Seeing Petra, Jordan For The First Time in 1989


Petra, Petra, Petra. The movie location of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” where the Treasury stood in for the Temple of the Grail. The spot where Moses struck a rock with his staff and water came forth, and where Moses’ brother, Aaron, is buried on Mount Hor, known today as Jabal Haroun or Mount Aaron. Capital of the Nabataeans, Aramaic-speaking Semites, and the center of their caravan trade. Petra, one of the new wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Difficult to believe that Petra wasn’t discovered by the West until 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt disguised as Ibrahim bin Abdallah, a Muslim pilgrim. He passed himself off as a Muslim from India because he had heard stories of a wondrous ancient city hidden away. Burckhardt claimed he wished to make a sacrifice at the tomb of the Prophet Aaron (supposedly buried nearby) to gained entrance to Petra.

Impossible to even imagine his expression and thoughts as he rode through the dark, narrow gorge called the Siq (the shaft, a deep split in the sandstone rock) and beheld, Al Khazneh (“the Treasury”), in front of his eyes.

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Al Khazneh, the Treasury in Petra, Jordan

No one knows when the actual history of Petra began but ours really began in 1984 in the Sinai Desert. Camping and sightseeing through the Sinai Peninsula with a group of adventurous travelers from all America, Europe, Israel and co-led by a Israeli and Egyptian. This was not too long after Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, and Sinai was completely devoid of other visitors.

Sharm el sheikh? A bunch of oil drums rusting along the Red Sea. Many, many stories about that seven-day adventure spent jolting over the desert in a big open-sided truck, running out of food, trying to choke down stale bread, climbing Mount Sinai at dawn and sleeping in the desert sand and Bedouin villages…we are talking major bare bones here… Perhaps another time, I’ll sit down and relate the entire story of this completely unforgettable journey…

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sleeping in the Sinai desert in 1989

“Somewhere” in the Sinai Desert, the tour leader pointed out a rock with Nabatean inscriptions dating back at least 2,000 years. “The Rock of Inscriptions” was early graffiti that caravans left for each other. Messages showing the way to Petra, whether or not an oasis was close by, basically early e-mail. A German lady started telling stories about the ancient Nabatean city of Petra carved into the sandstone mountains and hidden for centuries. That was it… I was hooked.

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2,000 year old Rock of Inscriptions in the Sinai Desert

After that, had to see Petra. It took five more years of cajoling until ex-Marine (husband, Steve) agreed to a joint Jordan/Egypt trip. Petra had exactly one hotel near the site. Scheduled two days to sightsee, hired a guide and two horses at a small visitor’s center…View image… and set off. Horseback was the “accepted” way to enter Wadi Musa…View image.. at the time. Of course, you could also walk in.

The impressive eastern and main entrance led through a dark, narrow gorge called the Siq (the shaft). This was formed from sand and served as a waterway flowing into Wadi Musa. (The waterway was diverted for tourism.) The horses walked through this increasingly narrow gorge (only 3-4m/10-16′ wide in places), and it became darker as the brilliantly striated canyon walls closed in.

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unbelievable colors in the sandstone walls of Petra, Jordan

Finally, a little light broke through a defile in the rock ahead with small glimpses of pink and orange and yellow. Closer and closer, until through the rocky entrance there it was. Al Khazneh (“the Treasury”). I probably said something poetic, like “…HOLY SHIT! Can you believe this?…” It’s been described by others as “a rose-red city half as old as time.” Or, the perfect movie set…

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“Indy Sheila” in front of the Petra Treasury

Jaws agape, we dismounted and prepared for even more wonders…

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