings are scattered over 400 square miles. It is not uncommon for people to spend a week to 10 days exploring the area. But if you just have a day - which is what we had - you can still have an unforgettable experience.

To enter the ancient city, you need to walk about a mile between towering sandstone cliffs. If you prefer not to walk, you can ride a horse or take a two-passenger horse-drawin chariot. As we walked, our guide pointed out the channels the Nabataeans had carved into the sides of the cliffs. Modern engineers say the Nabataens were "absolute geniuses" at controlling rainwater to prevent flooding and to avoid shortages in times of drought.

"The Treasury," the first facade you see as you enter Petra, is world famous because of the Indiana Jones "The Last Crusade" movie. Carved into the cliff, "The Treasury" is so-named because at the top of the enormous structure is a carved, stone object that looks like an urn. According to legend, the urn contains treasure. Chips on the inaccessible urn are the results of unsuccessful attempts to break it with bullets and stones.

"The Treasury" and many of the other buildings in Petra are tombs. One of Petra's mysteries is that no bodies have ever been found there.

Some of the tombs have colorful interiors. Splashes and swirls of magenta, midnight blue and ocher create pictures on the walls and ceilings that rival paintings in the finest museums. But the "masterpieces" are solely due to the natural colors of the sandstone.

Wandering around Petra are Bedouin children and adults, trying to sell everything from postcards to polished stones to camel rides. Bedouin families used to live in Petra's caves, but in 1984 the government moved them out into more modern housing. Now Bedouins only come to hawk their wares.

Following Petra's decline a few centuries after Christ's birth, most of its buildings were buried by sand which sheltered the carvings over the centuries. Petra was rediscovered in 1812. Now, without the protection of the sand and because of the growing number of tourists, there are concerns about how to best preserve the area for future generations.

As we trudged back to our hotel through the gorge we saw a large cloud of sand ahead. We stopped, hoping to avoid it, but, as we covered our faces, it enveloped us.

It was easy to see how over the centuries waves of sand had swept into Petra to hide and protect it.

Grace Witwer Housholder, author of "The Funny Things Kids Say Will Brighten Any Day" (Volumes 1,2 and 3), a reporter/columnist for The News-Sun, Kendallville, IN, and her husband Terry, managing editor of The News-Sun, were in Israel and Jordan during November 1998. For more stories and pictures visit "The Holy Land Close Up" at

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