The deserts of southern Jordan are arid, rugged, hostile. Who could live here? None, it would seem, judging from the look of things. But then you come across a little trail in the wilderness, which leads into a deep dark gorge, and suddenly you realise you were wrong; there was once life all around here – human life. For this trail leads to the great Nabataean settlement of Petra, once home to 30,000 people. This gorge is the entrance to the legendary Al Khazneh.
As you pick your way along the little desert trail, crossing the sandy valley floor, passing eroded sandstone cliffs, you begin to spot the first signs of human occupation: mysterious, gargantuan stone blocks, cut from the cliff walls. Temples? Houses? Tombs? No one really knows. They’re called djinn (as in genie) blocks.
A little further on is the Obelisk Tomb, an outlier of the thousands of tombs that lie within the concealed Wadi Musa, or Valley of Moses.
You’ll also pass a dam, used to divert water away from Al Siq during flash floods. The dam you see today was built in the 20th Century, but a similar structure, with an identical purpose, was built by the Nabataeans in the 1st Century BC.
The trail eventually turns towards the red sandstone cliffs and enters a gorge. Don’t worry about becoming lost in here; there is only one path in and one path out – which of these you are on depends on your perspective.
The gorge, known as Al Siq (meaning: the shaft), gets deeper and deeper as it works its way into the bedrock. Along the edge of the gorge, about a metre above the ground, are small, neat, hand-carved water channels, once used to carry drinking water to Petra. This is how the Nabataeans survived out here; they funnelled water to where it was needed.
Before long the walls of Al Siq rise up one hundred to two hundred metres above your head. The bottom of the gorge, in places, is just three or four metres wide.
No better entrance to a lost city is possible. This chasm is a portal, leading you who knows where.
Along the way you’ll find a few clues as to your destination. There are devotional niches, although the objects that occupied them have long since vanished.
And, if you know where to look, you can spot the abutments of a triumphal arch that once spanned the canyon. An earthquake, which rocked the site in 1896 CE, brought the arch crashing to the ground.
Further along you’ll find the carving of two merchants and their camels – what’s left of them. These statues were buried beneath silt at the base of Al Siq for centuries, and have only recently been uncovered.
Eventually you are so deep in the gorge the air begins to chill and the day takes on an unnatural gloom.
But then, up ahead, Al Siq comes to a sudden end, and beyond: a blinding white light.
And there, just beyond the Siq, slowly materialising into view as your eyes adjust to the light: Al Khazneh.
Your breath catches.
The image of Al Khazneh dances before your eyes, just a sliver of the whole, the rest hidden behind a million tonnes of rock. What you can see sparkles in the sun.
It looks too fantastic to be true.
Finally, the structure is revealed in all its glory; a monumental Hellenistic facade carved into the cliff wall.
It looks oddly familiar. Have you been here before?
No, but Indiana Jones has. He visited this spot in his quest to find the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The movie didn’t embellish the exterior architecture – they didn’t have to; it looks incredible as is – but inside, instead of a cavernous temple, there is just a bare room. Nothing special. Once a tomb, now empty, and reeking of bat guano.
Al Khazneh, or the Treasury (named so because the giant sandstone urn on the upper level was thought to contain priceless treasures) has held up remarkably well considering it’s approximately two thousand years old. Sadly, the same cannot be said of Al Khazneh’s statues, which have suffered at the hands of iconclasts (those who destroy religious symbols alternate to their own). Who the iconoclasts were exactly, is unknown, but there are plenty of options.
Scared of heights? No? Neither am I. But there’s no way I’d climb the rock ladders – the series of grooves carved into the cliff face on either side of Al Khazneh. It’s believed they were installed to provide access for maintenance purposes – there’s also a chance they were carved by the iconoclasts.
Tourists are here in big numbers. And they all want their photo standing in front Al Khazneh. Dreaming of that perfect, unobstructed shot? Unfortunately a dream is all it shall be.
Actually, the perfect, unobstructed shot is possible, just not in the middle of the day. Come back just before closing, or first thing in the morning, and you might be lucky enough to have the place all to yourself.
The Nabataean city of Petra is accessed from the new city of Wadi Musa, a 4 hour drive (250 km) from Amman, the capital of Jordan.
Read more on Petra and Al Khazneh in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.