Passage to Indiana

Tim Anderson takes the narrow path to Petra's cinematic landmark.

'If you don't mind, we are going to my cousin's cave," says my Bedouin host as naturally as someone might say they're on their way to the pub. He swings his truck off the dirt road. The stars above a shadowy mountain start to pulse as we lurch through sandstone and scrub.

In the ancient city of Petra, which is marking 200 years since Swiss adventurer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt returned the site to Western maps, caves are a natural feature of the sandstone mountains and have been used as burial grounds, altars and lodging for millenniums.

Most recently the Bdoul Bedouins were living in them. When the area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, the Bedouins were displaced to a nearby housing settlement, now known as Little Petra, where residents live in simple concrete houses.

Still, many Bedouins have caves either outside the site or have found new caves to which they frequently retreat. The cousin's cave has been half excavated from a huge, rounded boulder beside a mountain face, beyond Little Petra. Inside, carpets and tapestries are laid on the floor and cushions line the bare, windowless space. Outside, a bonfire crackles in the desert silence, illuminating several weather-beaten figures chatting, drinking and smoking. The host is preparing an entire goat as a feast in the traditional style, the meat buried and cooked beneath the sand.

Also living in Little Petra is Marguerite van Geldermalsen, a New Zealander who arrived in Petra in the 1970s, fell in love with a Bedouin named Mohammad and raised their family in a cave. Since his death 10 years ago, she divides her time between Jordan's capital, Amman, and Little Petra.

Although many aspects of Bedouin life have changed, not all of it is for the worse, she says. "It's all very well for visitors to think, 'What a pity the traditional life has disappeared.' But why should the Bedouin have to continue the traditional life? Imagine the mother waking for her new baby on a windy winter night, the difficulty of cleaning and feeding him without being able to switch on a light or shut out the sand-filled air?"

Long before the Bedouin, the Nabateans were here in about 500BC. They built temples and mausoleums in the sandstone mountains, some taking 20 years to build. It was the ability of the Nabateans to control the water supply that led to the rise of the desert city, and from here they controlled the Silk Road routes to Gaza in the west, Aqaba in the south and Damascus in the north.

About the 1st century AD, the Nabateans were conquered by the Romans, who made Petra the capital of Arabia Petraea, with 30,000 residents at its height. The Roman architectural legacy can be seen alongside the characteristic Nabatean style of bold, unelaborate temples carved into the mountain face. Roman rule didn't last long, though, and as new sea trade routes opened, the city languished. An earthquake destroyed the water system about AD383 and the city fell into ruin and disappeared from Western memory for almost 700 years.

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Burckhardt had gone to extraordinary lengths to find the mythical cities of Africa and the Middle East. Learning fluent Arabic in Syria, he lived and travelled with desert tribes, hiding his identity to test his ability to fit in. Eventually he managed to persuade a tribe to take him to Petra, a place he'd once heard of while studying in Germany.

The path he trod is the same that van Geldermalsen and every other traveller follows when entering the site today. Known as the Siq, it's a path through towering cliffs of ochre and red sandstone - in places only just wide enough for donkeys and camels to pass. It was for the sandstone colour, most startling in the Siq, that Petra was nicknamed the Rose-Red City.

At the end of Siq is the mausoleum, named Al-Khazneh, the iconic landmark of Petra. Burkhardt's journal captures his excitement: "There is a mausoleum in the shape of a temple, of colossal dimensions ... It is a most beautiful specimen of Grecian architecture, and in perfect preservation."

This magnificent temple is cut 40 metres high into the mountain. It was nicknamed the Treasury after rumour circulated that a pharaoh had hidden treasure in one of the decorative carvings high overhead. Generations of gun-toting pirates have tried to shoot their way through the solid facade, with nothing to show for their efforts but bullet holes. (The Treasury famously featured in the final scene of the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.)

The temples, altars and mausoleums of varying sizes are a legacy of those who had inhabited this remote oasis. Petra remains one of the great architectural legacies of the ancient world.

The city is a perfect day trip from the town of Wadi Musa, though many travellers stay for longer. Bedouin from the adjoining towns of Wadi Musa and Little Petra work on Petra Archaeological Park, hawking collections of dusty jewellery, dubiously authentic Roman coins and sun-curled postcards. Others make a living transporting tourists on camels, donkeys and horses between sites.

Back at the cave, my guide's cousin has finished cooking. The goat is carved and set on a tray on the cave floor. Rice and pita bread is handed around the fire and we eat, much as the Nabateans might have, in caves, in their Rose-Red City.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Royal Jordanian has a fare to Amman from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2165 low-season return, including tax. Fly Thai Airways to Bangkok (about 9hr), then to Amman (9hr 45min); see rj.com. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days, which can be obtained on arrival (20 dinar, $27). There are regular buses from Amman to Wadi Musa (4hr). Petra Archaeological Park is open daily 6am-6pm in summer, 6am-4pm in winter. One-day tickets 50 dinar, two-day 55 dinar, three-day 60 dinar; cash only. There is a single restaurant on site; take plenty of water and a hat; food is allowed.

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