Postcards from Petra

The Treasury, the picture-perfect rose-colored highlight of Petra in Jordan. Photo by Tanya Lara
Author Tanya Lara finds that camels complete the Petra scenery.

There is probably not a more dramatic path leading to an ancient landmark than the canyons leading up to this moment. Throughout two kilometers, they twist and turn, narrow, and then widen for the last time for the big reveal:  The Treasury, the center of Jordan’s Lost City of Stone.

On this trip to the Holy Land with Sar-El Tours and Conferences, our guide Jihann, a theology and history expert, tells us before we reach The Treasury, “Walk to the left side, and wait for it…wait for it…”

The first sighting of The Treasury feels theatrical in its staging after you negotiate the narrow canyon called Al Siq — gasps, eyes widening, jaws dropping.

It is, as every postcard from Petra promises, a spectacular sight of rose-colored cliffs rising to meet the skies, and on the sandstone is carved The Treasury, imposing itself onto your senses at 80 feet wide and 127 feet tall. It is sculpted ornately with mythological figures, its columns bearing traces of Greco-Roman architecture.

I almost cry seeing this.

Even at high noon on this winter day in January — when Petra is as quiet as it can ever get with the clatter of horses’ hooves and Bedouins selling postcards and trinkets — Petra is shrouded in rose color as if the sun is setting. Like life is suddenly softer in this bone-dry Middle East desert. Like everything and everyone is beautiful. Like every picture you snap with your camera aimed anywhere is good enough for every travel gallery on Instagram.

A candle-lit Petra casts a different atmosphere. Photo from
Bedouin children play with their camels. Photo by Angeli Navarro
Our Sar-El tour group at The Treasury; a kiss from the ancient city; Tanya, Vanche Yongco, Cyndee Wong, Angeli Navarro; with Bedouin girls selling trinkets. Photos by Cristina Javier, Tanya Lara and Angeli Navarro

A masterpiece of design and engineering, Petra during its height was the size of Manhattan. Unlike many of the world’s treasures which were discovered accidentally — like the terra-cotta warriors in Xian, China or the tunnels in the Louvre, France — Petra was a place that people knew existed but very few outsiders could find. Concealed by canyons and the protective nomads for 2,000 years, it wasn’t only until the 1800s when Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt disguised himself as an Arab pilgrim that the Bedouins led him here.

Though you can’t enter through the tall doorway now, just looking at it, the Indiana Jones theme keeps playing in your head and you want to say, “Of course it would be a carpenter’s simple chalice — not gold!”

Scientists have discovered through the years that the Rose City of Petra had aqueducts that let the many civilizations flourish here, an important route in the trade between the Mediterranean and the East. The Nabateans who built the tombs, then the Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders and Muslims controlled this area at different times. The incredible thing is that they believe 85 percent of the ancient city has yet to be excavated.

Gorges narrow and widen for a dramatic reveal of the ancient city of Petra. Photo by Tanya Lara

Partly shaped by earthquakes, erosion, and human hands and sophisticated minds, Petra became a city in what would have been an uninhabitable desert.

Of the ruins, it’s the tombs built into Petra’s cliffs by the Nabateans that are your introduction as you enter the park after the visitors’ center.

There are also tombs with a mix of Nabatean and Greco-Roman design elements called the Royal Tombs across the 6,000-seat Roman Theater. They are so majestic they look like temples. Next to The Treasury is the Street of Façades, Petra’s main necropolis.

And yet it was a city of the living, too, because past this area are what experts believed to be the neighborhoods of Petra, and estimates put the population at 30,000 during its heyday.

Jihann says that Petra at night is an entirely different but no less majestic experience, when the front of The Treasury is surrounded by candles, and tourists sit on the ground just to appreciate the ancient city.

Our tour group organized by Destinations Unlimited Philippines has the Jordanian part of the Holy Land sandwiched between tours of Israel, the first half of which was concentrated in Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, and the second half in the Dead Sea and Jerusalem.

The Treasury is carved onto a continuous limestone cliff. Photo by Tanya Lara
A cat cleans itself by The Siq sign or the main entrance to the City of Petra. Photo by Tanya Lara

Our introduction to the Holy Land is through Mt Nebo. Our tour guide James says that God granted Moses a glimpse of the Promised Land and from this mountain he saw it. So near and yet so unreachable because after 40 years of wandering in the desert, he never did make it to the Promised Land.

On a clear day from Mt. Nebo’s summit, you can see parts of the Holy Land and even as far as Jerico in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Alas, we are like Moses on this day — a fog has descended ahead of a brewing rain shower and we don’t see the Promised Land.

Christians believe that Moses was buried on the mountain — or at least in the area. Two Popes have come here as part of their visit to the Holy Land, Pope John Paul II in 2000 and nine years later, Pope Benedict XVI.

Over lunch, Vision Tours owner Albert Hasweh shows us pictures he took on his iPhone. They’re Wadi Rum or the Valley of the Moon. Located in southern Jordan and 60 kilometers from Petra, it is the largest valley in the kingdom.

The picture is of the night sky above the sandstone and granite formations in the valley. It looks like you were looking at the sky with a telescope.  It looks like everyone has shut down their lights from around hundreds of miles. It looks like you can touch the Milky Way from your tent.

On a desert in the Holy Land, everything seems possible — including what science says is not.

Nabatean tombs vary in sizes, from small ones on the cliffs to grand ones the size of temples carved onto the rock. Photo by Angeli Navarro

Where I’ve been wandering
Some wanderings in 2014 and 2013: (upper photos) Rome, Provence, Barcelona; (middle) Vienna, Amsterdam; (bottom) Marseilles, Paris, Paros, Prague. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)

So, Macedonia makes it the 50th country I’ve visited in my lifetime. This post should really be titled “How I learned to make interactive maps” to remember where I’ve been.

A couple of years ago, an acquaintance mentioned to my colleagues that she had traveled to Guam with me on a coverage. I said I had never set foot in Guam. Ever. But she was so insistent that for a second I thought: did I really go to Guam and  forget all about it?

The answer is no. I had never been there, but it led me to think that there might be places that are slipping from my memory, though I loved being there at the time. (I forget where I put my car keys at least once a week, or is that twice?)

While I don’t keep a diary, working as a journalist all my life has taught me to mentally store details, atmosphere and conversations, to  take down notes even when I am not working. After I started my travel blog in January, I told my friend Cedric in Paris that I wanted to make maps of my wanderings to remind me of the stories I’ve been wanting to write for years, also because I’ve lost  thousands of pictures from some trips because I keep accidentally deleting them en masse.

He taught my how to do it over Skype, which was frustrating at first because I don’t know how to do shit on Google, then it got fun — and then obsessive. Each map can only have a maximum of 10 layers, and I’ve done mine per country. You can be as specific as per city and its sights or attractions if you have the time.

So here’s an example of how you can plot your travels. Trust me, don’t start until the weekend because if you’re anything like me, you’re not gonna stop till they are finished. Start mapping!